Born in Bethlehem | Music | DW | 13.12.2013
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Born in Bethlehem

Raunchy chanson, church service staple and soldiers' comfort: the German favorite "Zu Bethlehem geboren" (Born in Bethlehem) has a storied past beyond its use as a Christmas carol.

France, 1599: if the singles charts had existed in those days, then the raunchy chanson "Une petite feste" would almost certainly have been in the Top 10.

The French were in love with the tale in song of Peter the servant and his tryst with a secret lover. The sheet music circulated widely around the country. The story goes that Peter, on the run from a wolf, took refuge under the wide skirts of a lady.

A wartime hit

More than three decades later, Sweden, France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, among others, were fighting bitterly on the battlefields of the 30 Years War. Almost half of the population of Europe died during the conflict due to injuries, disease or hunger.

Just as "Lili Marleen" would later become a torch song for soldiers in World War II, so "Une petite fest" became a popular hit among French and German troops in the 30 Years War. It remains an open question whether most of the German soldiers really picked up on the lyrics' innuendo.

A cleaned up re-write

Une petite feste score

"Une petite feste" became a racy wartime hit

One person who certainly understood and disliked the song's racy content was the Jesuit priest Friedrich Spee, who railed against the tune for what he called "pestilential poison." Instead in 1637 he wrote new lyrics for the familiar melody, and the new, cleaned up version of the song quickly found its way into church hymn books. Germans would recognize it today as "Zu Bethlehem geboren" (Born in Bethlehem)

At that time, the pastor and confessor Friedrich Spee was well-known throughout Europe for vocal opposition to the frenzy of anti-witchcraft sentiments. In his 1631 essay "Cautio criminalis" (Precautions for Prosecutors), he fiercely denounced the persecution of witches as a sin, demanded fair treatment for women accused of witchcraft and called for all forms of torture to be abolished.

A torture scene from the Middle Ages

The song comforted soldiers during a particularly dark period in European history

A soothing lullaby

By re-writing the racy "Une petite feste" into a festive lullaby, Spee killed two birds with one stone; the morally-minded theologian not only made a successful clamp down on the proliferation of lewd songs, but he also managed to express the desire for peace among a people caught up in one of Europe’s bloodiest wars.

The song also became an accompaniment to a church tradition that stretched back to the 14th century. Particularly in southern Germany, the Rhineland, the Netherlands and the Tirol, priests often placed a cradle on the altar of the church during services. To alleviate boredom among the congregation's youngest members, children were allowed to bring along their own toy cradles edged with bells. When the priest rocked his cradle, the children also rocked theirs so that the church was filled with the sound of ringing bells.

It's a tradition that has been revived today in some parts of Bavaria.

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