“Pero mira cómo beben los peces en el río,
pero mira cómo beben por ver al Dios nacido.
Beben y beben y vuelven a beber
Los peces en el río por ver a Dios nacer”
Each culture has its songs to celebrate and share the joy of their festivities. Regardless of whether you are a believer or not, chances are you know your region’s carols, and sing to them in your mind every time you hear them.
For those of us who grew up in a Spanish-speaking culture, bells don’t jingle, but fishes get flat-ass-drunk on the river in joy for seeing Jesus Christ being born.
So, during this holiday, you can either just not care where the songs come from and just wait until the tamales are ready; not worrying about their origin and just singing along, or try to find out where on Earth they come from.
In my case, I tend to jump from one option to the other. By the end of the holiday season, I tend to be sick of all of them and take refuge in jokes built on the Villancicos’ rhymes. But while we get there, let’s figure out their origin.
The word “Villancico” comes from “Villa,” town in Spanish. So, a Villancico is a song initially created to be interpreted in small towns. As far as I have been able to research, no sign shows that villancicos were limited to Christmas or the religious context. Rather, they seem to be music made to transmit important messages through long distances, which was a frequent practice in ancient times. For example, the Colombian vallenatos were used to communicate news of marriages or deaths of loved ones from a town to another.
According to National Geographic En Español, the first villancicos appeared in the XIIIth Century, in Spain by the XVth, and in Latin America by the XVIIth Century. Perhaps the reason the Christmas villancicos are the ones that have endured the longest in our memories is the relevance given to them by the Colonial system as a way to indoctrinate in the Catholic religion.
Each song’s particular story is trickier because its use as a means of indoctrination didn’t come alone. Of course, the use of songs is linked to other cultural elements. For example, in Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, the ritual of singing villancicos at Christmas is intimately linked to the Novena de Aguinaldos.
The Novena de Aguinaldos is a prayer created by Fray Fernando de Jesús Larrea in 1700, in Quito. The Novena is sustained for nine nights in a row, and it describes the journey of the Virgin Mary and Joseph in the nine previous days to Jesus’ birth, and at the end of each prayer, a villancico is sung.
Its brilliance is that they merge the indigenous flutes and small percussion instruments, making cultural hybridization easier and making it more likely to be replicated.
Personally, the conflict I have with villancicos is more musical than a philosophical one. I’m not so worried about colonization processes, but more annoyed with its sound. So, if I may, let me finish this article with a seasonal song I truly enjoy: Hector Lavoe’s Aires de Navidad.