Christmas was celebrated in the medieval period, but there were no brightly wrapped presents or even a tree to place them under.
However, there was music - glorious music. On Dec. 21, The Goliards will perform "The Message of Gabriel," a program of English Advent and Christmas music that covers a period of 300 years from 1150 to 1450.
Included will be examples of choral genres such as the Gregorian Chant, two hymns by St. Godric of Finchale, two 13th-century Marian motets, a 13th-century Anglo-Norman lay dedicated to the Virgin, four 15th-century carols and a hymn to the Virgin by composer John Dunstaple. There also will be a variety of early 15th-century carols ranging from pious to raucous from the Selden Codex.
These works will be sung in Latin or Middle English. Conducted by John Hillenbrand, the program will feature five sopranos: Ashley Adams Roper, Melissa Flummerfelt, Mary Catherine Mousourakis, Cuffy Sullivan and Leila Sullivan.
The concert also will feature period musical instruments.
"We're using the hurdy gurdy, the positive organ and two types of harp, one of which has bray pins, which were popular in the 14th and 15th centuries," Hillenbrand says. "I'll play my medieval fiddle. The instruments don't change a lot, although we're hoping to add another vielle player or recorder player."
Among the choral works will be a number of English medieval dances. The Selden Codex is a large body of work.
"It's almost all carols, but not necessarily all Christmas songs," Hillenbrand says. "At that time, the carol was a dance that had been around at least 200 years before carols were written down."
The carols always were written with pious words.
"They would be danced in villages," Hillenbrand says. "There are lots of letters from bishops to local parish priests about them allowing people to carol in churchyards. The bishops didn't like it because they were singing pagan words."
The music of the carols is almost addictive, Hillenbrand says.
"It's sort of like the tarantella in Italy," he says. "The carols would be held around the time of pagan festivals.
"The spring festivals would involve hymns to the May Queen and possibly even risque words. The only reason the melody survived is because the priests substituted pious words instead or the original ones.
"There was a round dance and everybody held hands," Hillenbrand says. "They would snake through the courtyards, and the prettiest girl would lead everyone in singing."
Pieces from the Selden Codex would follow the ancient carol format, with a verse one person would sing and a refrain everyone would sing.
"Some pieces are very Christmasy," Hillenbrand says. "That's probably where carols got associated with Christmas, but many carols in the Selden Codex have nothing to do with Christmas."
What is perhaps the oldest piece in the concert is from the rites of Salisbury Cathedral.
"It goes back to about the 7th century," Hillenbrand says. "It's kind of a Gregorian-style chant.
"The thing about the English language is that for several reasons, there are a really sparse quantity of pieces that survive, because until around 1300, the English nobility spoke French, not English," he says. "Richard the Lionheart never learned to speak English. He spoke French and Provencal because his mother had extant property in Provence."
With the onset of the Hundred Years War, the nobility began speaking English. In 1583, the Black Death was at its worst, causing people to migrate.
"By the time of Chaucer late in the 14th century, the way of speaking had not changed much, but a big change in vowels occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries," Hillenbrand says. "All of our pronunciations in this program are Middle English."
One of the songs in the program, "Gabriel from Heaven's King," was very popular in the 14th century and was the inspiration for Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale," Hillenbrand says.
A few pieces from before 1300 are so old they still contain runic letters.
"They continued to use runic letters as a holdover from Saxon times up until 1300 and they disappeared from the language," Hillenbrand says. "They look sort of like Hobbit writing.
"Old English used runic letters. Certainly by Chaucer's time, they were not used at all.
"Our program is a grab bag of pieces," he says. "The things they have in common is that they are almost all in the English language and more or less have something to do with Christmas."
Although not all have to do with Christmas.
"I put some pieces in because they will enhance the program," Hillenbrand says. "One of the oldest songs in English that survived is a tribute to St. Nicholas.
"Another piece by St. Godric is a hymn to the Virgin. 'The Cuckoo's Dance' is a Morris dance that is probably of great antiquity. It was passed down through the choral tradition, so we don't know how old it is.
"We're doing a couple of pieces that are tavern music," Hillenbrand says. "I'm hoping my singers will be able to act a bit drunk when they sing that."
With five singers, the sopranos have been meeting and rehearsing on their own.
"I haven't interfered with them in any way," Hillenbrand says. "We instruments meet on our own. After the sopranos are finished with their choral rehearsals, they'll join us."
Don't expect the usual Christmas music in this concert.
"None of this music is well known," Hillenbrand says. "One was written on the back of a papal bull in 1200. It may be a draft."
There's even a song that translates as "Quit it, Robin, you'll wake the baby."
"We don't have many pieces that are identified by composer," Hillenbrand says. "There's one John Dunstaple piece and he was about as close to a rock star you could get if you happened to live in England in the 13th century. He had the good fortune to be famous in his lifetime."