Who the heck is Jeanette Isabella?

Not sure why, but for some reason the song Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella popped into my head this afternoon.  I think I might have heard something similar to it playing on a store’s sound system.  It got me to thinking about who this girl Jeanette Isabella might have been and why there’s a Christmas song about her.  I did a little research to get to the bottom of this business.

The song is based on a french tune that dates to the 1400s.  The lyrics to Un Flambeau, Jeanettte, Isabella come from the Provence region of France.  The song was originally written as a dance tune for the nobles.  Only later when published in a book of Christmas Carols in 1553 did it begin to be associated with the holiday.  We didn’t get the English version until the mid-1700s.  The lyrics tell the tale of the discovery of the birth of Christ and the journey to tell all the villagers and the ensuing celebration.  Turns out that Jeanette and Isabella are two people!  These two young girls rush back to the village to tell the wonderful news.  So who were these two?  No one really knows for sure what the details might have been.  History seems to go with the version created by the renowned French painter Georges de La Tour in a nativity painting.  In the painting there are two young milk maids come to the stable to milk the cows.  Jeanette and Isabella, the milk maids, are so excited to find the baby Jesus that they light torches and rush back to their village to share the news.  Today in France children still dress as farm folk and sing the song as they process to midnight mass.  I’ll be able to sleep a little more soundly tonight knowing the mystery of Jeanette and Isabella.  Next curiosity to solve is those scary ghost stories mentioned in the lyrics of Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

10 comments on “Who the heck is Jeanette Isabella?

  1. mom says:

    I taught and sang that song many times in December with my classes and never thought about who Jeanette and Isabella were. Now I know the rest of the story.

  2. Eileen says:

    Thanks for the great research!

  3. Thomas Brown says:

    Thank you. I always thought she was an aunt of the little drummer boy. I now stand apprised.

  4. Thomas Brown says:

    I’m sorry. I meant to include the fact that is one of my all-time favorites. Only one other person in our small choir has heard of this carol.

  5. None says:

    We sang this song in chorus when I was in high school and EVERYBODY wanted to know who the heck Jeannette Isabella was, since obviously those aren’t names from a Biblical era. We didn’t have the internet back then so we just wondered and never knew. It’s weird to me that it would never cross a person’s mind to wonder what it meant but I guess some people are just not inquisitive.

  6. BigRoly says:

    Jeanette and Isabelle are nobody in particular. They are fairly typical French girls’ names from a previous century, used here for poetic effect. This carol is either a peasant song or a pastiche of a peasant song.

  7. Edythe says:

    Thanks for the info about the Jeanette Isabella song, I was curious about that too.. I think the scary ghost stories mentioned in Its the most wonderful time of the year are the ghosts that visi Scrooge in The Christmas Carol.

  8. keg says:

    i heard it was a quebecois christmas carol

  9. Jerry Hershberger says:

    I believe that the ghost stories may be about Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.

  10. Rachel Ensley says:

    If you haven’t discovered an answer to the “scary ghost stories” question yet, I heard someone suggest that maybe it’s the ghosts from Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

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