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The Fears and Hopes We Sing in Lullabies

March 14th, 2023 | 6 min read

By Nadya Williams

When you fall asleep, dear little one, a grey wolf will emerge from the wild forest and will grab you straight from your bed. Back to the forest he will drag you and will deposit you under a willow tree. But there is no need to fear, for here are some stern words for the wolf not to harm you. So, dear babe of mine, hush, you can go to sleep now.

So goes one of the melancholy lullabies I remember from my Russian childhood, and which I have been singing to my own children over the years out of habit, out of love, and out of the sense that at the end of the day, as they fall asleep, songs in a language they do not know still somehow speak more powerfully than spoken words in a language familiar to them.

Hearing this particular lullaby, my husband has noted just how melancholy and deeply sad it sounds. And this was before I told him what the words meant. But singing lullabies, maybe we do not even notice the strangeness of their words, even as they express powerful fears of loss—the loss of the child, of childhood, of civilization. Lullabies, the Russian ones with which I grew up at least, echo a different world, one that knew profound losses.

In another lullaby, no less melancholy in its sound, strange birds arrive and crowd around the sleepy child’s bed. Knowing Russian fairy-tales, one might expect them to attempt kidnapping the child, as wild geese do in one fairy-tale. Boldly they fly off with the little brother whom the sister, herself still young, was supposed to be minding in their mother’s absence. The birds mean, in fact, to deliver the boy for dinner to the dreaded Baba Yaga, the scary cannibal old woman of Russian folklore. But here, in the lullaby, the birds’ threat does not materialize. They just make their noises, part soothing, part menacing, as they lull the child to sleep. And then, the sound of their departing wings becomes the final shushing noise to comfort the sleepy little one.

As a historian, I think a lot about context and worldview. Words come to mean very different things in different places and times, for people cannot divorce their own environment from the way they perceive, take in, and interpret all that they encounter around them. It is a fact that even as I read Homer’s Iliad, for example, in its original language, it still means something very different to me than it would have meant to readers or listeners in, say, Classical Athens. It is the same with lullabies, even as I now sing to my children the very same words and melodies that my parents once sang to me in a world an ocean away, decades ago, in a country that no longer exists.

And so, I think about my parents, born in the Soviet Union just two years before the death of Stalin. I assume that their parents, my grandparents, born less than a decade after the Russian Revolution, sang these same lullabies to them—else how would my parents have known them? But what did it mean to sing of the wolf that might snatch the baby away in the context of life in a totalitarian state, where it was the parents who might be whisked off by those black limousines that came furtively in the night to take people away perhaps for decades or, at times, dooming them never to return altogether? How many of these unlucky wretches who ended up in the Gulags spent their last evening at home singing a lullaby to a child, only to learn of the unexpected end of this normal life mere hours later, with the ominous pounding on the door?

And what did it mean to think of the wild geese, those sometime-kidnappers and yet occasional comforters, with their lulling singing and shushing flapping of the wings, while fresh memories still remained of the millions lost in the famine of the 1930s, millions more lost in the devastating war that only ended in 1945, and millions more gone in the periodic purges of suspected traitors all around through these decades? For the generations of my grandparents and parents, the losses would more readily have come through the persecution of the government, that ostensible arm of civilization, than from the pristine wilderness of those beautiful forests, where I remember hiking as a child in the 1980s, never encountering a wolf or a menacing goose.

But one constant through all these decades and the suffering of a society that lived through them remained the lullabies that so many parents kept singing to their children. These lullabies became in the process cultural artifacts of the sort that keeps getting passed down from mother to child, even as the world around changes in subtle or obvious ways. Because whether we have known such a world of losses or not ourselves, we sing instinctively to our children through some sort of timelessly wired inner conviction that at the end of day, sing we must.

First we sing while caressing gently the growing baby bump in which the baby is hidden from sight for these long months of anxious yet joyous expectation and anticipation. We sing as the baby within listens and responds, assured of the loving sound and touch. And then we sing while tenderly holding the tiny wailing creature who is mourning the loss of the womb, that environment that seemed so much safer, quieter, more peaceful than this cruel and overly bright world outside.

I, at least, have always sung the Russian lullabies, the only ones I know. In the meanwhile, my husband has opted at times for old invitation songs, those lyrical relics of his own evangelical childhood. I remember him pacing the floor for hours some evenings to give me brief respite to prepare for another sleepless night, as he kept singing and encouraging the mournful heart of the wailing infant to cast his or her eyes on Jesus. In retrospect, there is incongruous comedy latent in this memory. More than anything, though, there is so much love.

But babies don’t keep. And so, over time, we continue to sing to a child who grows bigger and older, until the child joins us as well in that sleepy song at the end of day. Or we even catch the child singing these same lullabies to her own dolls, bundled in their bed, as she lovingly puts them to sleep as she plays, recreating the routine she knows so well herself.

For even as they express the profound loss and sadness of people from a different place and time who had sung them before, these lullabies also have a hope and a promise programmed within, which their mournful melodies belie. It is a hope and even a sure conviction that morning will still come after every dark night. And if we are hurt in some way, all pain heals with time—more specifically, as the Russian children’s chant goes, all the pain will heal before your wedding.

As I think about this hope, I am reminded yet again of my duty as a historian to look not only at what is present in a story, a picture, a primary source, but also at what is absent. These gloomy, dark Russian lullabies that have left their roots in my soul are missing something essential that was illegal in the world that my grandparents and parents inhabited. And it is that missing part that my soul did find in adulthood—God. Children long for safety and comfort, and as parents, we want so dearly to promise them to provide these. And yet, try as we might, no earthly parent can make these promises absolute. But there is another father who can.

On the surface, the world that my privileged and highly sheltered American children inhabit is infinitely safer than the Soviet childhood of their grandparents and great-grandparents. And yet, we cannot deny the anxiety of our own present age. It is an anxiety filled with its own savage wolves and geese in various unexpected new guises, and simply by living in this world, my children cannot help but breathe it in. It soaks into the very pores of their skin, invades their nightmares, and leads to questions about fears I never imagined they could have.

Perhaps, it appears, we cannot just blame totalitarianism or other large and scary forces outside of our control entirely for the traumas, big and small, of life on this side of eternity. But as we think of the God whose comfort both we and our children so desperately need in the meanwhile, we can keep singing even these mournful lullabies, and think about the promises we know are true.

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Nadya Williams

Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church (Zondervan Academic, 2023) and Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity (IVP Academic, forthcoming October 2024). Her next book, Christians Reading Pagans is under contract at Zondervan Academic. She is Book Review Editor for Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.