Monday 19 December 2016

Christmas Hymns: Their Story – His-story

No sooner was Halloween over than Christmas goods appeared on the shelves and Christmas music began to assail our ears. But long before Wizard, Noddy Holder and the other modern classics "Carols" were the soundtrack to Christmas. This article, which was written 100 years ago, gives the background to some of those classics.

The most popular Christmas hymns, as befits those associated with the season of universal peace and goodwill, come to us from various ages and very various authors, and are sung by Christian people of all denominations the World over.

Two of them date from the early centuries of the Church, and our English versions beginning “O come all ye faithful,” and “Of the Father’s love begotten,” are translations of grand old Latin hymns. The well-known “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” was written in the late seventeenth century, and most of the other familiar Christmas hymns in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their authors varying from an Irish Poet Laureate and an English bishop to a well-known woman writer of hymns, and an American poet-pastor.

It is curious that no popular Christmas hymn apparently has come to us from the Middle Ages, but carols were the Church’s Christmas songs in these times, and comparatively few of them can be classed as hymns. For the most part they were more or less quaint songs of the Nativity, poor as to literary quality, in many cases were doggerel, though sometimes redeemed by the earnestness and simplicity or the real piety of their general tone. Modem carols are generally of different type, and several well-known ones are worthy of a place in any collection of hymns. Among these may be mentioned the beautiful carols beginning “Like silver lamps in a distant shrine,” and Dean Farrar's “In the fields with their flocks abiding,” with its refrain—
He sang, that first sweet Christmas,
The song that shall never cease—
Glory to God in the highest,
On earth good will and peace.

This was written when its author was an assistant master at Harrow School, and was composed expressly for the boys to sing in their chapel services at the Christmas season.

It has become familiar to people in general since Mr. John Farmer set it to music in “ Christ and His Soldiers,” the Christmas Cantata which has become so popular.

Of the Christmas hymns included in most hymnals, and sung by all Christians at the great festival, two must be regarded as first favourites, “Hark! the herald angels sing,” and “Christians Awake.” “Hark! the herald angels sing” is probably the most popular of all, and this not only in the English-speaking world, but among Christian converts in the Far East and dusky natives of Africa, for it has beer, translated into many languages and dialects, and taken by missionaries wherever they have gone.

It was in 1739 that Charles Wesley first published this particular one of his almost innumerable hymns, but like most of them it was probably written at odd times on the tablets he carried about continually for the purpose, a line or verse being added whenever it occurred to him, at any hour of the day or night. It was included in the first Methodist hymn book which appeared in 1743, and the first line was “Hark! how all the welkin rings,” while the hymn consisted of ten four-line verses. About 1766 the first line was altered into the now familiar “Hark! the herald angels sing” and the hymn shortened, and since then it has been “revised” by many editors in various hymnals, as a comparison of present editions will show.

“Christians Awake” has an interesting personal story, for it was written by a father for his favourite little daughter, in fulfilment of a promise to write something specially for her as a Christmas gift. The manuscript, which is still to be seen in the library of Cheetham Hospital, Manchester, is headed “Christmas Day for Dolly,” “Dolly” being Dorothy Byrom, who found it on her plate at breakfast on Christmas morning, 1745, to her very great delight and pride.

John Byrom, who came of a Manchester family, wrote many other hymns, mostly for the boys of Cheetham’s Hospital School, but “Christians Awake” is the only one that has become really well known. It was published first in the “Manchester Mercury” as a Christmas carol, and attracted the attention of John Wainwright, organist of the Parish Church, who set the verses to the beautiful and popular tune ever since associated with them.

It is said that on the following Christmas Eve Mr. Wainwright took his choir to Mr. Byrom’s house out at Kersal, and there, in the darkness of the winter night, they sang outside his door “Dolly’s” treasured hymn. The author was delighted with the music, which he heard for the first time under these striking conditions, and the friendship begun that night between the two men lasted for the remainder of their lives.

“While shepherds watched their flocks by night,” without which no Christmas carol service would be complete, was written by Nahum Tate, an Irishman who became Poet Laureate of England in the seventeenth century. He collaborated with his friend, Dr. Nicholas Brady, in producing a new metrical version of the Psalms, and several of the compositions in this book still find their place in most hymn books — e.g., “As pants the hart for cooling streams,” and “Through all the changing scenes of life,”

“While shepherds watched” was first published in Tate & Brady’s Psalter of the year 1702, but it has been proved to be the work of the Poet Laureate alone. For at least a century and a half it has been the favourite hymn of the “Waits” at their midnight carol-singings, and there is no sign of any waning of popularity.

Regarding another popular favourite, “O, come all ye faithful,” the ancient Latin Adeste Fideles, it is interesting to note that translations have been published in the language of nearly all countries where missions are established. Canon Oakley’s version, printed first in 1852, has been used for most of these, and the translators have generally kept to the original metre, so that the hymn may be and is sung to the same tune in all parts of the world.

Two Epiphany hymns are frequently sung at Christmas, and are especially appropriate, while their beauty of thought and expression has won for them an abiding place among favourite hymns. “As with gladness men of old,” which has been described as “one of the finest compositions of its kind in our language,” was written by Mr. Wm. Chatteron Dix, who only died in 1900. The inspiration came to him one evening some years before his death, when he was recovering slowly from a serious illness, and asking for pencil and paper he wrote down the verses which had been gradually growing into form in his mind. Published first in a little hymn book of limited circulation, “As with gladness” attracted more and more attention, and now may be found in most collections.

“Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,” the other beautiful Epiphany hymn sung frequently at Christmas, competes with the same author’s “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” in general esteem. It was written by Bishop Heber, and was first published in a weekly paper called the “Christian Observer” in 1811. The manuscript, in the bishop’s small, clear handwriting, is still preserved in the British Museum, forming a leaf or so of two ordinary exercise books belonging to his children, in which he scribbled various compositions, the back of the pages being used for problems of Euclid.

Another favourite Christmas hymn is printed among the children's hymns in most collections, but “Once in royal David’s City” is beloved by old and young alike. It was written by Mrs. Alexander, wife of the well known Primate of Ireland, and together with her “There is a green hill far away” tells the essentials of the Christian story in a way which cannot fail to make an appeal to everybody who can appreciate winsome simplicity.

A less well-known Christmas hymn, but one of great beauty, is “Angels from the realms of glory,” which is now to be found in most English and American collections. It was written by James Montgomery, author of many hymns of high poetic and religious quality, and published first in the Christmas Eve, number of a Sheffield paper, the “Iris,” in 1816. Another Christmas hymn which is growing in popularity in England and America is “It came upon the midnight clear,” a beautiful composition. It was written in 1849 by an American pastor, Edmund Hamilton Sears, published first in a religious magazine, then in American hymnals, and now is to be found in several British collections.

In our day Christmas music includes not only many of the most popular Christmas hymns, and, at special services as well as at home gatherings, some of the old favourite carols, but often selections from Handel’s most famous oratorio, the “Messiah,” which, of course, is equally appropriate at Christmas and Easter, and is received enthusiastically at both seasons. Mendelssohn’s “Hymn of Praise” also is becoming increasingly popular at Christmas, and “The Holy Family,” an English version of “L’enfance du Christ,” by Berlioz, is sometimes given. English musicians, including Purcell, Goss, Elvey, and others have also composed special music for the Christmas festival, but at the services in the churches it is the Christmas hymns, in which the congregation can join and sing their own tributes to the Babe of Bethlehem, that are most truly popular, and of these no one grows weary.

Text: The Witness, 8th December 1916
Image: Evening Carolers by Thomas Kinkaid, 1991.

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