First Congregational Church
December 31, 2017
First Sunday after Christmas
History of Christmas Carols Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
"Go Tell It on the Mountain" #258 (three verses)
Like sitting amidst the Christmas wrappings and taking in the glow and delight of excited children, today we sit amidst the Christmas carols and their own beauty. In their mere singing, however, we can miss some of their depth and connectivity. So in addition to their singing, we will hear some of their stories, to make this only Sunday in the Christmas season this year more earnest and complete.
In regard to our opening carol, throughout time, mountains have held a fascination for the Judeo-Christian world, representing the holy presence of God and a place set apart, not unlike the curtain in the temple separating God from the priests. Not just everyone could go up the mountain to be in God’s presence, so it was Moses who received the Ten Commandments. In the Gospel, Jesus was transfigured on a mountain, an event signifying the full embodiment of the divine nature and holiness of Christ and he gave his most important sermon - on a mount.
It was the ten person ensemble called the Fisk Jubilee Singers that really brought about the popularity of our first carol. African American Fisk University was about to permanently close it’s doors due to debt. Taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, the Jubilee Singers departed on October 6, 1871, from Nashville on a difficult, but ultimately successful eighteen-month tour, that not only saved the University, but elevated the spiritual to an art form.
Sans Day Carol S 130 (four verses)
The Holly and the Ivy S 154
Our next two carols practically beg to be partnered with each other. In fact, mentally, I’ve referred to them as the “holly” songs.
The Sans Day Carol is named because the melody and the first three verses were originally transcribed in the 19th century from the singing of a villager in St. Day, Cornwall, named after a Breton saint venerated in the same parish. It was discovered and collected by the Borough of Penzance’s Head Gardner, a Mr. W. D. Watson, from a man of fifty or sixty years named Thomas Beard.
It is said that the second carol, The Holly and The Ivy, was the first Christmas hymn or carol which appeared in Rome in the fourth century, although the first recorded appearance of the carol doesn’t occur until the 1800’s.
In Scandinavia, the evergreen varieties have long been revered; a sign of defiance to cold and a symbol of life’s continuity. Holly was thought to be the home of wandering spirits. It was hung in homes to assure the occupants good luck. It was assumed that the "points" would snag the evil-intentioned and prevent their entering. A syrup made from holly allegedly cures coughs and a sprig of holly on a bedpost assures one of pleasant dreams.
If ever there were songs that embodied the use of Christian symbolism, these two carols are they. Living for 200 years or more, maintaining its bright colors during the winter season, the ever-green holly leaves represent eternal life and is a natural decoration associated with the Christian holiday.
More specifically, the holly represents Jesus and the ivy represents Mary. Beyond that, the sharpness of the leaves help to recall the crown of thorns worn by Jesus; the red berries serve as a reminder of the drops of blood that were shed for salvation; and the shape of the ivy leaves, which resemble flames, can serve to reveal God's burning love for God’s people. While holly is most often pictured as having red berries, the berries come in other colors too. One tradition says that white berries represent Jesus’ purity, green berries the cross of wood, and black berries his death.
Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine S 89 (two verses)
There’s a Song in the Air S 160 (four verses)
The next two carols came to my mind as the manger lullabies for this morning. In fact, an alternate title for Joseph Dearest is the Song of the Crib. The composer of the tune and the author of the words to this carol aren’t known, but it was most probably used in a Mystery Play in 15th or 16th century Germany. Mystery plays were events in the community that took place beyond the established masses of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming opportunities for the teaching of doctrine and theological insight. They were especially popular because people were forbidden to attend pagan plays.
It’s actually quite remarkable that the second of this carol package, “There’s a Song in the Air,” actually came to be. Josiah Holland was born to a poor, struggling family in Massachusetts, and after working in a factory to help the family finances, he went on to Berkshire Medical College where he graduated in 1844. After attempting to establish a medical practice in western Massachusetts, he gave it up and moved to the south, but didn’t find much satisfaction there, either. He eventually moved back to the north and took up a position as the editor of the Springfield Republican newspaper, working under different pseudonyms. Perhaps the verbiage takes on a new luster when we are reminded that they were written during one of the darkest period of our nation’s history, that of our Civil War.
Of the Father’s Love Begotten #240 (three verses)
Of the Father’s Love Begotten is perhaps the oldest hymn that many congregations sing. Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, “the first great poet of the Latin church,” lived from 348-c. 413. He was a poet from northern Spain and a successful lawyer who became a judge, and didn’t begin writing poetry until the age of 57. Some one hundred years before Prudentius, an heresy broke out in the church, that God the Father and the Son did not co-exist throughout eternity. Not only does Prudentius paint the picture of God and Christ being equal, but he reminds us that the heights of heaven, angels and dominions bow before them - all of the cosmos from heaven to earth gives witness to the co-eternal and co-equal nature of the Son.
As for icing on the cake, Aurelius reminds us in the third verse that the relationship is a Trinity. To make it official, a counsel was held in Nicea - in modern day Turkey, from which history was presented with the Nicean Creed. As Congregationalists, we don’t officially hold to any creeds, as we are all supposed to come to our own understandings and articulations of our beliefs and faith. But sometimes, it’s nice to have a starting point.
Incidentally, “Of the Father’s Love” first appears in print in 1582 in the Finnish song book Piae Cantiones, a collection of seventy-four sacred and secular church and school songs of medieval Europe. That Finnish/Swedish songbook still crops up every now and again, as it held a fair number of our modern Christmas carols together over the centuries.
Good King Wenceslas S 47
Long have I waited to inform you all that Good King Wenceslas went out to his local pizza parlor and ordered his usual: a deep pan, crisp and even.
For those of you wondering, yes, Good King Wenceslas is the same tune for the other Christmas carol, Gentle Mary Laid Her Child.
And yes, Virginia, there was indeed a noble Wenceslas. He was not a king, however, but the Duke of Bohemia. He was a good and honest and strongly principled man - as the song about him indicates - too good, perhaps, because in 929 he was murdered by his envious and wicked younger brother.
The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously "conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title" and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a “king”. And just to make the waters a little muddier, this Wenceslas is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries later.
His fame arose because of braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king's footprints, step for step, through the deep snow.
There is, however, another layer not often noted in this hymn and that which we just sang. Not only were both first published in the Swedish/Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones, both were translated by a John M. Neale. In case that name is familiar, he also wrote "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”
Bring a Torch S 19 (two verses)
No tour of Christmas nationalities would be complete without one from France, our next one originating in Provence. Bring a Torch was not originally meant to be sung at Christmas as it was considered dance music for French nobility.
The song title refers to two female farmhands who have found the baby and his mother in a stable. Excited by this discovery, they run to a nearby village to tell the inhabitants, who rush to see the new arrivals. Visitors to the stable are urged to keep their voices quiet, so the newborn can enjoy his dreams.
To this day, on Christmas Eve in the Provence region, children dressed as shepherds and milkmaids carry torches and candles while singing the carol, on their way to Midnight Mass. In the weird ways of the world, this song was perhaps partly responsible for the tradition of erecting nativity crèches in towns.
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow S 128 (two verses)
Like so many other spirituals, “Rise Up Shepherd” has little definitive information as to its beginnings. Because the song was passed around orally, there are no correct or incorrect editions, rather there are endless variations. The inconsistencies make for a better understanding as to why the mention of a star is made with the shepherds, rather than the wise men. Also unique about this song is that while most Christmas hymns focus on the adoration of the Christ child, this spiritual (like “Go,Tell it on the Mountain”) is about discipleship.
The first stanza tells us that it is Christ whom we are to rise and follow. The second stanza reminds us that our commitment to this following must be as complete as it was for the disciple Levi. “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:27-28 NIV).
"Ding Dong Merrily on High"
The most obscure of this morning’s carols, in terms of historic information, “Ding Dong Merrily on High” comes from the mid 1500’s in France. The melody was found in one of the most valuable dance books on 16th century dance: containing information on social ballroom behavior and on the interaction of musicians and dancers.
Like it’s partner, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is a macaronic song: one utilizing two or more languages. Most of the words are English, but the “Gloria” of the refrain is Latin.
As we take our leave this morning, may we take at least one carol with us into the week, to feed our hearts and minds and souls with the Good News of a Child Born in Bethlehem.
Let us stand and sing our final carol, #31 in the spiral books.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.