Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming: a last rose in the snow in Skandia (photographer’s title and description) / yooperann via Flickr
No one knows who wrote either the German text or the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” According to legend, a monk near the Rhineland city of Trier found a rose blooming one Christmas Eve, plucked it, and put it in a vase on an altar devoted to the Virgin Mary. The poem “Es is ein Ros entsprungen” may have been written as early as the 15th century, but the earliest extant version appeared in the late 16th century.
At the time, the Protestant Reformation roiled Europe in general and Germany in particular. Catholic and Lutheran publishers issued slightly different versions of the text, paired with the tune we know and love today. I say slightly different, but the change of two lines clearly shows a theological gulf. Just whom does the rose symbolize? Continue reading →
The 19-year stretch between 1932 and 1951 gave us 19 top hit Christmas songs. “The Little Drummer Boy” was written in 1941. When I decided to write about it, I found that hardly anyone knew it existed for 10 years. It didn’t become a hit until even later.
Yet now, we can choose among hundreds of recordings. It started out as a choral piece, but many top vocal soloists have recorded it. Like it or not, it’s hard to avoid hearing “The Little Drummer Boy” throughout December every year. You might even hear it more than once in a day. Continue reading →
A fresco of a black Madonna and Jesus at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia / Wikimedia Commons
Most of our sacred Christmas music comes from some European tradition. Most 20th-century Christmas music is secular. “Mary’s Boy Child” is an exception to both generalities. It might sound like a folk song, a Caribbean equivalent of a Negro spiritual, but it was composed by Jester Hairston.
Besides being a fine piece of music and a lot of fun to sing and listen to, it serves as a correction to the pernicious thought that somehow Jesus was a white man and that Christianity is somehow a white person’s religion.
Jesus came into the world for all of us. His skin color as a human hardly matters, but he probably most nearly resembled today’s Arabs. Continue reading →
Adoration of the Shepherds / Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, ca. 1650
If you ever think of the Industrial Revolution, you might not associate it with the Sunday school movement, but the intersection of the two accounts for the familiar Christmas carol “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.” Emily Elizabeth Steel Elliott wrote the text and Timothy Richard Matthews set it to music.
The Industrial Revolution replaced cottage industries where people made items by hand with factories that mass produced things with machinery. Population and people’s average income both grew at an unprecedented rate, but not everyone benefitted. The poverty rate also grew.
Factory owners put children to work for long hours. Development of fair labor practices and safety standards lagged behind the invention of industrial processes by decades.
Two men established a Sunday school for orphans and poor children in Gloucester in 1780. The movement spread throughout England and to the US. It provided the only education many poor children ever got. But the idea of educating the lower classes at all proved controversial. Sunday schools depended on charities for survival. Continue reading →
Every year since 1919, “Once in Royal David’s City” has opened Nine Lessons and Carols of King’s College Cambridge. A treble soloist sings the first verse and the choir processes slowly while singing the remainder of the hymn. Anything with such a long tradition seems ancient nowadays, but looking at its history, we see it wasn’t that old when the tradition started.
Cecil Frances Humphreys wrote the words. With a name like Cecil, it might surprise some people that it’s a woman’s name. Hymnals always show her name as Cecil Frances Alexander, but she didn’t marry until after she had published the hymn. Henry Gauntlett, who composed the tune, had a hand in nearly every hymnal published in his lifetime. The Anglican church had only recently started to embrace congregational hymn singing. Continue reading →
“The First Noel” has a fairly obscure history. Both the English and the French claim it. The first English text was published only in 1823. The tune didn’t appear in print until 1833, but both the tune and text are probably much older than that.
The text, at least, has something of the flavor of the Medieval mystery plays. It may or may not be that old.
We owe the English version to two early nineteenth-century antiquarians, Davies Gilbert and William Sandys. At first, they published for scholars. It didn’t take long, however, for the general public to discover “The First Noel” and take it to heart. Continue reading →