For centuries, Christmas carols and Christmas hymns were not synonymous. Stately hymns were sung in church, while carols –deriving from the old French “querole” included dancing and were sung to dance tunes. This instantly made carols frowned upon by church leaders.
In the thirteenth century, Francis of Assisi is believed to have added instructional hymns to his nativity tableaus, thus legitimizing the practice. Congregants would recess from the scene, singing the Bible story. Few people knew how to read to begin with, and only clergy had access to the Scriptures, which almost exclusively were Latin translations.
Christmas caroling as we know it gained importance in Britain where it gradually displaced the pagan Yule custom of “wassail.” The term means “be in health” and, when called out as a greeting, was usually answered by “all hail.” Groups of revelers would gad about through the town, singing in exchange for gifts and a hot drink from a household’s Wassail bowl.
Indeed, the vision of Dickens carolers by a Victorian lamp-post is the vision I most often get in my mind at Christmas. So it was with great delight when I learned that one of the great classics, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, was written by an American!
Upon a visit to the Holy Land in 1868, Phillips Brooks, a young Episcopal rector from Pennsylvania, was stunned by the beauty of peaceful Bethlehem at midnight on Christmas Eve, as he headed for worship at the Church of the Nativity. This sublime experience became such a cherished memory that it inspired a poem he wrote three years later for the children of his Sunday school class at the Church of the Advent in Philadelphia. Called “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, it was one of many songs he wrote for them, but the one that endured.
The composer of the tune was organist and Sunday School superintendent Lewis Redner. He promised to write a melody for the poem so the children could sing Pastor Brooks’ poem at church the following Sunday.
But on Saturday night, the melody had yet to be written. During the night, Redner suddenly awoke and hurriedly jotted the notes to the beautiful tune, claiming he’d heard an “angel strain.” Redner insisted ever after that the melody was a gift from heaven.
Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) became one of the greatest pulpit orators of the 19th century as well as the bishop of Boston, but perhaps his greatest distinction is the lovely carol that lives on today.
If you want to hear “an angel” sing this song, here’s Sarah Maclachlan. I love her voice—she sings a heart-tugging song in an ASPCA video supporting abandoned critters.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, and God bless you all, everyone, now and in the new year.