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Meditations on More Christmas Carols


(Photo: Designpics)

’Twas in the Moon

of Wintertime    

St Jean de Brebeuf c. 1642 Huron

Tr. J. Edgar Middleton


By Don Harvey

A FRIEND OF MINE who had spent most of his ministry in Canada’s great North, once told me that while he did not find mastering new languages and dialects especially difficult, there were times when seemingly simple European concepts were incomprehensible to his congregations. One of these, and this was in pre-television days, was the biblical imagery of a sheep, a stable and a shepherd. While they were familiar with a wide variety of wild animals, the people he served could not visualize a lamb with its unique qualities, especially since this docile creature was so unlike the wilderness animals with which they would contend in their nomadic lifestyle.

So let us imagine Christmas, 1642, when Jean de Brébeuf, a young Jesuit missionary had the task of teaching about the coming of the Christ Child to people who were so culturally different from those in France where he had grown up and received his training. A brilliant linguist, he had quite readily mastered the Wyandot language, but was only too aware that it just did not have the vocabulary to tell of the first Christmas in the traditional manner.

Instead, he told the story in words and concepts that his listeners would understand. In his version the shepherds became “wandering hunters,” the stable was a “lodge of broken bark” and the “swaddling clothes” became a “ragged robe of rabbit skin.” The Magi on their camels now became “chiefs from far who knelt and gave gifts of fox and beaver pelts” instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Father Brébeuf had been inspired to tell the Christmas Story simply by changing the imagery without diminishing the enormity of the event. Throughout we still are conscious that the centre of the tableau is “the helpless infant” sent to them by “the mighty Gitchi Manitou” whom they now forever could see in different terms.

What a joy this must have been to Father Brébeuf as he in his loneliness and cold, so far removed from family and friends in France, came to see the smiles on the faces of “those children of the forest free” as they began to comprehend the message of the coming of the Christ Child now that he had put it in imagery with which they were so familiar.

He wrote the words of this carol in the Wyandot (Huron) language, and completed each stanza with the words of the angelic chorus as they proclaimed the Saviour’s birth. The version familiar to most of us has a haunting melody based on a traditional French folk carol. As we join in singing it, we should be aware that in fact we are participating in Canada’s oldest Christmas song.

Just a couple of years later Brébeuf was captured by a rival tribe along with another Jesuit missionary, Father Gabriel Lalemant, and several Wyandot Christian converts. After a terrible ritual torture, all were put to death at Waubashene on the shores of Georgian Bay.

Yet Brébeuf’s faith, his devotion to the people that God had entrusted to him, and above all his ability to express sacred truth in a manner that they could understand and appreciate, lives on in this beautiful composition we now know as The Huron Carol.

Let us think of his self-giving, all done in the Name of Him who gave Himself for us, as we again this Christmas join in the Angels’ chorus:

Jesus your King is born;

    Jesus is born,

In excelsis gloria.  TAP


Bishop Don Harvey is the Episcopal Visitor of the Anglican Network in Canada and lives in St. John’s, Nfld.


Once in Royal

David’s City

By Cecil Francis Alexander 1848 IRBY

H.R. Gauntlett 1858



THREE NOTES in the silence of the waiting church at almost-midnight, then a child’s voice rising: Once in royal David’s city…. That is the sound of Christmas, for me.

Once in royal David’s city

Stood a lowly cattle shed

Where a mother laid her baby

In a manger for his bed.

With these words each year in my church a child announced the coming of the Christ, and every year the gathered people listened in a silence that pulsed, somehow, with gladness. This was their child, after all, their child whom they watched each week singing (or not), behaving (or not), in the boys’ or girls’ choir, and this night now was that child’s special moment – that was part of it. But it was, too, a gladness for the gift that is given. In that single voice, clear as a child’s voice is clear, and brave and beautiful, there was news: news of another Child, and the time of hope.

First the message of a divine and incomprehensible condescension. In the city of the king, a lowly cattle shed. A mother and her baby, only this: a manger for his bed. He came down to earth from heaven! This is the news the child sings. Here, to us, he came, into our midst, in the poverty of our hearts and minds and loves and lives – even we who are so rich in material things, here in our incapacity to see and to hear, to love and to cherish, to be patient, to be kind, to be faithful…to be God’s people…here he comes to us. He is God and Lord of all.

This is the first mystery, and the beginning of gladness. Here he comes to us. Here he walks with us.

And here, he lifts us up. This, too, is the mystery.

The song that begins in the night in a cattle shed will end at noon on a cross.

Not in that poor lowly stable, but on a cross against the sky we shall see him – for this is what his humility means. Not just to come down to this night where we are, but to love us here, in the night where we are, to love us even when we do not love him, even when we turn against him in the darkness of our hearts and raise him up on the cross, his beloved people turning against him now as then. To love us even here, and here to lift us up. To love us body and soul, and with his body broken to mend our broken hearts.

On this night a movement begins, a movement of the divine love that is self-giving, of the God – King and Lord of all – who stoops down in the Child born in David’s city and takes us on his own back, and on his back lifts us up again to himself.

Not in that poor lowly stable shall we see him, but in heaven. This is the second mystery of this night. For his desire is for us. In the Christ Child he holds out his arms to us, that we might give our poor hearts to him. When like stars his children crowned / all in white shall gather round. How is it possible that we should be those worthy to sing the praise of the Lamb? On Christmas night a child announces it: He came down to earth from heaven. In the song of the Christ Child is our hope.  TAP

Dr. Catherine Sider Hamilton is Priest-in-Charge at St Matthews, Riverdale, and Assistant Professor at Wycliffe College, Toronto.


Good King


Rev. J.M. Neale 1853


Melody from Piae Cantiones 1582

(Painting: Carelde Winter)

By Ranall Ingalls

I LAUGHED with delight. Maddy Prior, or someone with a voice very much like hers, was singing ‘Good King Wenceslas.’ Minutes before I had sat down in a coffee shop to write a few words about this very carol. And now, inserted in a most unlikely way between nondescript pop hits, here was this beautiful voice, called from somewhere deep in cyberspace, probably in answer to a summons issued by a computer-generated playlist. Serendipitous or providential, it was a lovely moment.

I was already cheered after revisiting remarks about this carol by the editors of The Oxford Book of Carols (OBC). They were every bit as amusing as I remembered. Commenting on the Rev’d J.M Neale’s poetry they quoted with approval descriptions of it as ‘doggerel’ and ‘poor and commonplace to the last degree.’ But what really seemed to annoy them was his use of a tune (‘Tempus adest floridum’) that originally accompanied a song of spring (‘Flower Carol’, #99 in the same book). Expressing the hope that Good King Wenceslas ‘may gradually pass into disuse,’ they regretted that the time had not yet come when a collection like the OBC could leave it out.

Their critical words were written in 1928, yet almost ninety years later, the carol they so disparaged remains as popular as ever. People love to hear it, and many love to sing it. The complaints about it remind me a little of those critics of literature unhappy with the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings continues to be read and loved by an audience that expands with each passing year.

In his preface to the OBC, Percy Dearmer was, perhaps, wiser:

‘Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular and modern. They are generally spontaneous and direct in expression, and their simplicity of form causes them sometimes to ramble on like a ballad. Carol literature and music are rich in true folk-poetry and remain fresh and vibrant even when the subject is a grave one.’

To my mind, at least, there are few carols which so exactly fit Dearmer’s description as this one. The OBC editors would agree that the tune is ‘fresh and vibrant,’ but surely the same may be said for the simple words. I will leave the question of their merit as poetry to those better suited to judge. Perhaps it is better described as ‘verse’ or, dare we suggest, ‘folk-poetry.’ So be it. Surely it is none the worse for that, considered as a carol, that is, as folk art. It tells a memorable and attractive story in a series of colourful vignettes painted with simple but deft strokes. Generations of carol-singers have found both words and music to be not only ‘fresh and vibrant’ but also ‘simple …, popular and modern.’

The theme of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is, indeed, a grave one: the responsibility of the wealthy and the powerful to the poor and weak. The subject, however, is a saint. And, as Dorothy Sayers reminds us, the mark of the saints is cheerfulness.

The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935).

The lyricist, the Rev’d J.M. Neale, was a leading member of what came to be known as the ‘Oxford Movement.’ As their most prolific author and translator of hymns, he sought to restore something of the wealth of Christian music to the English Church, translating many ancient Greek and medieval Latin hymns, and writing many hymns of his own. ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was part of an attempt to revive the popular tradition of carol-singing and strengthen the sense of the reality of ‘the communion of saints’ among English Christians.

The Oxford Movement also had a great concern for the poor – a concern that would send many hundreds of men and women in the generation after Neale to serve as priests and nuns (think: Call the Midwife) among the poor in remote rural villages and teeming seaport slums. To my ears, at least, after all these years ‘Good King Wenceslas’ still shines with the same loveliness which inspired them – the loveliness of Christ, transfiguring his members.  TAP


Dr. Ranall Ingalls is the Rector of St Paul’s, Sackville in New Brunswick.



We Three Kings         

Rev. J.H. Hopkins Jr. 1862


Also by Hopkins 1862

(The Magi by Henry Siddons Mowbray)

By Ross Hebb

THE WRITER of this hymn whose chorus speaks of a star “westward leading” was, not surprisingly, a New World man: American John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891). Somewhat unusually he not only wrote the lyrics but also the familiar tune to which it is sung.

Hopkins was the son of a much more famous father of the same name: Bishop Hopkins of Vermont was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church during the first Lambeth Conference of 1867. A student and scholar of Church history, Bishop Hopkins had urged two Archbishops of Canterbury to convene such a gathering. What is more, unlike many of his fellow American bishops who attended solely to socialize and then vacation in France, Hopkins advocated for the creation of pan-Anglican structures with teeth. Bishop Hopkins wanted an Anglican Communion constituted of structures with actual authority. Sadly, we now live with the fragmented legacy of his vision unrealised.

Our hymn writer, the young Hopkins, had accompanied his elderly and famous father on the 1867 trip to England. Perhaps it was his father’s interest in the Early Church that had prompted the son to craft a hymn about wise men from the East. Adopting the unsubstantiated number of only three magi, he uses it as the framework for the carol. Each magi speaks of a particular gift to Mary’s Son, indicative of a specific title and function of the Christ. The carol was composed for a Christmas pageant and each king was to sing his stanza alone thus giving a distinctive, individual ‘voice’ to his message. (The names most often given the Magi – Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar – are not found in Scripture but are based on tradition.)

Melchior speaks of a King born on Bethlehem’s plain. We know that His actual kingship contrasts starkly with the humble surroundings of His birthplace. Furthermore, each king both understands and articulates the greater reality of Who the babe in the barn actually is. He is born king, that is, King of the Jews, the descendant of David according to the flesh and He is recognized and crowned as such by the magi’s action. But Melchior knows even more. His gift of gold acknowledges not just earthly kingship but also divine kingship – a kingship which has had no beginning and which will have no end. Jesus rules from before the start of time and His kingship will never cease! Finally, His rule is both cosmic and personal. He rules as King of time and of our hearts, both at once, and forever!

The second king speaks of frankincense. The hearer is assumed to know that this incense was used in the Temple at Jerusalem for the scripturally sanctioned worship of Almighty God. Incense is to be offered to the One true God only and yet here it is being offered to the Son of Mary. Gaspar acts with both knowledge and intent. He makes no mistake – surely a Deity is nigh! But there is more. Gaspar’s insight is also prophetic, for the Deity he presents to us is not only God of the Hebrews but the object of worship for all men’s prayer and praising. Mary’s son is the God for all humanity.

Finally, Balthazar speaks. His somber speech intones of myrrh, a bitter perfume. Again the hearer understands – the burial customs of the East, the usage of spices and ointments (Luke 23:56.) But what a shocking contrast, a babe newly born, an infant at the breast and yet a shadow falling backward, a shadow of women hurrying to a tomb and of a stone rolled away. Yet there is an austere beauty in Balthazar’s economy of phrase, “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying.” It is almost superfluous to add “sealed in a stone cold tomb.” Yet in these few words we learn the future of Mary’s child. However, the full meaning of both the incense and the sorrowing are left until the final stanza.

Only in the last verse, when all voices join together is all made clear. Yes, He is born a King and incense reveals God, our God, but myrrh reveals Sacrifice – an atoning death. The “one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice” for the sins of all humanity and for all time. The only appropriate response is a heavenly one, and so in imitation of the angelic host “earth to the heavens reply” with worship, praise and adoration.  TAP

Dr. Ross Hebb is the Rector of St Peter’s Church in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

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