Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Christmas without Anglicans?

One of the things I like most about the Christmas season are the carols. It only occurred to me recently that so many of them came to us from Anglicans. That reminded me that even our popular image of jolly old St. Nick was shaped by a professor of biblical studies at (of all places) an Episcopal seminary.

“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” is a poem first published anonymously in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of classics at Columbia and then lay Professor of Hebrew and the Bible at the General Theological Seminary in New York, which was built on land he donated. The poem, which has been called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American,” is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, as well as the tradition that he brings toys to children.

And what about the carols? The text of the popular Christmas carol “O little town of Bethlehem” was written by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest who was the long-time Rector of Trinity Church Trinity in Boston, and later the Bishop of Massachusetts. He was inspired by visiting the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church and his organist, Lewis Redner, added the music. Redner’s tune, simply titled “St. Louis,” is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States.

John Mason Neale was an Anglican priest, scholar, and hymn-writer. He translated many ancient hymns, such as the Christmas classic “Of the Father’s love begotten.” He was also responsible for much of the translation of the Advent hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” based on the “Great O Antiphons” for the week preceding Christmas. Neale’s most enduring and widely known legacy is probably his own original Christmas contributions, most notably “Good Christian men, rejoice” and his Boxing Day carol, “Good King Wenceslas.”

The Anglican priest Charles Wesley, penned the classic “Hark! The herald angels sing.” The original words were reworked by his friend and fellow priest George Whitfield into the verses familiar to us today. The “Father of English Hymnody” Isaac Watts, a nonconformist minister in the Church of England, wrote the famous carol “Joy to the world!” The Anglican bishop Christopher Wordsworth penned the famous carol, “Sing, O sing, this blessed morn.”

Christina Rossetti was an English poet and a devout Anglo-Catholic. Two of her poems, “In the bleak midwinter” and “Love came down at Christmas,” became popular Christmas carols. Cecil Alexander, wife of a priest and then bishop in the Church of England, wrote the hymn “Once in royal David’s city.” Nahum Tate, who was the son of a priest and became England’s poet laureate, wrote the hymn “While shepherds watched their flock by night.”

At the age of twenty-nine, English writer and Anglican layman William Chatterton Dix was struck with a sudden near-fatal illness and confined to bedrest for several months, which resulted in a deep depression. Yet out of his traumatic experience, he wrote the lovely carol “What Child is this?” What would Christmas be like without Anglicans?

2 comments:

Jon Stutler said...

I appreciate the historical recollections. In most cases, I had no idea!

Merry Christmas!

Richard Saunders said...

Quite an excellent article - dare I call this Anglican Patrimony.
May I add my few pence worth.
Outside of the USA the tune 'Forest Green' is often employed for 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'.
As well, William Chatterton Dix wrote for Epiphany 'As with Gladness Men of Old'
May God bless us all Amen
Richard