Thursday, December 25, 2014
“‘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?
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
It was the 8th Century Benedictine monk St. Boniface from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex who first took the Gospel to the pagan Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. There, they worshipped Odin and Thor—fierce and ancient Norse gods. One of the savage aspects of Germanic Norse religious culture was human sacrifice.
Boniface knew that Christianity had subdued the wilder, more violent aspects of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture in England and believed the same could happen in Germany. So Boniface let spread word among the tribes that when the next sacrifice was planned, he would personally prevent it. He gathered his monks at an ancient oak tree, a place of sacred blood-letting.
The pagans bound a young girl to the oak tree in preparation, but before the fatal blow could be struck, Boniface grabbed the axe out of the executioner’s hands. He swung at the girl’s chains, breaking her free, and then turned his axe on the sacred oak. The pagans knelt in silence, expecting their gods to avenge this blasphemy.
Boniface broke the silence, calling them to look at the base of the oak. There, springing out of the ground from between the roots was a tender young fir tree. Boniface explained that their other gods had fallen with the oak but that Boniface’s God had given them this little tree which remains green and full of life even in the depths of winter. The fir tree’s evergreen leaves pointed upwards to heaven, reminding them that the Christian Triune God’s love for them was everlasting.
At the first Christmas after this event, Boniface brought a fir tree indoors into the church as a symbol of Christ’s everlasting love. It has been used as a Christmas reminder of God’s love ever since.