A good question: Which Christmas carol says it all for you?
One question, four answers
‘It captures the intense paradox’
I first came across the work of Christopher Smart at school when I was introduced to Benjamin Britten’s setting of his poem ‘For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry’. I was very struck by someone who could describe for us a creature in praise of God. I was fascinated by the way Britten’s music makes this intense, and unusual, 18th-century poetry sing.
Christopher Smart was one of those whose eccentricity reveals what more conventional people tend to miss. He writes with senses more highly tuned, his perceptions vivid and his insight deep. And yet Smart spent parts of his life confined either in asylum or prison, and some accused him of religious ‘mania’. His life story is a complex and sad one, but his writing is, at times at least, completely sublime.
One of his poems (or at least four of its verses) is 174 in Rejoice and Sing – and I think it is just exceptional. He uses words that sound contemporary to our ears even, not quite the material of conventional hymnody. I don’t think there is another hymn in the book that uses the word ‘stupendous’, but it’s there in the first line of this hymn, applied to Christ the stranger. His words capture the wonder, and the intense paradox, of the incarnation, that mystery of God in which the impossible happens. One line reads ‘O the magnitude of meekness’, in a foreshadowing of a future Graham Kendrick hymn. But it’s the final verse that leaves a lump in my singing throat…
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
‘So simple, yet so profound’
In first place, I find Isaac Watts’ ‘Joy to the world’ pretty well sums up what Christmas is about: ‘Let every heart prepare him room,’ ‘Let all their songs employ,’ ‘Wherever pain and death are found/He makes his blessings flow,’ ‘He rules the world with truth and grace.’ There couldn’t be anything much more true to the Christmas spirit than that. Yes, when we have sung about the stable, angels, shepherds, wise men etc, this hymn is what Christmas is really all about.
But then I come to Marguerite Kendrick’s hymn, where each verse begins, ‘Jesus is the heart of Christmas’. She then brings in references to garlands which ‘gleam with his charisma’, and tinsel, ‘which glisten with his grace.’ She says: ‘Light your candles from his flame/Hang your holly in his honour,/Trim each fir tree in his name.’ In the third verse she says: ‘Share him in each card you send.’ Then, in each gift we share his endless gifts. In the final verse, she says: ‘Find his peace on busy days.’ The last two lines say: ‘Jesus is the heart of Christmas,/sing each carol in his praise.’
But still I have not really answered the question, because I find it impossible! So, I come back to that very simple, yet very profound piece of writing…
Alan Gaunt is a hymnwriter, poet and minister
‘I visualise slaves singing in the plantations’
When it comes to Christmas carols, I am hopelessly romantic. I love them all and I can spend countless hours listening to them. Admittedly, most traditional Christmas carols are largely European and American. Perhaps then you will be surprised to hear that my favourite is ‘Go tell it on the mountain’, an African-American spiritual that has its origins in very troubled times. The song likely dates back to the mid-19th century, in the cotton fields of the US, where spiritual songs were passed from plantation to plantation orally. As there were no music sheets to accompany these songs, it is difficult to assign them an accurate date.
John Wesley Work Jr, an amateur musician and historian is credited with compiling New Jubilee Songs in 1901 and Folk Songs of the American Negro in 1907, which featured the first publication of ‘Go tell it on the mountain’. It was nearly 50 years later when the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson recorded the version we more or less know today. Though it has been recorded countless times since then, by artists like Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Sheryl Crow and many others, Mahalia Jackson’s is still the version to beat, if you are looking for that Christmas spiritual experience…
George Mwaura is Minister of Christ the Cornerstone, Milton Keynes
‘It leads us through the Christmas story to the present’
Of all the Christmas carols and hymns written and sung, I like the reflective ones best, and the John Bell/Graham Maule hymn (Rejoice and Sing 178) ‘Who would think that what was needed’ (with its refrain ‘God surprises earth with heaven…’) is among my top choices.
Set to the tune Scarlet Ribbons – not exactly a folk tune – it is familiar and simple enough with its AABA structure for us to focus our attention on the words. The original song with its mood of quiet wonder has featured in many Christmas record albums over the years, and so provides the perfect partnership of words and music.
What I admire most is the economy of words which takes us through the Christmas story and leads us to the present: the first verse announcing the challenge to power by the birth of a child, as in Isaiah’s promise of a future reign of peace when ‘a little child shall lead them’. God’s surprise is that in Jesus’ birth the longing of the ages has come to pass…
Ray Adams is a retired minister and former Chair of the United Reformed Church Music Network
These are extracts from an article published in the December 2020 / January 2021 edition of Reform