Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Snow Christmas Hymns

I thought I knew all the Christmas carols and hymns there were to know--Hark The Herald Angels Sing, The First Noel, Good King Wenceslas, Joy to the World and so on and so forth.  Then, about 15 years ago,  I heard for the first time ever the beautiful Once in Royal David's City. From that point on, there have been every year carols that I've never heard before--Sussex Carol, Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming, Infant Holy, Infant Lowly to name a few.

Included in these unfamiliar carols or hymns were several what I'll call snow carols.  Invariably, one of these snow-themes would become wrapped up in another and I would take the verses from one carol and combine it with the refrain from another thereby mixing myself up as to just which snow carol I was singing. This past Christmas season, I finally sorted them out.  There are four: The Snow Lay On the Ground,  See Amid the Winter's Snow,  Gesu Bambino and  In the Bleak Midwinter.

"The snow lay on the ground, the stars shone bright, when Jesus Christ was born that holy night."  So begins the eponymously named carol's first verse.  "See amid the winter's snow, born to us on earth below," and in Gesu Bambino (English translation of the Italian lyric),  "When blossoms flower er'e mid the snow all on a winter's night." Jesus is born on a snowy night.  In Bethlehem  And not surprisingly, in Christina Rossetti's poem set to music,  the midwinter is bleak because "Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow."  

Whence the snow and the birth of our Lord?   No surprise perhaps, but Irving Berlin's iconic 'White Christmas' of 1940 is not the source of Christmas as a snowy holiday.  Rather, Berlin's song evokes our almost 200 year old tradition of a white Christmas which dates to the Victorian era and to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol  in particular written in 1843. Prince Albert who was of German descent is credited with having imported German customs and traditions as well.  As for snow in Bethlehem, it is possible and as for the birth of Christ falling on or about December 25th, there is good reason for it to be so.

But whether fact or fancy makes little difference. Much like the flowers that appeared when Our Lady dispatched the peasant Juan Diego to request from the bishop that a church be built on the slopes of Tepeyac, Jesus comes when least expected and completely out of season.  The snow carols lay before us in rhyme and verse the utter implausibility of it all--the "tender Lamb appears" in a world "hard as iron," a rose flowers in the bleak midwinter, a "manger poor" is actually a throne, a poor baby who "built the starry skies" is the Savior of the world. The Light of the world comes into the world at the darkest time of the year.  He comes under cover of cold and buried in the mystery of snow on snow so that, unless we actually search to see Him amidst the world's snow and darkness, we may ourselves become caught up in only the bright reflections of the starry night and not see clearly that "He Whom Mary bore was God the Son."

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