Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.
- Luke 2:14
When we arrived in Germany more than 30 years ago, one of the children on our military installation lost no time telling us what he thought of the German people.
These people are so mixed up, he said. They go to church on Halloween, and trick-or-treating on Christmas.
As Christians, we understood the church on Hallowed-Evening part, but we had to wait until the first Christmas in our new land to learn what the trick-or-treating thing was all about.
Sure enough, on or about Dec. 6, or St. Nicholas Day as we had also been told, I heard a knock at the door followed by the sound of a melody I learned when I was a child: Glo-o-o-o-o-o-ria, in excelsis Deo!
Two German children, wearing masks and carrying colorful containers, continued singing after I opened the door. When they finished, it was obvious that I should put something in their containers, which I did, even as I tried in my limited German to thank them for singing for me. Thats a new twist on trick-or-treating, I thought: the masked ones doing the treating, too.
Christmas customs, whatever the land or language barrier, are instantly understood wherever the name of Jesus Christ is known and adored. Some of those customs, as my trick-and-treaters had so well displayed, are the same - the singing, that is, give or take the mask and goodie-bag. Carols have been sung at Christmas ever since a heavenly host of angels heralding the birth of Jesus surprised sleepy shepherds on a Judean hillside 2,000 years ago.
Well, not exactly. Of course, there are countries where heavy-handed governments rule, or faiths other than Christianity are the rule. But even in democratic countries - even in America - singing Christmas carols was once frowned upon or even forbidden.
The Puritans had a point. Christmas had become such a rowdy holiday that, soon after the Puritan Pilgrims arrived in America, they banned any custom they thought didnt honor the Savior of mankind, including the singing of Christmas carols.
We may be astonished at such a decision, but carol texts were often set to dance tunes or drinking songs. Thus, in the eyes of the Church, these songs were too worldly.
Charles Wesley, the musical half of the founders of Methodism, had a different idea. This author of more than 6,000 hymn texts, some composed while he and his brother John were ministering in colonial Georgia, believed every Biblical theme should be set to music. Wesleys 1739 contribution to making carol-singing respectable again is the still beloved, Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing.
It would take another century for Wesleys text to be adapted to the Felix Mendelssohn tune we sing today, but we who love Christmas music owe much to this man who kept singing long after the music had stopped for nearly everyone else.
As other hymn writers also discovered, the first Christmas carols were inspired by the angels who announced the birth of Jesus, and they were sung for centuries before the rowdiness and the banning took over. Angels We Have Heard on High, the carol my German trick-or-treaters sang to me, began centuries ago when shepherds in the mountains of southern France called to each other from hilltop to hilltop on Christmas Eve with their own setting of Gloria in exelsis Deo. And the devout English newspaperman, James Montgomery, who was imprisoned twice for his editorial views, wrote the stirring carol, Angels from the Realms of Glory.
America and much of the world may be at war today. Some are enduring economic hardship or religious persecution, and few may know anything about music composition. But thanks to the writers of the past, the angels message still rings from land to land, hilltop to hilltop, and heart to heart.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@ aol.com.)
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