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Caroling our way toward Christmas

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2007

"Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,


Please to put a penny in the old man's hat... ."

- Beggar's rhyme

When we arrived in Germany more than 30 years ago, one of the children on our military installation couldn't wait to tell us how the Germans celebrate Christmas.

"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 unseasonable "trick-or-treating" was all about.

Sure enough, on or about Dec. 6, or "St. Nicholas Day" as we also had been told, I heard a knock at the door followed by the sound of a melody I had learned when I was a child: "Glo-o-o-o-o-ri-a in excelsis Deo!"

Two German children, each wearing a mask and carrying a colorful container, continued singing after I opened the door. When they finished their serenade it was obvious 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. That was a new twist on trick-or-treating, I thought: the masked ones doing the "treating," too.

Whatever the land or language barrier, Christmas customs are easily 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 time ever since a "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, including our own, 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 Pilgrims arrived in America, the church leaders banned any custom they thought didn't honor the Savior of mankind - including the singing of carols.

We may be astonished at such a decision today, but since carol texts were often set to dance tunes or drinking songs, in the eyes of the church these songs were just too "worldly."

Charles Wesley, the musical half of the founders of Methodism, thought differently. This author of more than 6,000 hymns, some composed while he and his brother John were ministering in colonial Georgia, believed every Biblical theme should be set to music. Wesley's 1739 contribution to making carol-singing respectable again was the still-beloved, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

It would take another century for Wesley's 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 everyone else.

As other hymn writers also discovered, the first Christmas carols were inspired by the angels who announced the birth of Jesus, and sung for centuries before the rowdiness and the banning took over. "Angels We Have Heard on High," the carol my young German visitors sang for me, was sung centuries ago when shepherds in the mountains of southern France called to each other from hilltop to hilltop on Christmas Eve with their own settings of, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo."

We can also thank the devout English newspaperman, James Montgomery, who was imprisoned twice for his strong, anti-church hierarchy views, for writing the companion carol, "Angels from the Realms of Glory."

America and much of the world might be at war today. Some folks are enduring economic hardship or religious persecution, and few may know anything about music composition.

But thanks to undaunted writers and musicians of the past and singers of this present day, the Christmas message is still sung and heard throughout the world from land to land, hilltop to hilltop, and heart to heart.

Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at


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