The Carols of Christmas — from 1776 to 2001

The Christmas season was anything but merry on the Tantramar in 1776. During the previous autumn this region had been directly involved in the American Revolution. Although the Eddy Rebellion was over, its impact was still in evidence. A recent snowfall masked the remains of torched homes and farm buildings. These could be found not only along the road to Baie Verte, but throughout the countryside.

Desperation and starvation lined the faces of many homeless refugees (from both sides) who were huddled in Fort Beausjour; now renamed Fort Cumberland. Here there was some relief from the chilling winter winds, sweeping the marshlands.

Within the fort, a room had been renovated to serve as garrison chapel. However, it is unlikely that it witnessed any services on Christmas Day 1776. A few weeks earlier, the often inebriated chaplain, Rev. John Eagleson, had foolishly allowed himself to be be captured by the rebel forces in their raid on Cumberland Creek. By Dec. 25th, 1776, Eagleson was languishing in exile in Boston.

Despite all these adverse circumstances, we can be certain that Christmas 1776 did not go unmarked on the Tantramar. It fell on a Wednesday, and one or more Methodist class meetings would certainly be held in the homes of recently arrived settlers from Yorkshire.

Used to worshipping without the benefit of ordained clergy, the reading of appropriate sections of St. Lukes Gospel, followed by prayer and personal testimony would take place. Before a final admonition by the class leader, an uplifting hymn sing including at least one well known carol, would ring out over the marsh. Written by Charles Wesley (170788) in 1739, we know it today as Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

The original title was: Hark how all the Welkin [heaven] rings, Glory to the King of Kings. A new first line and title were suggested in 1753 by John Whitfield (171470) an early Wesleyan associate. The carol resulted from a Christmas morning walk through the streets of London by Charles Wesley. Along the way, he became inspired by the joyous pealing of hundreds of church bells.

Todays tune is more recent and dates from 1841. Dr. W.H. Cummings, then organist at Waltham Abbey, north of London, adapted the words by Wesley to a noble and spirited chorale composed by Felix Mendelsshon (1809–47). Even today, no Christmas service on the Tantramar would be complete without this familiar carol.

Peter Tiefenbach of CBC Radio Two has commented on the Methodist heritage in music. It is his belief that carol singing [which had suffered an eclipse in the 18th century], was rescued courtesy of the Wesley brothers, who brought congregational singing to their new religious movement.

In the formative years of Methodism, both in Britain and the Maritimes, chapels or churches were few in number. John Wesleys answer was to assemble a group of singers in a central location, such as a town square. Following a vigorous round of hymn singing a crowd would gather and then Wesley the preacher would take over. These hymns, written largely by his brother Charles became, according to Tiefenbach the folk songs of evangelism.

In 1999 the British Postal Service recognized this Methodist legacy by issuing an attractive 19 pence Christmas stamp. (See illustration.) Fittingly, the stamp marked the contribution of both Wesley brothers to the evangelical tradition. The stamp was the work of artist Brody Neuenschwander, a native of Houston Texas, who now lives in Belgium.

His design incorporated a mixture of written text and images; and highlighted Charles Wesleys Hark The Herald Angels Sing. As part of his research, the artist visited John Wesleys chapel in London as well as the Wesley Seminary in Bristol. One of the chapels stained glass windows served as inspiration for the left hand corner of the stamp. According to Neuenschwander it reminded [him] of stained glass in the Methodist Church in Houston. Fragments of a hymnal page and a letter from John to Charles Wesley were also included.

In the beginning carols were not only sung, they were danced. The word carol is of ancient origin and may be traced to the Greek choros– a kind of round dance. Eventually, it filtered through various Western European languages, including the Breton French karoll which meant a ring dance accompanied by song. The oldest English caroll dates from about 1410. English literature over succeeding centuries abounds in references to both carols and caroling; including several examples in the works of Shakespeare.

Christmas carols are an important part of our musical heritage. Especially is this true in 2001 as they help bring light to a dark and divided world. Unfortunately many carols (thanks to tasteless promotions in shopping malls) are sung without much thought. While there will always be a place for: O Come All Ye Faithful, While Shepherds Watched and the incomparable Silent Night; we should be open to more recent works and to new versions of older carols.

A personal favourite and one that fits this latter category is A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten (1913–76). This matchless choral work has an interesting link with Canada.

During the first part of the Second World War, Britten was living in the United States. Deciding to return home in 1942, he took passage on a neutral Swedish freighter. On a stopover in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten came across an anthology of mediaeval carols and hymns. Entitled The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. Most of its anonymous songs dated from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Over the remainder of the trans-Atlantic voyage that lasted nearly a month, Britten completed the score for A Ceremony Of Carols. The premire took place in Wigmore Hall, London on Dec. 4, 1943. Ever since, its hauntingly beautiful music has been enjoyed around the world. It all began in Halifax…

Among the many local carol related events of the 2001 season, were two with a historical emphasis. At the Westford Historical Societys Open House on Dec. 2nd at the Monro Heritage Centre in Port Elgin, an old fashioned carol sing was featured. In like fashion, historic Trinity Anglican Church in Dorchester was the setting for the Westmorland Historical Societys annual Carol Sing on Dec. 15th. Charles Wesley would have approved! Check this issue of the Trib for notices of other carol services in the days leading up to Dec. 25, 2001.

Midst the uncertainty and atrocities of todays world, the caroling message: Peace on the Earth and Goodwill to All… rings true for everyone, irrespective of ethnic or religious background. A Happy Holiday Season to all readers!