A Christmas Book Trio

Winter has so many aspects that I love.  While I don’t care for the longer nights and sometimes dreary cold for their own sake, I do appreciate the juxtaposition they create with the indoors.  How cozy wintry weather makes home seem!  I love cuddling up with a book in a warm house with a cup of cocoa when it’s cold outside.  I love the colors of snow, ice, evergreens, holly bushes, migrating birds, and Christmas decorations.  One of my favorite parts of winter is singing and listening to Christmas carols, and I am always tempted to break family tradition and listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, in spite of my sister’s objections.

What truly makes winter wonderful, though, is Christmas and the story of Christ’s birth which we celebrate during this season.  Christmas is a story that mankind has been commemorating since before it even had the name “Christmas” or the date December 25th.  This true story began with Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds and for over two millennia has continued with the young and old, men and women, around the world.  We continue to celebrate it in many ways, from decorations and traditions to music, movies, and books.  And as is my tradition, here are three Christmas books I have discovered over the past year.

A Child's Christmas in Wales

A Child’s Christmas in Wales / Dylan Thomas (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman)

This children’s book is my most recent Christmas discovery.  A Child’s Christmas is essentially a collection of Christmas memories and scenes.  Dylan Thomas writes in a very poetic, stream of consciousness style that is sometimes confusing and at other times creates a vivid picture of what is happening.  The book captures the quirky, unfiltered reality of life at Christmastime in Wales.  However, although I appreciate the realism and the artistry Thomas displays, the content and tone don’t seem to suit a young audience.  While the book is packaged as a children’s story, contains “child” in its title, and follows a child’s perspective of Christmas, I think adults would appreciate the story more because of its complex writing style and nostalgic tone.  That said, I would definitely recommend the book for its art.  Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite children’s illustrators, and her artwork fills the story with character, expertly bringing to life the scenes Dylan Thomas paints with words.

The True Gift

The True Gift / Patricia MacLachlan

Liam and Lily are visiting their Gran and Grandpa for Christmas.  When Liam finds out that their grandparents’ pet cow no longer has her donkey friend, he worries that White Cow will be lonely and sets out to find her a new companion for Christmas.  This story resonates my Christmas memories and family visits in surprising ways.  From making snowmen cookies with red cinnamon buttons to debating how many books to pack for vacation, Liam and Lily’s experiences are funnily similar to my own.  I found this little book charming and hope you do as well!

The Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree / Julie Salamon

What’s your Christmas tree story?  Mine isn’t all that glamorous.  First, my father or brothers climb into the attic and haul down the artificial tree (version 3.0 since I’ve been around).  Then, my mother, siblings, and I shake the dust off the needles (and shake off some needles too) and spread the stiff branches.  After swathing the tree in strings of lights, topping it with an angel, bedecking it with ornaments, and swaddling it in a rug and a pile of presents, the journey is done.

Keeping this in mind, you can imagine my surprise and curiosity when I discovered in The Christmas Tree a story about the journey of perhaps the most famous Christmas tree in the world.  I had never thought much about where the famed Rockefeller Center Christmas tree comes from each year.  But in a beautiful story filled with fascinating characters, sweet illustrations, and Christmas themes, Julie Salamon crafts a delightful Christmas narrative that gives me a whole new perspective on Christmas trees.  I would say more, but it’s been a while since I read the book—and I want you to enjoy it for yourself!

Do you have a favorite Christmas book?  Or have you discovered any new ones this year?  I would love to hear from you in the comments.

The Condescension of God

One does not have to look far during the Christmas season to find images of Christ’s birth: an idyllic scene full of hay, a smiling Mary and Joseph, three wise men with gifts, and friendly looking animals, all surrounding a peacefully sleeping Jesus. This is an amazing image: a king, not coming in power and with a sword, but in abject poverty and humility.

At the core of Christmas we celebrate the great condescension of God himself. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” and again in Philippians 2:6b-8, “Though he [Christ] was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The classic manger scene is a beautiful picture of the humiliation and hope of Christ’s life intertwined: the suffering and death and, ultimately, resurrection in victory.

Whenever reading the account of our Lord’s birth today, let us do so in the context of what a recently imprisoned Chinese pastor said, “The way that Christ resisted the world that resisted him was by extending an olive branch of peace on the cross to the world that crucified him” (Wang Yi, 2018). If in the beauty of the human birth of our Lord we see the depth of his humility, and how he would go on to even greater and more painful sacrifices out of love, then only can we truly begin to grasp the magnitude of that peaceful manger scene and respond as Zechariah did:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people. For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. He has done this to […] remember his holy covenant -the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham. This oath grants that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.” (Luke 1:68-75)

Merry Christmas!


My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience -Wang Yi

Christmas for All Ages

Just as Christmas is a story for the ages, I’ve noticed that the season we have named for Christ’s birth has yielded stories for all ages.  This year, I want to share the six latest Christmas books I have found, some of them Christian and others secular, but all beautiful and special in their own ways.

Christmas in the Barn

Christmas in the Barn / Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by Anna Dewdney)—Brown takes liberties with the original story as she turns it into lyrical poetry, but I found the poetry simple and sweet.  This book would make a good read-aloud.  I think little children will enjoy Brown’s rendition of the story and the quirky animals in Dewdney’s oil illustrations.

The Birds' Christmas Carol

The Birds’ Christmas Carol / Kate Douglas Wiggin—This Christmas story has little to do with actual birds, which is what I went in expecting, most likely because of the cardinals and greenery on the paperback edition my family owns.  Instead, the story is about a little girl who is born on Christmastime and her family.  The Birds’ Christmas Carol is very touching and reminds me of Angel Unaware by Dale Evans Rogers.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street / Karina Yan Glaser—Christmas is only days away, but the Vanderbeekers are more focused on winning over their landlord so they can stay in their townhouse than anticipating Christmas gifts and surprises.  This is a fun children’s novel in the vein of All-of-a-Kind Family books, but with a modern setting.  At first, the book seems like an unconvincing imitation of Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays or similar series.  But as the story progresses, Yan Glaser finds her own voice and characters, and the book establishes its own place in children’s literature.

Christmas Fairy Tales

Christmas Fairy Tales / Selected by Neil Philip (illustrated by Isabelle Brent)—These twelve Christmas tales include new renditions of popular stories like “The Nutcracker” as well as a few I had never encountered before.  Overall, I liked the selection and retellings.  Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Last Dream of the Old Oak” is especially beautiful, both in its illustrations and content.  (Note: The featured image for this article is one of Isabelle Brent’s illustrations.  Her artwork is beautiful and perfect for a collection of fairy tales with its delicate colors and style.)

The Mitford Snowmen and Esther’s Gift by Jan Karon—For fans of Mitford, these two Christmas short stories are sweet and mix the spirit of Christmas and Mitford in a cheerful combination.


Have you found any new Christmas books this year?  Or do you have any longtime favorites?  If so, I would love to hear about them in the comments below.

Which Once the Angel Sang

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

To get straight to the point, I never much cared for the carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” It wasn’t as boisterous as “Joy to the World” or “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” and it lacked the sweetness of “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” and the fond personal memories I associate with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” In contrast, that supposedly clear midnight was just an overly peaceful-sounding tune about pretty angels warbling, and not nearly up to the caliber of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” I thought. Perhaps, when I am feeling contrary – which admittedly is quite often – I could still say the same of that first verse. But now, a bit older than when I first formed these opinions, I have grown to appreciate what the second verse says.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

If I manage to time this post correctly, it will appear on Tuesday, December 26th, otherwise known as the day after Christmas. It’s the start of that awkward time, that stretch of four days between Christmas itself and the day of New Year’s Eve. Of course, this is contingent on you celebrating Christmas on the day itself, which not everyone does. You may have celebrated in the days before, or your familial gathering has yet to come. Or perhaps it has come, and now you lament the end of this most wonderful time of year, and fear the return to the babel sounds of the common year. Or perhaps a Christmas will not come at all, and for you the holidays might be one of those sad and lowly plains.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

If that particular verse doesn’t ring any bells (Christmas half-pun intended), it’s because it may have been omitted from your hymnal, for reasons I’m not able to explain. Space, perhaps, or maybe whoever first made that decision found this verse just a little too melancholy. Two thousand years of wrong, two thousand years of war, and counting. We like to act like Christmas is the finale of the year, and we don’t always like to talk of what lies beyond, just yet.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

Some cursory reading on Wikipedia and another less-than-well-cited web page says that the author, a clergyman by the name of Edmund Sears, wrote this song in the twilight of 1849, following the United States’ war with Mexico and news of strife in Europe. He saw these conflicts as the result of man’s failure to heed the Christmas message. Sears would go on to live through the upcoming Civil War, and I can’t help but think, a bit cruelly, that he hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. But, perhaps he knew that, for he does not stop in the now, but looks forward to the hereafter.

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Of course, to state the obvious, we live in the now. And now is the day after Christmas, when, for many, the real world begins to creep back. If I could quibble with the author a little more, it might be that this “song” he speaks of, this message whose absence he lamented, does not belong exclusively to Christmas. Christmas may give us a reminder and a chance to stop, rest by the weary road, and remember the beautiful angel and his song. But then, through the rest of the year, we must send onward the song, as best we may, which once this angel sang.

A Children’s Christmas

As in previous years, I’ve compiled a list of the latest Christmas books I’ve discovered.  This year, they’re all children’s books, but I think even older audiences will find them fun.  Happy reading, and Merry Christmas!

Christmas TapestryPatricia Polacco’s Christmas Tapestry is a touching story that highlights the wonders of God’s designs as he uses people, places, and events to bring about his will.

On Christmas EveOn Christmas Eve by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Nancy Edwards Calder is a beautiful word picture, even though it isn’t strictly speaking a poem.  Brown details a brief scene on Christmas Eve as curious children tiptoe through their house.  Her descriptions are well-chosen and breathe life into the scene, and in this book, the words enhance the story even more than the pictures.

The Christmas StoryAn unusual type of picture book, The Christmas Story by Robert Sabuda contains some amazing pop-ups accompanying paraphrased Nativity passages (see the featured image of this post for an example of one of the illustrations).

Stopping by WoodsRobert Frost’s famous winter poem comes to life with Susan Jeffers’ lovely illustrations in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  While some people might argue that pictures are superfluous because of the descriptive nature of poetry, I think artwork like Susan Jeffers’ in this picture book enhances the poem and offers a new viewpoint on how one might imagine the scenes the poem portrays.

A Northern Nativity

In A Northern Nativity by William Kurelek, 12-year-old William dreams of what it would be like if the Holy Family came here and now (in the 1930s).  Would people recognize Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and if so, would strangers welcome them or refuse to help them?  By placing the Holy Family in unexpected contexts across North America, Kurelek teaches his audience about Christ and the Bible.  He also reminds readers of the far-reaching extent of Christmas and the good news it proclaims to all people of every race in every time and place.

An Unlikely Lineage

Genealogies form some of the hardest passages of the Bible to appreciate.  For a long time, I saw them as boring lists of hard-to-pronounce names that I would have to struggle through when my family took turns reading Scripture aloud.  Then, during my pastor’s sermon series on Genesis, I began to realize the meaning and value of these recitations.  Just like the rest of God’s Word, genealogies point to Christ and the Gospel.  In particular, God’s grace and providence shine forth in Jesus’ unlikely lineage as described in Matthew 1:1-17.

Many names stand out in Matthew 1, and Jesus’ genealogy is indisputably full of faithful, godly, and kingly men.  Nevertheless, it is also a list of sinners and people with surprising backgrounds.  Abraham lied out of fear (Genesis 12:10-19; Genesis 20:1-2), and his sons Isaac and Jacob showed favoritism toward their children and tried to override or control God’s plans (Genesis 30:37-43).  Judah committed incest with his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, and their son Perez was the ancestor of Boaz.  Boaz’s mother Rahab was a Canaanite and former prostitute, yet her faith led her to help and then join with God’s people.  Boaz’s wife Ruth was a Moabite; however, she faithfully stayed with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi and made Israel her home.  David committed adultery and murdered Uriah, yet his son by Uriah’s wife became part of the lineage of Christ.  The books of Kings and Chronicles detail the lives of Solomon and his descendants, the best of whom were imperfect and the worst of whom committed abominable deeds.

While focusing on the worst aspects of these Biblical characters’ lives paints a dark and disheartening picture of sin, I see in it hope and grace.  Christ came to save sinners just like these people.  Their stories of brokenness remind us why they and we need redemption, why Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection are necessary.  This lineage also reminds us of the mightiness of God, who chooses to use sin-broken men and women to accomplish his purposes, and who can use what is meant for evil to accomplish good (Genesis 50:20).  Studying Christ’s genealogy reminds me of 1 Corinthians 1:26-28, where Paul writes, “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:  But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise…And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.”

Christians are part of a mighty throng of people, full of faith, sin, strengths, and weaknesses, who needed their divine descendant and his redemptive work just as much as the rest of the world needs him.  Deeper comprehension of the reality and weightiness of sin is not something we should shy away from, for the more we realize the darkness of the world, the more we grow in our appreciation of what the LORD has done.  Only once we acknowledge the darkness in which we walk, will we recognize our need for the Light.  As we read of Jesus’ birth, let us not pass over his lineage and its redemptive message.  As we burn candles and light Christmas trees, may these be reminders of the Messiah who declared himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and let us also remember Zechariah’s words: “The dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79) and “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (1:68-69).


Works Cited

The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: Oxford Edition: 1769; King James Bible Online, 2008. http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/.

On the Incarnation

In keeping with previous years, I am writing a book review for Christmas.  This time, however, the book is not a children’s story, picture book, or short story.  Nor does the book’s connection to Christmas come from festive illustrations or folk tales.  Instead, this book’s examination of the basics of Christology and the incarnation is what makes it fitting for Christmas.

When I think of the works of early theologians from Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin, I imagine dry old tomes that will put me to sleep.  To my surprise, though, when I sat down to read On the Incarnation by the 4th century theologian Athanasius of Alexandria, I found a book that is both short and straightforward.

on-the-incarnation-coverOn the Incarnation explores the fundamentals of creation, the fall, Christ’s incarnation, and the redemption he accomplished.  Athanasius reminds his readers of the simple truths that have become muddled in the centuries since he wrote.  This book contains many lessons for the modern world.  In addition to overviewing important doctrines, the book also inadvertently shows how easily people forget lessons and repeat mistakes.  For example, some disputes which Athanasius discusses and which the church resolved in its early ecumenical councils have reappeared in recent decades under new names.

Reading On the Incarnation gives one perspective on Athanasius’ times and on the present day.  As C. S. Lewis writes in his introduction to On the Incarnation, “Every age has its outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books” (2-3).

On the Incarnation is an excellent book for any season, but it is especially appropriate as we ponder Immanuel’s birth during Christmas.  In addition to recommending the book itself, I recommend reading an edition that includes the introduction by C. S. Lewis, for Lewis provides helpful comments about On the Incarnation and thoughtful insights about the importance of reading old books.

Works Cited

C. S. Lewis.  Introduction.  On the Incarnation, by Athanasius of Alexandria.  Fig, 2012, pp. 1-7.

For the Bleak Midwinter

The following article is a Christmas installment of Caroline Bennett’s music series.  Some earlier articles include “The Poet of Music” and “Fantasia on Ralph Vaughn Williams.”

Nativity Ornament

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”—Luke 2: 13-14 (ESV)

One of the best parts of the Christmas season is the music. Because so many carols, hymns, and songs have been written about Christ’s birth, it’s almost impossible to enjoy them all before Christmas is over. My family has a vast collection of Christmas albums, and every year directly after Thanksgiving we get them out and start listening to them. All of the CDs are different, and all have their special places in our hearts, for the amazing thing about Christmas songs is that they can be of all styles and moods, and yet all tell the same wonderful story.

christmas-starIf you are in the mood for choral music, John Rutter and Robert Shaw have recorded many Christmas albums. One of Rutter’s best recordings is Christmas Star, which features the Cambridge Singers and Orchestra performing much loved hymns like “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “All My Heart This Night Rejoices,” and “Joy To the World,” as well as lesser known songs like “’Twas in the Moon of Winter Time,” and  “O Little One Sweet.” Robert Shaw’s A Festival of Carols has many of the same songs as Christmas Star, but the arrangements and overall sound are completely different, oftentimes more dramatic. A Festival of Carols features a number of medleys, allowing the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra to squeeze as many carols onto the album as possible.

angels-gloryFor a simpler but equally beautiful compilation of Christmas songs, listen to Angels’ Glory, a collaboration between soprano Kathleen Battle and guitarist Christopher Parkening. The album features many different pieces, ranging from spirituals to Spanish and French carols to lullabies to traditional hymns. Kathleen Battle also performs on A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert, a live performance given in 1991 by soprano Frederica von Stade, trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, conductor Andre Previn, two choirs, a jazz septet, and an orchestra. The album features numbers like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Evening Prayer,” “Maria Weigenleid,” “Winter Wonderland,” and medleys of Christmas spirituals and traditional carols.

Josh Groban’s Noël features much of the typical Christmas fare— “Ave Maria,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “The Christmas Song,” “The First Noel,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”—but the soaring, luscious arrangements featuring the piano, orchestra, guitar, and choirs, along with Groban’s voice, make these well-known pieces fresh and new. Even “Silent Night,” a piece every recording artist performs at some point, stands apart on this album due to its exquisite arrangement.

behold-the-lamb-of-godBut even fresh arrangements of standard Christmas songs can’t get you all the way through the month of December. Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson is an album of twelve songs, and only three of them are traditional carols; all the rest are original compositions by Peterson. That’s not what sets this album apart, however. From the opening song to the closing, Peterson tells the wonderful story of how God redeemed his people by sending his Son to be born of a woman. Through songs like “Passover Us,” and “Deliver Us,” Peterson shows how Israel’s exodus from Egypt was a picture of how God frees his people from sin; in “So Long, Moses,” Peterson reminds listeners that God raised up many leaders for his people, but none could compare with the Christ; “Matthew’s Begats” is a fun way to learn Jesus’ genealogy; “Labor of Love” is a tender song showing how the night of Jesus’ birth was not as idyllic as we would like to think; “Behold the Lamb of God” declares the glorious hope sinners have in the Messiah.

a-harp-noelThe lyrics for the songs on Behold the Lamb of God make the album very powerful, but sometimes we need more relaxing, contemplative music. That’s where Carol McClure’s A Harp Noel and Susan Beisner’s Silent Word come into the picture. McClure’s arrangements of classic Christmas hymns are beautifully soothing, and she uses the harp’s wide range of sounds and techniques to full advantage. Susan Beisner performs eleven complex piano arrangements of hymns on Silent Word, beautifully interpreting pieces like “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” and creating medleys of well-known carols such as “Away in a Manger” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

There are many Christmas albums out there, but I find that every time December rolls around these are the ones I listen to the most often. Some of them are rather nostalgic, for I have listened to them all my life; others are new favorites due to their originality and beauty. But these eight albums are so much more than just pretty music. They tell a wonderful, deep story that makes the bleakest winter day a day to rejoice.

 

RECOMMENDED LISTENING:

♪Battle, Kathleen and Christopher Parkening. Angels’ Glory. Sony Classics, 1996.

♪Beisner, Susan. Silent Word. Parnassum Music, 2006.

♪Groban, Josh. Noël. Reprise Records, 2007.

♪McClure, Carol. A Harp Noel. Coventry Music, 2001.

♪Peterson, Andrew. Behold the Lamb of God. Word Entertainment, 2004.

♪Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra. A Festival of Carols. RCA Gold Label, 1987.

♪Rutter, John and the Cambridge Singers. Christmas Star. Collegium Records, 1997.

♪Von Stade, Frederica, Kathleen Battle, and Wynton Marsalis. A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert. Sony Classical, 1992.

Fantasia on Ralph Vaughan Williams

This week, Caroline Bennett introduces another talented British composer and his music.  Like John Rutter, whom Caroline Bennett discussed in last month’s article, this composer created famous hymn and Christmas carol arrangements, but he is perhaps better known for his compositions based on English folk songs.

ralph-vaughan-williams

“The duty of the words is to say just as much as the music has left unsaid and no more.”—Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1902

Born on October 12, 1872, in Gloucestershire, England, Ralph Vaughan Williams (pronounced “Rafe Vawn Williams”) is one of the most influential British composers ever to have lived. Though his name may not mean anything to most people, he arranged many of the English folk tunes and Christmas carols people know and cherish today, and he also composed numerous pieces for a variety of instruments.

Like many composers, Vaughan Williams began studying music at an early age, eventually learning how to play the violin, viola, piano, and organ. When he was old enough, Vaughan Williams attended the Royal College of Music as a composition pupil of the prominent composer C. Hubert H. Parry, who instilled in Vaughan Williams a deep love for English music. However, though Vaughan Williams loved composition, his peers declared that he was completely ignorant of how to write music, and Vaughan Williams agreed. Nevertheless, he studied hard, and after attending multiple schools and being taught by many different teachers, he began to master his art.

Vaughan Williams was greatly influenced by three different sources: English folk songs, English hymnody, and English seventeenth-century literature. It is no wonder, then, that he collected many of the forgotten songs of his homeland and turned them into the themes of his many fantasias, symphonies, rhapsodies, and choral works. Two of his most famous compositions are, in fact, “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” and “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” the themes of which are from sixteenth century Britain. Yet Vaughan Williams’ compositions are distinctly his own, despite their uniquely British sounds and themes. He loved to use the swelling sounds of the string orchestra, the lilting arpeggios of the harp, and the sweet notes of the violin, as exhibited in the thrilling violin and orchestra piece “The Lark Ascending,” the moving “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus,’” and his famous “Pastoral Symphony.” Vaughan Williams also wrote a number of works for choirs, such as “A Sea Symphony,” “The Voice Out of the Whirlwind” and “Mass in G Minor.”

oxford-book-of-carolsPerhaps Vaughan Williams’ greatest legacy, however, was his editorship of The English Hymnal, Songs of Praise, and The Oxford Book of Carols. By gathering and arranging hundreds of forgotten hymns, Vaughan Williams preserved part of Christendom’s rich heritage and breathed new life into these songs. The pieces he arranged include “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,”  “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing,” “For All the Saints,” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” to name but a few.

One need only listen to a few of his arrangements or compositions to realize that Ralph Vaughan Williams loved his homeland, for he devoted his life and art to preserving and adding to his nation’s amazing heritage. He renewed the populace’s interest in the traditional songs of England, composed new pieces that were distinctly British, and preserved a vast number of hymns and carols for the use of Christians all over the world.

 

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

♪ Marriner, Neville and Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields. R. Vaughan Williams. Decca, 1985.

Quote from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ralph_Vaughan_Williams.

Gifts

Have you ever considered the gifts of the Magi?  They weren’t practical gifts, and Jesus didn’t need them.  But perhaps that was never the Magi’s intent.  The gold, frankincense, and myrrh were part of the wise men’s homage to the King of kings.  As the Christmas song “Little Drummer Boy” observes, the point of bringing gifts to Christ is to honor him, whether with gold or lambs or a song (“Little Drummer Boy”).  And perhaps some of the best gifts are like this:  not practical or reasonable, but a demonstration of one’s estimation and love of another.  In fact, this is what O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” is about.  Della and Jim value each other more than their greatest treasures, and when they end up losing their two valued possessions because of this devotion, their love is even sweeter and more precious, for they have proven that they prize each other more than any treasure in the world.

Nativity OrnamentMore than two millennia ago, God gave the world its greatest gift:  our Lord Jesus.  To save sinners, God sent his Son to a life of humiliation and lowliness, of temptation and sorrow, of suffering and crucifixion.  By giving up Jesus to death on sinners’ behalf, God demonstrated the greatest act of love the world has ever known, “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Authorized Version, John 3:16).  God’s gift is proof of how much He prizes His people.  Writing to the church in Rome, Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31b-32).

In response to God’s gift, what can Christians give?  Della and Jim sacrificed valued possessions of equal worth for each other, but nothing can equal Christ, and God already owns the universe.  Christina Rossetti’s carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” penetrates to the heart of the matter with these words, “What can I give Him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; / If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; / Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart” (Dearmer 398).  What greater gift can one give in response to God’s love?  All people are poor and sinners, but in Christ they are rich, and in Christ their hearts are made new and alive, ready to be given away.

Works Cited

Dearmer, Percy, R. Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw. The Oxford Book of Carols.  New York City, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1964.

“Little Drummer Boy.”  Carols.org.uk. 18 Nov. 2015 <www.carols.org.uk/little_drummer_boy.htm>

The Holy Bible: Authorized Version.  Cambridge, England:  Cambridge University Press, n.d.  Print.