Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Norwegian: Midt I hårdest vinter
Text: Christina Georgina Rosetti (1830-1894) Tune: Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
1. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
2. Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; Heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
3.. Enough for Him, whom Cherubim worship night and day, A breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay; Enough for Him, whom angels fall down before, The ox and ass and camel which adore.
4. Angels and archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; But his mother only, in her maiden bliss, Worshiped the beloved with a kiss.
5. 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. MEDITATION Sometimes good poetry is too good for a tune. Goethe was said to dislike Schubert’s settings of his poems because they overshadowed his texts. While hymns are poetry, they do not often rise to the greatness of this poem, at least in English.
This hymn with its rich imagery of Christmas in the hard snowy winter attracts singers with its concrete detail--even the third stanza which has been left out in most versions. Why I am not sure, it is vivid. Critics say that there was no snow in Bethlehem, or that her hyperbole about heaven not being able to hold God is theologically wrong. This is to take the wrong set of metrics to poetry. The Breugel painting gives us the bleak midwinter with Mary and Joseph making their way into Bethlehem--something his viewers expected not really knowing much about the weather in the Middle East. Likewise, Rosetti, like a good preacher, puts the birth of Jesus in the experience of people in the north when it is winter. In it she illustrates what Brorson noted yesterday—Jesus came into a world of briars and brambles, or what T. S. Eliot would say in "The Journey of the Magi," “A cold coming we had of it/just the worst time of the year.”
Whether one is talking about the Christmas story with images of the North, the tropics, or the south, as Shirley Erna Murray does in her hymn about Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere, “Upside Down Christmas,” the story needs to show what it meant for divinity to enter into human life in the region we know. That accounts for most of the wonder of the season. God did this? Where? In a manger? A simple maiden giving birth and nursing God? For us? Well then, we better sing praise.
Every Christmas when I was at Augsburg my English teacher Anne Pederson would read Christmas poetry for chapel. Eliot's "The Journey of the Magi" was my favorite. When she got near the ending in her crisp almost English accent, she would beat a soft rhythm on the podium with her index finger, “Set down this, Set down this. Were we led all that way for a Birth or a Death? I had seen birth and death but thought they were different. This birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.”
From there the speaker goes on to say that having seen this birth, which was for them a death, everything was changed. And so it is. The Savior came to us in a bleak place and time. It marks an end to our own visions of the future and replaces them with something we could not imagine in our wildest imaginations: A God becomes a baby for us to give us all that he had. Forever. For this, all we can give him is our hearts. It is all he wants.
Christina Rosetti, one of the most highly regarded women poets in England at her time, was a devout Christian, a part of the Anglo-Catholic revival of the 19th century in England. Born into a family of Italian refugees, she learned to cherish Dante and the Italian literature her father loved. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, was a leading figure in the artistic movement know as the Pre-Raphaelites. He used her as a model in several of his most famous paintings. Well known for her poetry by the time she was 31, she continued writing throughout her life: well-regarded poems for children, hymns, and other religious poems and works. She famously turned down marriage with a man she loved because he had become a Roman Catholic. She refused two other proposals. After the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she became known as the woman poet in England. Another poem, "Love Came Down at Christmas," has achieved some fame as a Christmas carol, plus her wonderful poem, “When I am dead, my dearest, sing no sad song for me.”
Gustav Holst found the poem and set it for the English hymnal edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer. Through that it became one of the most beloved carols from the 20th century English tradition. LINKS The Cambridge King’s College version https://youtu.be/U0aL9rKJPr4
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir https://youtu.be/OB2bCpROFv8
Nidaros Boy choir https://youtu.be/QftonrzHAi8
James Taylor/contemporary folk version of tune https://youtu.be/6qmtO6cebcU
Folk version in Norwegian https://youtu.be/jAn_aGXqRwA
HERE WE COME A-WASSAILING
This carol describes the custom of caroling throughout the neighborhood. These traditions continue to be part of Christmas tide. The Nordic tradition of Julebukking when people would dress up and visit the neighbors who would have to guess who they were or supply them with spirits or some other less strong treats lived on in this country. My mother well remembered the custom from her childhood in Western Minnesota absent the spirits. Note the concern for the neighbors and the poor.
1. Here we come a-wassailing Among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wand'ring So fair to be seen.
R/ Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year And God send you a Happy New Year.
2. Our wassail cup is made Of the rosemary tree, And so is your beer Of the best barley. R/ 3. We are not daily beggars That beg from door to door; But we are neighbors' children, Whom you have seen before. R/
4. Call up the butler of this house, Put on his golden ring. Let him bring us up a glass of beer, And better we shall sing. R/ 5. We have got a little purse Of stretching leather skin; We want a little of your money To line it well within. R/ 6. Bring us out a table And spread it with a cloth; Bring us out a mouldy cheese, And some of your Christmas loaf. R/ 7. God bless the master of this house Likewise the mistress too, And all the little children That round the table go.
8. Good master and good mistress, While you're sitting by the fire, Pray think of us poor children Who are wandering in the mire. R/ LINKS
John Rutter's Arrangement with the Clare College Singers and Orchestra
Celtic version https://youtu.be/Z5tD-cjZUpI