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Ordinary Time 2017

06 January 2014
hymns - Christmas, uncommon, part 6

Christmastide has just come to end. And what better time to complete our look at the Christmas hymns in The Hymnal 1982? In particular, we will be looking at the less commonly sung hymns in the Christmas section. You may wish to start back at the beginning with part 1 of this series. There is also part 2 (hymns that score a 9 or a 10), part 3 (hymns that score a 6, 7, or 8), part 4 (hymns that score a 4 or a 5), or part 5 (hymns that score a 2 or a 3).

We're using a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the least popular and 10 being the most popular. Here, in this last installment, we discuss those hymns that are truly the most uncommon in American Episcopal services: hymns that score only a 1 on the popularity scale.

Area 1: The most uncommon

I truly have never sung these, and I do not yet know of any parishes that have sung them.

Conclusions

As is true of any slice of hymnody the full history of all these hymns is very rich. I'm more interested here in a reception history, which is a difficult thing to know without more data. I can only really speak to my personal experience with and impressions I have gained about this repertoire working as an Episcopal church musician for about a decade or so.

As someone who grew up outside of the Episcopal Church, I have surely missed some classic usages of these hymns. I am grateful for parishioners at a parish I served previously who alerted me to their fondness for "The snow lay on the ground". And since beginning this serial, I have learned more about historic usages of "Christians, awake, salute the happy morn", and "Sing, O sing, that blessed morn" on Christmas Day in various places. I still believe that these latter two hymns are falling out of favor -- and part of this may be the declining attendance at Christmas Day liturgies in many parishes.

There is a certain cultural weight with many of these hymns, some of them dating back for several centuries or more. Their inclusion in The Hymnal 1982 speaks to their worth, whether they are currently in rotation in a particular parish or not.

As with any portion of any hymnal, there are some hymns in this section that are not destined for a long life. And if certain of these hymns remain very uncommon in our liturgies for a long time it would be expected that they drop out of the next Episcopal hymnal -- if there even is such a thing, but that is another conversation for another time.

But we must be grateful to the '82 Hymnal committee for taking risks alongside those hymns that "must" be included. Our sacred musical life is much enriched, in my opinion, by the inclusion of "A stable lamp is lighted."

We must also thank them for including what we should know but have forgotten, like the simple joys of singing "Christians, awake, salute the happy morn" on Christmas Day, which I will seriously consider for the next 11 months as I work to plan music for Christmas 2014.

There are two interesting shifts that occurred in moving the Episcopal Christmas hymnody from The Hymnal 1940 to The Hymnal 1982:

Firstly, I wonder what psychological impact the "First Tune" and "Second Tune" distinction has in terms of a Christmas hymn's reception history. With the previous hymnal hymn singers could say regarding "It came upon the midnight clear", "Oh yes, I do like to sing Hymn 19. We use the Second Tune in my parish." In the present hymnal there is a dividing line between the two tunes. Today's Episcopalian might say, "Hymn 89 is a favorite of mine," and have no idea that the subsequent hymn in the book is very intimately related, and in fact, might be a pleasing alternative!

Secondly, it seems that the distinction between "Christmas" and "Christmas Carols" made in The Hymnal 1940 is of interest. In this study, I have referred to everything in the Christmas portion of the 1982 hymnal as a "hymn", but we could still make the same distinction that the 1940 makes. This may be of some limited value, but it may also be irrelevant. Still, there are certain portions of the liturgy that clearly call for a "hymn", and others where "carols" would be more welcome.

Finally, it is very interesting to note, from a somewhat longer view provided by this study, the increasing calcification surrounding our Christmas hymnody.

This trend is not surprising given three factors: a precipitous decline in music education, the loss of recreational singing in our culture, and steadily declining numbers in the Episcopal church, both adherents and more so at the Average Sunday Morning. As musical knowledge and ability decreases in our culture, so does the ability to differentiate specific repertories: the shopping mall, the Christian denomination, the local parish church. Where "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" used to be sung to any number of tunes, circumstances have conspired to limit it to one (rather bland) tune.

Tradition speaks out with much greater force at the Church's principal feast days, and Christmas is no exception. The tradition of our Christmas hymnody, however, has been much more fluid than I think many people realize. With the advent of recorded music and a force-fed "secular soundtrack" to a "Christmas season" which begins the week after Halloween and terminates some time around 11:30 a.m. on Christmas Day, it is harder to create the kind of sonic and theological space that our Christmas hymnody used to enjoy.

Anyways, I'd love to chat more about this. Please do weigh in if you have thoughts. I'm going to think a lot more about these uncommon hymns, and this proposed ranking of hymn popularity as a whole. It probably all deserves a second look, sometime around Christmas 2023, perhaps.

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Comments:
A few years ago, I commissioned a new hymn for Christmas. I was discouraged from doing this by someone I greatly admire. He felt that people didn't want to learn "new" hymns for Christmas, but wanted to sing the ones they already knew. However, our congregation really took to it. Last summer I did a survey inviting people to vote for their favorite hymns, and that "new" Christmas hymn received lots of votes. It wasn't the most popular, but it got enough votes to indicate that people are more open than not.
 
I've enjoyed this thoroughly, David. Not sure what that's worth, coming from a parish musician who annually selects #88 for the Christmas Day liturgy. :)
 

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