At carol services in cathedrals and churches across these islands, the celebration of Christmas Eve truly begins with the well-loved carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, often with a boy chorister singing the opening stanza as an unaccompanied solo.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth in Dublin of the author of this hymn, Cecil Frances Alexander, who first published this all-time Christmas favourite in 1848 in her collection, Hymns for Little Children.
The author of more than 400 hymns, she was born at 25 Eccles Street, Dublin, in 1818. Her early work was strongly influenced by John Keble and the Oxford Movement, as was her husband, William Alexander, who later became Bishop of Derry and then Archbishop of Armagh.
This year, it is also 100 years since the ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’ in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, began with this opening hymn as a Christmas Eve service in 1918.
This Christmas Eve service was introduced just weeks after the end of the first World War by Eric Milner-White, a highly decorated former army chaplain, as a response to the still-echoing clamours of war.
A story of rejection and poverty
This carol and this service have been broadcast by the BBC almost without fail since 1928, and the carol was the first recording made by the King's College Choir, 70 years ago, in 1948. Today, it remains the opening message of Christmas Eve, when it is broadcast live from Cambridge by the BBC Radio 4 and from St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, by RTÉ.
Despite the glitz and the glamour, the shopping and the over-spending, this carol is a reminder that the first Christmas is a story of rejection and poverty. It is the story of a family forcibly made homeless by officialdom, the story of a child who is born in poverty and humility in a “lowly cattle shed”, and who grows up to live “with the poor, and mean and lowly”.
It is the story of a family forced into exile and to cross borders in the eastern Mediterranean because of cruel and capricious political leaders.
The Christ of this carol, who is “weak and helpless”, even when he becomes an adult, is a counter-cultural challenge to leaders who assert they are “strong and stable”.
The Christ who is at one with those in “sadness” has more in common with migrants and refugees than those who build walls and barriers to exclude them.
For many, this carol remains a reminder that love and goodness are rare and wonderful gifts, and for many to hear this message on RTÉ or BBC this afternoon still marks the true beginning of Christmas.
This year also marks the bicentenary of another favourite carol that retains its affection among people with nostalgic longings for an old-style Christmas. 'Silent Night' (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) was written 200 years ago by a young Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, and set to music by a local schoolteacher and organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, for the Christmas Eve Mass in 1818 in their village near Salzburg.
When the guns fell silent
The lyrics of Stille Nacht were becoming popular globally in their German original when they were translated into the best-known English version in 1859 by John Freeman Young, later Bishop of Florida.
A second translation that never gained the same level of popularity, 'Still the night, holy night', was written by an Irish-born Anglican priest, Stopford Augustus Brooke, a poet and graduate of Trinity College Dublin who was born near Letterkenny, Co Donegal.
It would be simplistic to dismiss the lyrics of this carol and its authors as pious and sentimental. But Mohr was born in poverty and died penniless, having given away any money he had earned to care for the elderly and to help the education of poor children. Young expended his energies combatting racism and prejudice in Florida in the aftermath of the American Civil War. And Brooke, a cousin of the nationalist historian Alice Stopford-Green, used his position in English society to promote the values of Irish literature.
This carol became so popular in both English and German that when the guns fell silent in the trenches on Christmas Eve 1914, the German troops sang out Father Mohr’s Stille Nacht, and the British and Irish troops responded with Bishop Young’s Silent Night.
The story has been moved to the following year by Cormac MacConnell in his song 'A Silent Night Christmas 1915'. Today, the "glories" that "stream from heaven afar" on that first Christmas night proclaim a peace that is radically different to the aggressive bellicose tweets that emanate from the White House night after night.
This song, and the carol it is based on, are reminders that the message of peace at Christmas can still the sounds of guns and silence the calls to war:
Sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.