This carol’s beautiful words are thrilling even without the music. Which is just as well, since it’s from the 4-CD set “A Celebration of Christmas: Carols through the Ages” by the Alfred Deller Consort, which I can’t find on the web anywhere. If you find it, don’t let it slip away. It has dozens of lovely songs, many English carols as well as medieval Christmas motets and chants.

People, Look East

People, look East, the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth, and set the table.
People, look East, and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on His way.

Furrows, be glad, though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look East, and sing today:
Love, the Rose, is on His way.

Birds, though ye long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen,
He for fledging-time has chosen.
People, look East, and sing today:
Love, the Bird, is on His way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim,
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look East, and sing today:
Love, the Star, is on His way.

Angels, announce to man and beast
Him who cometh from the East.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look East, and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on His way.

Today we tend to think of the West as the location of happiness and salvation. The “West” is the stronghold of freedom and democracy. In Celtic mythology, the Blessed Islands were in the West, as well as Avalon in Arthurian legend, and Atlantis. In Tolkien’s mythology, the men of Westernesse coming from Numenor (a version of Atlantis) were the heroes, and the elves longed to return to their home in the western sea.

But in the Bible, the East is significantly associated with God’s presence. The gate of the Garden of Eden faced the east, where God placed the cherubim with a flaming sword after Adam and Eve were cast out because of their sin. Isaiah 63, referring to Christ, says, “Who is this that cometh from Edom [east of Jerusalem], with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.” And when Jesus, who reconciled us to God, ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives, which is on the east side of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the angels promised his disciples, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) The early church interpreted this to mean that Christ would return from the east, where he ascended; so Orthodox churches are built facing the east, and early Christians used to be buried facing the East, so that they would be ready for the Second Coming.

People, look East, and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on His way.

This is one of my absolutely all-time favorite songs. The words were written in 18th century America, but did not have a tune until they were set to music by Elizabeth Poston in the last century. The melody is light and haunting. It’s often sung in the King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. You can listen to parts of this song and some of the other carols I’ve posted here.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit, and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive:
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

Progressing to a higher level of poetry, back to Elizabethan England: John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XV, which is an amazing compression of Trinitarian and incarnational theology into a tight packet of carefully metered verse. (The apostrophes indicate elided syllables.)

Wilt thou love God, as he thee! then digest,
My Soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by Angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy breast.
The Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne’r begun)
Hath deigned to choose thee by adoption,
Coheir to’his glory,’and Sabbath’s endless rest.
And as a robb’d man, which by search doth find
His stol’n stuff sold, must lose or buy’it again:
The Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom he’had made, and Satan stol’n, to unbind.
‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

Turning from medieval times to relatively recent history: two Christmas poems by G. K. Chesterton. (If I run out of Christmas poems, I’ll just come back and start typing my entire book of Chesterton’s poems in here. . .)


If the stars fell, night’s nameless dreams
Of bliss and blasphemy came true,
If skies were green and snow were gold,
And you loved me as I love you;

O long light hands and curled brown hair,
And eyes where sits a naked soul;
Dare I even then draw near and burn
My fingers in the aureole?

Yes, in the one wise foolish hour
God gives this strange strength to a man.
He can demand, though not deserve,
Where ask he cannot, seize he can.

But once the blood’s wild wedding o’er,
Were not dread his, half dark desire,
To see the Christ-child in the cot,
The Virgin Mary by the fire?
A Christmas Carol

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
BUt here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at him,
And all the stars looked down.

This carol, although written in the 1500s, became popular recently. It’s an enchanting mixture of the Song of Songs and the Christmas story.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance:
           Sing, O my love, my love,
           This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a Virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance;
Thus was I knit to man’s nature,
To call my true love to my dance:
          Sing, O my love, my love,
          This have I done for my true love.

In a manger laid and wrapped I was,
So very poor, this was my chance,
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,
To call my true love to my dance:
          Sing, O my love, my love,
          This have I done for my true love.

Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard from above,
To call my true love to my dance:
          Sing, O my love, my love,
          This have I done for my true love.

Another old English carol. I’m taken with the second line’s expression of the incarnation.

Nowell, nowell, nowell.

Out of your sleep arise and wake,
For God mankind now hath y-take
All of a maid without any make [fault];
Of all women she beareth the bell.

Nowell, nowell, nowell.

Now, blessed Brother, grant us grace,
A’ Domesday to see thy face,
And in thy court to have a place,
That we mow there sing Nowell.

Nowell, nowell, nowell.

This is a fifteenth-century Latin carol, with a tune of the same date. They wrote much sprightlier melodies back then than they do now. 

He whom joyous shepherds praised,
When the angel’s song was raised
Bidding them be not amaz-ed,
Heav’n’s all-glorious King is born.

He whom sages, westward faring,
Myrrh and gold and incense bearing,
Worshipped, bowing low before him,
Reigns as King this happy morning.

Now rejoice with Jesus’ mother;
Praise her newborn son, our brother;
Angels vie with one another,
Praising him beyond the sky.

Sing to Christ, the King who reigneth,
Yet of Mary manhood gaineth,
Born our God; let us adore him:
Glory be to God on high.

As you can tell, I have a good supply of favorite Christmas carols. I wish I could post audio clips of them, because at least half my pleasure is in the tunes. Or perhaps it’s just as well, because if I knew how to do audio, you would have to listen to me singing, and that would be a disaster.

This is a German carol translated by Catherine Winkworth, who translated a great many famous hymns. This one has a delicate tune that matches the short phrases. I include three verses which I just discovered in the Presbyterian hymnbook – a great trove of hitherto unknown hymn verses. Did you know Rock of Ages originally had 24 verses? (No, even this book doesn’t have all of them.)

All my heart this night rejoices
As I hear,
Far and near,
Sweetest angel voices.
“Christ is born,” their choirs are singing,
Till the air
Now with joy is ringing.

Forth today the Conqu’ror goeth,
Who the foe,
Sin and woe,
Death and hell o’erthroweth.
God is man, man to deliver;
His dear Son
Now is one
With our blood forever.

Shall we still dread God’s displeasure,
Who, to save,
Freely gave
His most cherished Treasure?
To redeem us, he hath given
His own Son
From the throne
Of his might in heaven.

He becomes the Lamb that taketh
Sin away
And for aye
Full atonement maketh.
For our life his own he tenders;
And our race
By his grace
Meet for glory renders.

Hark! a voice from yonder manger,
Soft and sweet,
Doth entreat:
“Flee from woe and danger!
Brethren, come! from all doth grieve you,
You are freed;
All you need
I will surely give you.”

Come, then, let us hasten yonder!
Here let all,
Great and small,
Kneel in awe and wonder!
Love him who with love is yearning!
Hail the star
That from far
Bright with hope is burning!

Thee, dear Lord, with heed I’ll cherish;
Live to thee
Dying, never perish;
But abide in life eternal,
Where with thee
I shall be
Filled with joy supernal.

This is the English version of a half-Latin, half-German carol written by a German mystic in the fifteenth century. He supposedly learned the song when some angels came to dance and sing in his room one night. Anyway, it’s sung to the tune of “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” (Latin phrases translated at the end.)

In dulci jubilo, let us our homage show;
Our hearts’ joy reclineth, matris in gremio,
And like a bright star shineth, in praesipio.
Alpha es et O, Alpha es et O.

O patri caritas, o nati lenitas!
Deeply were we stained per nostra crimina,
But thou hast for us gained caelorum gaudia.
O that we were there! O that we were there!

Ubi sunt gaudia, if that they be not there?
There are angels singing nova cantica,
There the bells are ringing in regis curia.
O that we were there! O that we were there!

(In sweet joy; in his mother’s lap; in the manger; you are the Alpha and Omega. . . O love of the father, o gentle/lenient birth; by our sins; the joys of heaven. . . Where are joys; new songs; in the king’s court.)

This song was written in the early 1800s in America. There’s a beautiful rendition of it on the early American music collection, The American Vocalist. It’s number 10 at that link, where you can hear part of it.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star in the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

Cold on his cradle the dewdrops are shining;
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Master of all.

Say, shall we yield him in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom and off’rings divine,
Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest or gold from the mine?

Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration;
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

 Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star in the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

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