LIKE In the Bleak Midwinter, this carol is set in a fantasy Bethlehem with a British climate, instead of the mild Mediterranean temperatures the village actually enjoys. The singer Aled Jones has commented that the snow is an image of purity in the world’s sins.
The words were written by Edward Caswall (1814–1878). He was born in Yateley, Hampshire, the son of an Anglican clergyman. He was ordained priest in 1839 and was curate of St Lawrence at Stratford-sub-Castle near Salisbury from 1840 to 1847. In the summer of 1846 he and his wife Louisa visited Ireland with his brother Tom, who had converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Presumably as a result of that visit, Caswall resigned his C of E post and was received into the Catholic Church in Rome in 1847. He was ordained priest in 1852. His conversion caused a rift in his family and he was estranged from his mother.
He wrote See Amid the Winter’s Snow soon after becoming a Catholic priest and it was published in 1858 as part of his collection The Masque of Mary and Other Poems.
The melody was written specifically for the poem by Sir John Goss (1800 – 1880), organist of St Paul’s Cathedral. Among his other compositions is Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven. He was also professor of harmony at the Royal Academy of Music, where one of his pupils was Arthur Sullivan. Goss wrote the tune in 1871 and it was published the same year in Christmas Carols Old and New. He was knighted the following year.
Here is an audio-only performance by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, but I was very taken with this version by a small group of American singers with a lute accompaniment.
They follow See Amid the Winter’s Snow with the Sussex Carol, so that is today’s bonus track.
The words of the Sussex Carol, sometimes referred to by its first line ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing’, were first published in 1684 by Luke Wadding, a 17th-century Irish bishop, in a work delightfully titled Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs. It is not clear whether Wadding wrote the song or was recording an earlier composition.
It is generally sung to a tune discovered by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who heard both words and music sung by Mrs Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex (hence ‘Sussex Carol’). He used the melody in his 1912 Fantasia on Christmas Carols, and his choral arrangement was published in 1919.
Here is a 2009 performance by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, in an arrangement by their former director Philip Ledger.