Dec 132019

Today is the birthday of Phillips Brooks (1835–1893), an Episcopal priest, who, when he was rector of Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia wrote the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He was inspired by visiting the village of Bethlehem in Israel in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church, and his organist Lewis Redner (1831-1908) added the music.

Redner’s tune, “St. Louis”, is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States. Redner recounted the story of its composition:

As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? I replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.

 My recollection is that Richard McCauley, who then had a bookstore on Chestnut Street west of Thirteenth Street, printed it on leaflets for sale. Rev. Dr. Huntington, rector of All Saints’ Church, Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn and tune book, called The Church Porch, and it was he who christened the music ‘Saint Louis.’

Growing up in England, I knew a completely different tune, which I – mistakenly – thought was the original (because I thought it was an English carol). I am well used to favorite carols having different tunes in England and the US.  I actually prefer the English tune which was composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams and based on an English folk ballad called “The Ploughboy’s Dream” which he had collected from a Mr. Garman of Forest Green, Surrey in 1903. Henry Garman was born in 1830 in Sussex, and in the 1901 census was living in Ockley, Surrey. Vaughan Williams’ manuscript notes he was a “labourer of Forest Green near Ockley – Surrey. (Aged about 60?)”, although Mr Garman would have been nearer 73 when he sang the tune. It is called “Forest Green” now.

When I was a pastor, I frequently sang this as a duet with my late wife at Christmas (with me singing the bass line).

There are also two tunes by H. Walford Davies, called “Wengen”, and “Christmas carol.” “Wengen” was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1922, meanwhile “Christmas Carol” is usually performed only by choirs rather than as a congregational hymn. This is because the first two verses are for treble voices with organ accompaniment, with only the final verse as a chorale/refrain harmony. This setting includes a recitative from the Gospel of Luke at the beginning, and cuts verses 2 and 4 of the original 5-verse carol. This version is often performed at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Kings College, Cambridge.

Here is a Christmas recipe from my own YouTube channel, Juan’s Whirled (so you can hear my voice if this blog is the only way you know me).  It’s my take on mincemeat pie with actual meat in it – as might be prepared centuries ago.  Please subscribe to the channel if you are new to it.


May 262016


Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ), also known as Corpus Domini, a celebration in the Roman Catholic church of the tradition and belief that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are literally present in the elements of bread and wine of the mass once the priest has said the words of institution – a doctrine known as transubstantiation. The feast is liturgically celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. At the end of mass on Corpus Christi in Catholic countries, there is often a procession of the elements, generally displayed in a monstrance.


The institution of Corpus Christi as a feast in the Christian calendar resulted from approximately forty years of effort on the part of Juliana of Liège, a 13th-century Norbertine canoness, also known as Juliana de Cornillon, born in 1191 or 1192 in Liège in Belgium, a city where there were several groups of women dedicated to Eucharistic worship. Guided by priests, they lived together, devoted to prayer and to charitable works. Juliana also petitioned Hugh of St-Cher, and Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liège. At that time bishops could order feasts in their dioceses, so in 1246 Bishop Robert ordered a celebration of Corpus Christi to be held in the diocese each year thereafter on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Hugh of St-Cher traveled to Liège as Cardinal-Legate in 1251 and, finding that the feast was not being observed, reinstated it. In the following year, he established the feast for his whole jurisdiction (Germany, Dacia, Bohemia, and Moravia).

To be blunt, I find the doctrine of transubstantiation ludicrous, and I find the philosophical treatises concerning it even more so. The central question, “how do the elements look exactly the same after the words of institution as before yet have become the literal body and blood of Jesus?” requires a level of mental contortion that borders on the absurd. Theologians end up wondering if the bread and wine are in any sense physically changed, and even if the human digestive system works differently on them. I don’t have time for taking such ideas seriously, but some of the traditions surrounding the feast are of note.


By tradition, Catholics take part in a procession through the streets of a neighborhood near their parish following mass.  The Eucharistic elements are placed in a monstrance and held high by a member of the clergy during the procession. After the procession, parishioners return to the church where the benediction takes place.

The whole notion of transubstantiation is abhorrent to the Protestant tradition and arguments against it figure prominently in Reformation theology. In one of his homilies Martin Luther wrote:

I am to no festival more hostile than this one [Corpus Christi], because it is the most shameful festival. At no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed, than on this day, and particularly by the procession. For then people are treating the Blessed Sacrament with such ignominy that it becomes only play-acting and is just vain idolatry. With its cosmetics and false holiness it conflicts with Christ’s order and establishment . Because He never commanded us to carry on like this.. Therefore beware of such worship!


The celebration of Corpus Christi was abolished in England in 1548. In medieval times in many parts of Europe Corpus Christi was a time for the performance of mystery plays. The plays in York in northern England were performed on Corpus Christi day for about 200 years until the feast was suppressed. In many Catholic regions, especially in Europe and Latin America, the processions have taken on a festive air, sometimes including pageant giants or mystic beasts and saints.

In Catalonia, especially Barcelona, Corpus Christi is celebrated with the tradition of the dancing egg which may date from the 16th century.  The contents of an egg are blown out, the holes sealed with wax, and the shell placed in the jet of a fountain where it “dances.”


There is a 16th century MS of a late Middle English song known as the Corpus Christi Carol that is rather mysterious.  It tells of a wounded knight lying bleeding in a richly decorated chamber, grieved over by a lady – ending with the stanza:

& by þat beddis side þer stondith a ston,
“Corpus Christi” wretyn þer-on.
Lully, lulley, lully, lulley!
Þe fawcon hath born my mak away.

No one really knows what the carol represents, although a common hypothesis is that it is a reference to the Fisher King from the Grail legend.

The feast of Corpus Christi is not associated with foods but it did originate in Liège a city noted for its waffles. Also, communion wafers (Corpus Christi) were at one time made in similar fashion to waffles. However, gaufres de Liège are rich and sumptuous, made with a sweetened raised dough much like a brioche, not like plain, unleavened communion wafers.

Here’s a good video with detailed instructions and ingredients at the end: