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We owe many of our Christmas carols to the Victorians. In 2008, the BBC named Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” written in 1874 and set to music by Harold Darke in 1911, the best Christmas carol of all time, lyrically and musically. It is not as commonly sung today, although you may have read its final verse as a poem before. Darke’s arrangement is considered more musically complex than Gustav Holst’s. Listen to them both for yourself and see if you can hear the difference.

 

In the Bleak Midwinter

 

(See the Gustav Holst and the Harold Darke versions performed by the King’s College boys choir)

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Lyrics written by Christina Rossetti in 1874, published in 1904; music added in 1904 and 1911

Love Came Down at Christmas

(see it performed here)

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Lyrics by Christina Rossetti, 1885; set to music by Harold Darke and others

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