We just celebrated the First Sunday of Advent at ABC. Our theme this year is the way we look at the Birth of Jesus through the various cultural backgrounds represented in our ABC congregation. Last Sunday’s sermon was on the particular perspective of Latinos in our midst, with a focus on the “Posada” tradition, which emphasizes the need for us to show hospitality (there was “no room” for the Holy Family at the inn). Next Sunday we’ll visit the Swedish roots of ABC brought to us by the church’s founders in the 1920s. On the Third Sunday of Advent we’ll look at the African-American contribution to our understanding of Christmas, and the Fourth Sunday we’ll try to shine another light on our Christmas worship through the Philippinos among us.
All of this made me think of the carol “Some Children See Him,” which became known through several popular recordings in the 1950s and 60s. Here are the lyrics:
Some children see him lily white, the baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see him lily white, with tresses soft and fair.
Some children see him bronzed and brown, the Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see him bronzed and brown, with dark and heavy hair.
Some children see him almond-eyed, this Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see him almond-eyed, with skin of yellow hue.
Some children see him dark as they, sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they, and, ah! they love Him, too!
The children in each different place will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace, and filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing and with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King. ‘Tis love that’s born tonight!
These words were written by Wihla Hutson, who collaborated with jazz musician Alfred Burt in composing about a dozen simple, singable Christmas carols. As I researched how this came about, I realized I had stumbled onto an interesting, heart-warming story about the power of family, tradition and love at Christmas time. Alfred grew up in an Episcopal pastor’s home in Pontiac, Michigan, during the Great Depression. Beginning in 1922, Rev. Bates Burt started a tradition of enclosing a new Christmas carol, sometimes created by himself, in the cards he mailed out every December. This became a family project, with the mailing list growing to 450.
In time, the emerging musical gifts of his son Alfred became important in supplying a new carol every Christmas. Between 1942 and 1953 the collaboration between the father and son and Ms. Hutson resulted in the charming collection of songs that have become known as “The Alfred Burt Carols.” Alfred was involved in the hard life of an itinerant musician/arranger/promoter, but he remained connected with his family through their Christmas carol project. You can read his wife Anne’s eloquent, loving tribute to him and the memories of those years. In early 1953, Alfred was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He dedicated the rest of that year to writing and editing the remaining carols and attempting to engage a publisher. On February 5, 1954, he finished his last composition, “The Star Carol”:
Long years ago, on a deep winter night.
High in the heavens, a star shone bright.
While in the manger, a wee baby lay.
Sweetly asleep, on a bed of hay.
Jesus our Lord, was that baby so small.
Lay down to sleep, in a humble stall.
Then came the star, and it stood over head.
Shedding its light, ’round his little head.
Dear baby Jesus, how tiny thou art.
I’ll make a place, for thee in my heart.
And when the stars, in the heavens I see.
Ever and always, I’ll think of thee.
Alfred died less than 24 hours later. Hopefully, the last stanza of his last carol was his last thought on earth.
— George Van Alstine