Edward Caswall was born to a distinct Anglican family in July of 1814 in Hampshire, England. He attended Brasenose College at Oxford, and it was during this time that his writing career began. During this time, he wrote a piece called “The Art of Pluck,” a satirical work written under the name “Sciblerus Redivius.” He was later honored as an orator and poet, and like any good speaker, he clearly had a sense of humor! He continued writing this for several years, and it remains in circulation. But following in the steps of his father and other family members, he became an ordained deacon in 1838. The following year, he was ordained as a priest, where shortly thereafter he worked in Salisbury.
His time in the Anglican Church was short-lived, however. A mere eight years later, he and his wife moved to the Catholic church. Sadly, only three years after this, his wife died. Perhaps it was in response to his wife’s death, but that same year in 1850 that he was ordained again, this time as a Catholic priest. He began to serve at the Congregation of the Oratory, where he served until 1878. It was during this time that he also became friends with Cardinal and hymnist John Henry Newman.
As mentioned before, Caswall was a poet and orator, and he was well-known and appreciated during his day. He wrote a couple of books, such as his collection of sermons, and some poetry. He also translated a number of texts, including the Roman Breviary, into English. His most notable translations included Latin texts from the Breviary, and he contributed strongly to English hymnary. Some hymn historians noted that the way in which he translated and preserved the text made congregational singing so much easier.
But he did not only translate hymns and other works. He was also a hymnist himself. His best-known hymn is the Christmas Carol “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow,” first published in 1858 with Caswall’s book The Masque of Mary and Other Poems. It is possible that some of the imagery of this hymn was influenced by his contemporary, Charles Dickens, author of the beloved work A Christmas Carol. Another contemporary of Caswall, John Goss, composed the tune for this hymn in 1871. Called “HUMILITY,” this tune is fitting for the season and the text of “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow.” They were both published in Goss and Caswall’s joint work Christmas Carols Old and New. Though the original was composed of seven stanzas, many hymnals only use four.
Edward Caswall continued serving at the Oratory until his death. He went to be with the Lord just after the New Year in 1878. He was loved by all not only for his written works but largely for his service to those around him. Today, we can find joy and comfort in the words he left us in his “Hymn for Christmas Day” in which we celebrate the birth of Christ and the dawn of Redemption in our lives.
See, amid the winter’s snow,
born for us on earth below,
see the tender Lamb appears,
promised from eternal years
I am not sure if there was snow on the first Christmas or if Jesus was born amid it. But here, we find an example of the hymnist’s contemporary culture interwoven with the Scriptural account. This is a common practice in hymn-writing and poetry in general. Here, we have an English hymnist incorporating a familiar image into his hymn: snow. Snow is a “sign” of Christmastime, of winter, of cold dark days, and of purity. It is fitting to have such an image in a Christmas carol. Even today, we think of the snow-covered nativity scenes we see outside of our homes and churches.
And what do we see in these scenes? We see the embodiment of purity, holiness, salvation, the spotless, sinless Lamb of God. But our God came not in power or majesty but in the form of a tender child, as promised from creation, born in a humble stable for us (Gen. 3:15, 12:3, Isa. 7:14, Acts 13:32, 2 Cor. 8:9, Phil. 2:8). Here there is no pomp or ceremony. There is no gaudy decor. But in the picture Caswall paints for us, we look out at a quiet manger scene, surrounded by softly falling snow, where the Savior of all was born.
Hail! Thou ever-blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
The peaceful image of Christ’s nativity is then broken with the refrain. I love how the carol’s music changes at the refrain. We go from singing a quiet carol, almost a lullaby, to being unable to contain our joy! We must shout, “Hail!” We shout for joy on this day, at this new morning, this new life! Redemption dawned that night. We reflect here the beginning and “end” of Christ’s story: we shout with the shepherds on that Bethlehem night and with the people of Jerusalem that Palm Sunday: the Messiah has come (Isa. 9:6, Mic. 5:2)!
Lo, within a stable (manger) lies
He who built the starry skies;
He, who throned in height sublime,
sits amid the cherubim!
But now we go back to that simple stable. We look back on that image, from a distance, at the quiet, lowly bed. Here is our King, our Messiah, our Creator, and Lord! As we talked about in a previous hymn, this little child was the Word with God who spoke everything into existence (Gen. 1:1, Psa. 8, Jhn. 1:1-5). And I love how this is phrased, “He who build the starry skies.” This small child is the Creator, now in the lowly form of a man dwelling among His creation. This small child in our earthly manger, the only place we could make room for Him, was in a lofty and exalted place in heaven, with the angels singing His praises (Psa. 99:1, Isa. 6:2-3, 37:16)! Jesus the Christ gave up that glory for us, for our salvation (Phil. 2:3-11). And this is why we shout for joy!
Say, ye holy shepherds, say,
what your joyful news today;
wherefore have ye left your sheep
on the lonely mountain steep?
This verse and the following two verses are not included in the LSB, but I think they are worth including here. These passages remind me of the hymn “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Here, we, the congregation, join the people of Bethlehem in questioning the shepherds. Can you imagine such a scene? Everyone crowded into Bethlehem for the census, probably cranky and tired at the inconvenience, suddenly being woken by these noisy shepherds (Luk. 2:1-7, 17-20)! Now Caswall calls them holy shepherds, but I doubt such reverence was shown for them that night!
So we ask as well, “Why are you exuberant? From where does this joy come? What could have possibly pulled you from your work, your sheep?” This indeed would have been an odd sight to see. And like those people, all we can ask is, “Why?” I hope that those who see us Christians today also ask such questions when they see us.
“As we watched at dead of night,
lo, we saw a wondrous light;
angels singing ‘Peace on earth’
told us of the Savior’s birth.”
Undeterred, the shepherds respond to us all (Luk. 2:8-20). The refrain also echoes the shepherds’ words. Here, they tell all that they’ve seen and heard, and they cannot keep it to themselves! They tell us how they were just watching their charges as they always were, possibly struggling to stay away, when all the sky burst with heaven’s light! Angles spoke to them, shepherds, that they were to go see their Savior born this night! Here on this ordinary night, maybe even a night of discord for what brought everyone to Bethlehem and left them to their work, peace was given to the earth. This long-hopped for promise had arrived (Isa. 9:6, Mic. 5:2). The Anointed one had come! So this they tell us, and so they went to see and worship him. So we, too, join them in the chorus to glorify God and thank Him for His gift to us that Christmas night.
Sacred Infant, all divine,
what a tender love was Thine;
thus to come from highest bliss
down to such a world as this!
We recognize it is not the shepherds doing a strange thing (though that is strange that they would leave their sheep to see a baby), but it is God who has done a “wonderous thing to our eyes” (Matt. 21:42). Our God loved us so much He sent His Son to “such a world as this,” a world steeped in sin and rebellion against God (Jhn. 3:16-17, Rom. 5:1-10, 8:19-25)! As we reflected on in the early verses, this child is our Lord and Creator come down to us. So we reflect on that first night and the “tender love” of Christ shown in the form of a child, coming down from heaven and His full glory there to “such a [sinful] world as this!” (Luk. 1:78-79, Jhn. 1:29, Col. 1:15-16, Titus 2:11) We didn’t deserve it, and we really didn’t know to ask for it or to expect it. But God, in His love and mercy, sent His Son to bring “Redemption’s happy dawn” into our lives!
Teach, O teach us, Holy Child,
by Thy face so meek and mild,
teach us to resemble Thee
in Thy sweet humility!
So in response to this love shown to us, we ask that we might also walk the path that He walked, that we might also humble ourselves to serve Him and His people, that we might love as He has loved us. But we need help. We need His Word working in our lives that we might resemble Him. Until the Day of His return, we ask for His aid and instruction, given to us first when He came as a human baby, that we might also be called children of God (Phil. 2:14-15, 1 Pet. 2:21, 1 Jhn. 3:1-2, 10, 5:2).
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig
“373. See Amid the Winter’s Snow.” The Lutheran Service Book. 2006.
Caswall, Edward. The Masque of Mary and Other Poems. London: Burns and Lambert. 1858. pp. 259-60.
“Edward Caswall.” Hymns and Carols of Christmas.
“See, Amid the Winter’s Snow.” Hymnary.org.
Warren, Kate Mary. “Edward Caswall.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.