Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “The Snow Lay on the Ground”

History of Hymns: “The Snow Lay on the Ground”

Nativity scene by Cypriot folk painter Parthenios image 1790(?)-1848(?)

Nativity scene by Cypriot folk painter
Parthenios image 1790(?)-1848(?)

The Snow Lay on the Ground
Anglo-English carol
The Faith We Sing, No. 2093

The snow lay on the ground, the stars shone bright,
When Christ our Lord was born on Christmas night.
Venite adoremus Dominum. Venite adoremus Dominum.
Venite adoremus Dominum. Venite adoremus Dominum.

Since I (Victoria) grew up in northeast Colorado, I am quite familiar with and still enchanted by snow-covered ground during the winter — especially at Christmas time. Our family (and many others), dressed in heavy winter coats and boots, would drive through icy streets on Christmas Eve observing lighted displays of the nativity; then, on Christmas morning, we would be enclosed in our homes with heaters roaring and stockings full of mittens, gloves, and scarves. Our entire experience, including our songs and stories, was full of images of snow and cold.

One such carol that fits into a more northerly context and experience of Christmas is “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” offered in The Faith We Sing at 2093. Although published in numerous hymnals, little is known about the origins of this carol. Hymnary.org quotes a commentary from the 1907 Dictionary of Hymnology:

This appears to be a West of England traditional carol, and is given as such in R. R. Chope’s Carols, 1875, No. 44, where it begins “The snow lay deep upon the ground.” In the Crown of Jesus, 1862, No. 146, it begins “The snow lay on the ground” and is marked, with regard to the tune, as “Christmas Carol, sung in Rome by the Pifferrari from the Abruzzi Mountains” (Mearns, Dictionary of Hymnology, 1907)

The earlier dated source, the Catholic hymn book, Crown of Jesus, was an important publication in Britain as Catholicism grew in the early nineteenth century and, as a publication intentionally focused on both English and Latin translations of the mass and other service pieces, certainly may have had some influence on the text of the carol (Watson, “Crown of Jesus,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology).

As printed in The Faith We Sing, the text includes both English and Latin phrases (known as macaronic text). The Latin portion is a familiar sentiment found in many Christmas hymns and carols: Venite adoremus Dominum, meaning “Come, let us worship the Lord.” This sentence, which encourages adoration, occurs within the first stanza and then serves as a refrain for the rest of the carol. This Latin refrain is also used in “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (United Methodist Hymnal, 234), and the Worship Planner that accompanies The Faith We Sing suggests that since both carols are in the same key, the congregation might sing stanza 3 of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” following the singing of “The Snow Lay on the Ground” (Hook, 2000, 101).

The stanzas of this carol are primarily in English and serve as snapshots of the nativity that set the scene around the manger and reinforce the nature of Christ – fully human and fully God. Included is mention of Mary’s mother, Anne, who has little place in Protestant thought, but is very present in Catholic devotion. In this context, her name reminds us that Mary had a mother and Jesus, a grandmother. This provides more points of connection between the life of Jesus and the lives of the people of faith who sing this hymn. God is not far away or long ago. God is with us now and in the future.

One traditional stanza of this carol is omitted from The Faith We Sing. It reads:

Saint Joseph, too, was by to tend the child;
To guard him, and protect his mother mild;
The angels hovered round and sung this song,
Venite adoremus Dominum.

This stanza helps us remember that Joseph also said ‘yes’ to the angel and is an integral part of the story of Jesus’ birth. It also gives us the origin of the Latin words we repeat many times in the carol.

One problematic issue with this carol and other carols that mention snow is historical accuracy, since the actual date of Christ’s birth is not known. Scholars have speculated for years without arriving at a conclusion beyond the fact that the first Christmas was probably not in December and probably did not include snow. It was not until 336 AD that Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25.

It is important to remember that a hymn is not a form of historical argument. To sing “the snow lay on the ground” is as much a claim about today as it is about two thousand years ago. More so, it is a claim about the unknown future time when Christ will come again. This is why we sing venite adoremus Dominum. The point is not to replicate the emotions of those present before the birth of Christ but to praise the Lord for Emmanuel: God is with us, has come, and will come again.

For further reading:

James Mearns, Dictionary of Hymnology, New Supplement (1907). https://hymnary.org/text/the_snow_lay_on_the_ground (accessed September 15, 2017).

John Richard Watson, “Crown of Jesus.” Article referenced at The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed September 25, 2017, https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/c/crown-of-jesus

Anne Burnette Hook, The Faith We Sing Worship Planner, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000, 101.

About this week’s writers:

Victoria Schwarz is the Recording Secretary of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Director of Music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX, and a Master of Arts in Ministry Practice student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Rev. Wilson Pruitt is the pastor of Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Duke Divinity School, Rev. Pruitt is passionate about the theological and formational aspects of hymns at the intersection of faith and practice in the liturgy of the church.

This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.

Discipleship Ministries
The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts