Home History of Hymns: "There's a Song in the Air"

History of Hymns: "There's a Song in the Air"

“There’s a Song in the Air”
Josiah G. Holland
UM Hymnal, No. 249

There’s a song in the air!
There’s a star in the sky!
There’s a mother’s deep prayer
and a baby’s low cry!
And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing,
for the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!

There is something captivating about this simple Christmas hymn with its almost childlike wonder. The first stanza is a series of declarative statements that invite the singer to marvel at Christ’s birth as if we were physically present at the event.

Our attention is first drawn to the heavens. We hear this song—the song of the angels singing “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). We see the star—the one that guided the magi in Matthew 2. Then we refocus our attention to the scene immediately around us. We see the mother in prayer and hear the cry of an infant. The final line of the opening stanza ties the heavenly and earthly scene together, and the paradox of this vision becomes apparent: Heavenly events are pointing to the most humble of settings in a small, out-of-the-way village—the birth of a King!

Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881) was himself born in a poor, struggling family in Massachusetts. After working in a factory to help the family finances, he went to school, studying at Berkshire Medical College where he graduated in 1844. After attempting to establish a medical practice in western Massachusetts, he gave it up and moved to the south, taking teaching positions first in Richmond, Va., and then in Vicksburg, Miss.

C. Michael Hawn

His true calling was fulfilled in 1850 when he returned to Massachusetts to become an editor of the Springfield Republican newspaper, working under the esteemed Samuel Bowles. The essays Holland wrote for this paper under the pseudonym of Timothy Titcomb in the decade before the Civil War established his reputation as a writer. He published a historical novel, Bay Path (1857), and a collection of essays, Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married (1858).

When Bowles took an extended trip to Europe in 1862, Holland became editor-in-chief. After the Civil War, he reduced his duties at the newspaper and wrote a series of popular novels.

In 1868 Holland took his own trip to Europe, where he met Roswell Smith. Together they laid plans to publish a magazine with Charles Scribner. The famous Scribner’s Monthly published its first issue in 1870. Josiah Holland was the editor of this literary journal.

The final decade of his life was also his most productive, with three novels and three books of poetry. He died in New York City at age 62. Though immensely popular during his day—his published works sold more than half a million copies—he is remembered primarily as an editor.

As editor of Scribner’s Monthly, Holland had contact with some of the leading literary figures of his day, including Mark Twain. Of note was the extensive correspondence that Holland and his wife maintained with the poet Emily Dickinson. Holland’s wife, Elizabeth, seems to have played a role in encouraging Dickinson’s poetry.

Our Christmas hymn dates from the last decade of Holland’s life in 1872. It appeared first in The Brilliant (1874), a collection of Sunday school songs edited by W.T. Giffe.

Returning to the hymn, the three final stanzas continue with graphic phrases that appeal to eye and ear, as Holland more fully unfolds the scene at the birth of Christ. The third stanza exemplifies 19th-century American romantic poetry at its full flower:

In the light of that star
lie the ages impearled;
and that song from afar
has swept over the world.
Every hearth is aflame, and the beautiful sing
in the homes of the nations that Jesus is King!

It is tempting to compare this Christmas hymn with two others from this era. The first is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Holland’s contemporary, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Living during the same decades in the same region of the country, Wadsworth draws heavily in his hymn from the events of the Civil War in 1864 and despairs at the lack of peace on earth. Holland’s hymn, only eight years later, forgoes even a perfunctory reference to peace in favor of what some might see today as an over-romanticizing of the Christmas narrative.

Unitarian minister Edmund Sears (1810-1876) also was a contemporary of Holland, ministering in Massachusetts. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” was written in 1849 during the gathering storms of the Civil War. While not as disheartening in spirit as Longfellow’s hymn, Sears pleas for peace as well.

These comparisons, perhaps, show us the need for balance between expressions of wonder and awe at the mystery of the Incarnation, and the realization that the imperative of the angels for “peace on earth” is far from a reality, over 2000 years later.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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