Christians Awake!

Christians, awake! Salute the happy morn,
Whereon the Saviour of the world was born.
Rise to adore the mystery of love
Which hosts of angels chanted from above,
With them the joyful tidings first begun
Of God incarnate and the Virgin’s Son.

Then to the watchful shepherds it was told,
Who heard the angelic herald’s voice: “Behold,
I bring good tidings of a Saviour’s birth,
To you and all the nations upon earth
This day hath God fulfilled His promised word;
This day is born a Saviour, Christ the Lord.”

He spake, and straightaway the celestial choir
In hymns of joy, unknown before, conspire.
The praises of redeeming love they sang
And heaven’s whole orb with alleluias rang.
God’s highest glory was their anthem still
Peace upon earth and unto men goodwill.

To Bethlehem straight the shepherds ran
To see the wonder God had wrought for man
And found, with Joseph and the blessed Maid
Her Son, the Saviour, in a manger laid.
Amazed, the wondrous story they proclaim,
The earliest heralds of the Saviour’s name.

Let us, like these good shepherds, them employ
Our grateful voices to proclaim the joy.
Trace we the Babe, who hath retrieved our loss
From His poor manger to His bitter cross.
Treading His steps, assisted by His grace,
Till man’s first heavenly state again takes place.

Then may we hope, the angelic thrones among
To sing, redeemed, a glad triumphal song.
He that was born upon this joyful day,
Around us all His glory shall display,
Saved by His love, incessant we shall sing
Of angels and of angel-men the King.Christian

Christians Awake! is among the earliest of the carols, being written by John Byrom (1692-1763) as a poem in 1745, and then set to music in 1746. Byrom was born into a prosperous family in Manchester, attended Cambridge University, and spent time in France studying medicine. To assist his studies, Byrom invented a system of shorthand for taking notes, and on his return from France in 1716 he turned down the opportunity to set up a medical practice in favour of teaching his own system of shorthand. Although he continued to live in and around Manchester he also spent time in London and participated in the capital’s cultural life; he was elected to the Royal Society in 1724.

The shorthand system he developed became very popular, and it was patented in 1740; the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford adopted the system, and it was also used by the clerks in Parliament; it continued to be used until superseded by more effective systems in the late 19th century. John Byrom became known as a poet and writer but wrote for personal pleasure rather than celebrity; his poetry was only published in 1774 after his death in 1763, as was his shorthand system.

John Byrom was an imposingly tall figure and well known in his community. He was a lay preacher in his local church and Christians Awake! was written as a special Christmas present for his young daughter (she did receive other presents too!). He also wrote other humorous verses and epigrams to entertain the family and, among his other work, he is acknowledged to be the creator of Tweedledum and Tweedledee (as two indistinguishable alternatives) and who were later adopted by Lewis Carrol in his stories for Alice Liddell.

So, no celebrated ecclesiastical career for the writer of this particular carol, but a content and happy family life. The place of his birth in 1692 can still be found in Manchester, at what is now called The Old Wellington Inn. It isn’t in it’s original place, however, as it was damaged by the Manchester bombing in 1996, dismantled, and reconstructed 300 yards further down the road; it carries a blue plaque commemorating Byrom’s birth. On his death he was interred in the Byrom family chapel, and this eventually became part of the fabric of Manchester Cathedral. It means that for an unassuming and modest man, both his birth and his death are now commemorated in adjacent public buildings.

Merry Christmas

Header image: Margaret Tarrant (1888-1959) Christmas card design

Footer image: 1914 postcard with holly motif, provenance unknown