History of Hymns: “Love Came Down at Christmas”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Love Came Down at Christmas"
Christina Rossetti
The UM Hymnal, No. 242

Christina Rossetti

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas;
Star and angels gave the sign.


Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) came from a family steeped in the arts. The author of three collections of mostly religious poetry and four devotional books, she suffered poor health from age 16. Her deep faith is thought to be partially due to the solace she found in writing.

Her father, Gabriele Rossetti, was a professor of Italian at King’s College, London, living in exile in England. Her brothers Dante Gabriel and William Michael gave birth to a 19th-century art movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, for which the beautiful Christina often served as a model, especially for portraits of the Madonna. Among the family friends was Charles Dodgson—under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll he wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Rossetti’s best-known hymns are the Christmas carols “In the Bleak Midwinter” (1872) and “Love Came Down at Christmas,” the latter appearing first in Time Flies: a Reading Diary (1885), as her entry for Dec. 29.

While the first stanza of “In the Bleak Midwinter” paints a vivid picture of an unwelcoming and desolate landscape—a symbolic representation of the state of the world encountered by the incarnate God—“Love Came Down at Christmas” presents an inviting image of incarnate “Love” descending to Earth, heralded by “star and angels.” Indeed, if one includes the word “lovely,” “Love” is mentioned 12 times in three short stanzas.

The personification of “Love,” an inanimate concept, as the name for the incarnate God is not a new idea in Christian hymnody. More than a century before Rossetti’s hymns, Charles Wesley’s “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” (UMH No. 386) and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (UMH No. 384) show a similar anthropomorphic use of “Love.”

Though Rossetti’s poems were not composed as hymns for congregational use, this one first appeared in the Oxford Hymn Book (1908) as a hymn. Hymnal editor Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), editor of the famous Oxford Book of Carols (1928), championed the cause of incorporating English poems as hymns. He included this text in the influential Songs of Praise (1925).

The poem is based on 1 John 4:7-11, a passage that mentions “love” in some form 11 times: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth, is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.”

The author modified the original final line herself from “Love the universal sign” to “Love for plea and gift and sign.” In doing so, she eliminated the one four-syllable word “universal,” and maintained the utter simplicity of one- and two-syllable words throughout with the exception of “incarnate” in stanza two.

As British hymnologist Richard Watson notes, “The sublime simplicity of this hymn is the mark of a very great writer.”

This poem is the perfect antidote for those who find themselves recovering from the stress of the Christmas season induced by materialism, extensive shopping, travel and multiple gatherings of family and friends—in short, everything except for a moment to reflect on the gift of “Love incarnate, Love divine.”
 

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