Of all the Christmas hymns in all the hymn books in all the Mennonite homes and Churches, our favorite by far is that one about a rose.
(When I say “our,” I do not, of course mean to speak for all Mennonites. There will be one or two Mennonites who dispute this generalization. In fact, those grumbling Mennos are probably reading this right now with a growing sense of resentment and plotting either a personal defection or an all-out Church schism for Mennonites who dissent in their Christmas hymn preferences. But never mind about them. It’s Christmas time, and if there’s a Menno-Scrooge out there who hates our warbling of 16th century melodies, then let them be visited by the ghosts of weihnachts past, present and future and let the rest of us enjoy our acapella singing in peace.)
That this song lends itself well to acapella singing is one of its attractions. It’s not showy like Joy to the World or O Come All Ye Faithful and doesn’t actually benefit from the introduction of a pipe organ. And even though most factions of the Mennonite Church are ok with instrumental music nowadays, it’s nice to have a Christmas hymn like this one handy just in case we happen to run into one of those anachronistic Mennos who disapprove of pianos, string quartets, harmonicas and all other forms of worldly accompaniment.
It’s also a good hymn because it requires just enough virtuosity that we can feel good about our skills without really having to hone them up a whole lot. I learned the song as a child. And felt like a pro chorister for being able to master the phrasing with aplomb.
I was not a pro chorister and actually sang the hymn wrong. But I’m pretty sure lots of people did. I was corrected as an adolescent by a patient choir director who had seen it before. I remember well enough him stopping us and telling all the sopranos to hold that low note steady, even though it went against all our instincts to do so while the altos took centre stage and trilled as if they were suddenly the stars of the show. I have begrudgingly held that note steady ever since.
That was when I was in grade nine at my Mennonite high school and preparing for my first Mennonite school Christmas concert. I was excited to be a part of it, having attended previous concerts as a younger sibling where I was dazzled by the choral candlelight procession that happened every year. Lo, How a Rose ere Blooming was a perennial choice to serve as a processional hymn at the annual choral event.
Mennonites aren’t big on pomp – a bunch of teenagers walking through a darkened gymnasium while singing and holding candles was about as close to Christmas magic as we got. We didn’t sing in a fancy Cathedral or concert hall. We didn’t even decorate the gym with festive boughs of evergreen and shiny baubles. Nope. We just filled the gym with hard-backed wooden chairs, set up some choir risers and dimmed the lights.
We dimmed the lights so that the audience would not need to look at our hideous heavy polyester uniforms. Mennonites approve of suffering but there are limits. For the audience, at least. We weren’t spared. We knew we would have to wear those unnatural vestments year after year, older choristers selling their so-called gowns each year when they outgrew them or graduated. The junior choir wore burgundy, the senior wore blue. (Despite diligent googling, I have been unable to find any photographic evidence of these choral uniform travesties. This suggests to me that the school and Mennonite archives have colluded to have these sartorial embarrassments erased from our history)
In fact, we were wrong about having to wear them year after year. The school surprised us all when I was in grade ten by retiring the uniforms and replacing them with robes that the school would own and we would wear over our street clothes. This they did with a shocking absence of frugality given that those dresses would surely have lasted at least another hundred years. The change was met with mixed emotions among us choristers – we were pleased to be free of the obligation to wear the heavy synthetic creations, but this also meant that those of us who owned one were now stuck with it, being unable to offload them on hapless students one year behind us. I believe the Mennonite Thrift Store was turning away those dresses for years to come.
But we didn’t know any of that on that first year when we donned our full-length burgundy hand-me-down frocks and took hold of a candle to participate in our very first candle-lit processional.
We also didn’t know this would be the last year for real, wax candles. The candlelight procession was something of a trial by fire for us – or, at least, a trial by melting wax. It was impressed upon us quite seriously the importance of holding our candles steadily and not too close to the gowns of the singer walking ahead of us. We knew the consequences of carelessness could be dire. But we were also curious. There was much speculation as to whether the dresses would actually burn or whether they would singe and melt off the body of the chorister should a candle come too close.
I don’t know if anyone ever tried it. In grade nine, we sang about tender stems and Jesse’s lineage with paraffin leaking onto our tender wrists. But never again. The next time Lo, How a Rose served as a processional hymn there, it accompanied teens carrying little battery-powered lights that unconvincingly mimicked the flicker of a candle.
Henceforth, Mennonite teens were no longer lectured about fire safety and were, instead, instructed on the fine art of deception – admittedly, also an important life skill. No longer needing to worry about dripping wax, our goal now was to convey to the audience the same sense of hush and wonder as if we had candles, but without the concomitant terror of imagining itself trapped in a burning high school gymnasium with nothing but the strains of a Reformation-era motet for comfort. For that to occur, it seemed, we needed to carry these plastic contraptions with the same solemnity that we would have, had we known that wavering would result in minor burns.
I’m fairly certain we didn’t succeed. But a few apparently horizontal “candles” could hardly diminish the Mennonite adoration of the Hymn of the Rose. Lesser songs might have rendered the flashlight processional absurd but this one could sustain the worst that we could throw at it.
There’s no point speculating about why all us heirs of the Radical Reformation can’t get enough of this anthem of medieval Christendom at Christmastime. It’s not particularly Anabaptist. I have searched the writings of Menno Simons and found no mention of roses there at all. Also no mentions of Christmas. It seems Menno didn’t take the time to pen a carol for his spiritual descendants. I haven’t checked all the works of other writing Anabaptists for holiday ditties but I suspect that I’d come up empty if I did.
Or we’d already be singing them.
And without any sixteenth-century Christmas hymns from our own sixteenth-century writers, we’ve been forced to sing the songs written by our erstwhile persecutors who could, nonetheless, fashion some mighty fine harmonies. That’s just how it is.
I’m told there’s a new hymnal project afoot and that Mennonite hymn writers are busy at work trying to come up with new, truly Anabaptist advent and Christmas songs. And if they can manage to replicate that special 16th-century sound we all like so much, they might just manage to uproot that rose of a song and replace it with a new fave.
Or not. We’ll have wait amid the cold of winter and see. Until then, I predict that this hymn will remain a Mennonite phenomenon – one that will dispel with glorious splendour, the darkness everywhere.
A Rose Ere Blooming
This cocktail calls for rose water which is a bit more of a specialized ingredient than I usually require. If you want to make your own, find yourself a few nice organic roses, plucked in the midwinter (preferably when half-spent was the night) and follow these instructions brought to us by our good friends at Kindred
Credit Union Cocktails. I picked mine up at a local cocktail supply store. I’m told rose water is also available at some health food and specialty groceries.
The cocktail also takes a dash of fernet branca which also may not be in all your liquor cabinets. But, well, if you can find a rose blooming in midwinter, then surely you can boot it to your liquor store and pick up a bitter liqueur you’ll use this once. Because it’s not the same without it.
- 1 oz bourbon
- 1/2 oz grapefruit juice
- 1/2 oz triple sec or other orange liqueur
- 1/4 oz grenadine
- 4 drops rose water
- dash fernet branca
- 1 egg white
- 3-5 drops of bitters
Shake the egg white until frothy. Add ice and other ingredients except for the bitters. Shake. Serve in a coupe glass and top with bitters. I used chokecherry bitters because I’d just made some but orange bitters would also be good. Behold it. Take a moment before drinking to waft it under your nose, noticing the fragrance tender that with sweetness fills the air.
And then go ahead and drink it.