While many think of Christmas Carols as pieces of music composed long before living memory, there also remains an active tradition of carol making for a contemporary audience. This carol fits into this modern tradition and was written by Timothy Dudley-Smith, a very prominent British hymn writer who has written at least 250 carols and hymns in his lifetime.
About the Author
Timothy Dudley-Smith is perhaps most known for his version of Manificat which goes ‘Tell out, my soul the greatness of the Lord’. He is still alive and composing carols to this day. He was born in Manchester, in the North of England, on December 26th 1926. He moved to Derbyshire as a child with his family as his father became a schoolmaster there. He was schooled at Tonbridge in Kent before attending Pembroke College, part of the University of Cambridge. It was at university he found his talent for writing – especially comic verse. After his degree he stayed in Cambridge to study theology at Ridley Hall before his ordination into the Church of England in the year 1950.
His ecclesiastical career began with a job as a curate in London’s suburbs, followed by a return to Cambridge to run their Mission then back to London to run the Boys’ Club in Bermondsey and be editor of the Crusade magazine. This was followed by fourteen years at the Church Pastoral Aid Society before he became the Archdeacon of Norwich and in 1981 to 1992 the Suffragan Bishop of Thetford. He has since retired and lives in Salisbury.
It seems surprising which such a busy career Dudley-Smith had any time to write hymns and carols. He managed to do this by producing them while on his annual holidays in Cornwall with his family.
The imagery in the carol is of four key Christmas themes – Jesus as a child, the star, the tree and singing – but uses these Nativity based themes to make a wider Christian theological point. See for instance the link between the Christmas Tree and the Cross of Calvary in verse three.
The song has several musical accompaniment choices. Timothy Dudley-Smith prefers Alford by J. B. Dykes, but other pieces that have been used include Cherry Tree Carol and Holy Apostles.
The carol came to life in August 1978 during a weekend holiday in Cornwall. Originally entitled A Star There Was At Christmas changed substantially over the weekend during both writing and consideration of the hymn while walking. The song was first seem in a Christmas Card sent by Dudley-Smith’s family doctor, J. P. English, the Lord Mayor of Norwich, in December 1978. It would later appear in Dudley-Smith’s first published poetry anthology Lift Every Heart.
There is some variation of the carol, with the third line of verse two sometimes being changed to read ‘That all might know the way to go’ as well as the fourth line of the fourth verse being changed to ‘The Song of God made man’. The author himself suggests these are allowed changes to his hymn in Lift Every Heart.