Go Tell It On The Mountain: the Christmas Carol that Saved a University

American spiritual songs are difficult to date because most were passed down through the generations orally without publishing or recording. Such was the case with the Christmas song Go,Tell It On the Mountain. It became a Christmas classic because of the efforts of John Wesley Work.

John Wesley Work was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. He officially studied Latin and history at Fisk University, but his other great passion was music. In 1872, he was asked to lead the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a ten member touring vocal ensemble commissioned to save the University. In a bold move, the ensemble was sent on an eighteen month tour and was given the entire University treasury for travel expenses.

Go, Tell It On The Mountain and other spirituals were a regular part of the student singing at Fisk University, but were not part of the original repertoire of the ensemble. This is understandable because the songs were associated with slavery and represented recent history many of them wanted to forget. However, the school’s treasurer encouraged them to expose the world to the rich history of spirituals in this tour. The response was overwhelming and by the time they reached New York in December of that year, their concerts consisted primarily of choral arrangements of spirituals. 

Over the course of their 18 month tour, the Fisk Jubilee Singers grew to a full choral ensemble. Led by John Wesley Work, they performed a host of spirituals to both white and black audiences across the United States and Europe, including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria. This phenomenal tour resulted in both the school and the musical style earning an international reputation. Fisk University was saved financially and Go, Tell It On the Mountain was on its way to becoming a Christmas staple.

Click here to hear Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of Go, Tell It On The Mountain. 
Click here to read more about the history of Fisk University.

(Note: This is a repost from the 2021 Christmas Season. New Christmas Carol Stories will begin being posted daily on December 1, 2022)

Christmas Caroling: A Grassroots Tradition

There is, perhaps, no Christmas tradition more neighborly and friendly than caroling. No matter what the song, Christmas caroling spreads the true spirit of Christmas throughout December. As a child, teen, and even as an adult, I’ve sung carols like Buddy the Elf with groups in retirement centers, nursing homes, city neighborhoods, and even on country farms. However, for most of my life I had no idea how Christmas caroling actually began. 

Let’s start with the carols themselves.

The original carols had their roots in the pre-Christian Festival of Yule, when Europeans would sing and dance to honor the Winter Solstice. The word “carol” has its roots in the Latin word “choraules” which means “a dance to the flute.” The original carols were mostly fun secular, upbeat songs accompanied with dances often performed with a group. Overtime, carols became more associated with Christianity and became more hymnlike and therefore resulted in less dancing (Sorry, Mariah Carey).

Christmas carols themselves thrived as more of a grassroots tradition. Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have first incorporated upbeat carols into informal (and sometimes impromptu) Christmas services in creative ways. He built nativity scenes in caves complete with live animals. The villagers would gather and listen as he taught them about the birth of Jesus. Then, they all joined in singing early versions of Christmas carols. These energetic, joyful carols were often sung with gusto, as in Celebration, in sharp contrast to the traditional somber Christmas music of the day. It’s no wonder these simple songs spread quickly across the Christian world, especially Europe. 

Christmas caroling actually grew out of the Anglo-Saxon custom of wassailing, where the carolers received sustenance in exchange for their singing. This custom derives its name from the drink “wassail,” which was a hot spiced beverage. Over time, wassailing became associated with Christmas and carols. Ironically, the practice of caroling out of doors grew somewhat because of Oliver Cromwell, who banned Christmas celebrations in England from 1649 to 1660. As you can imagine, the persecution of the day most likely put a damper on the outright practice of singing carols in organized services. However, what’s to stop someone from singing Christmas Carols outdoors as they travel to and fro? Even after Cromwell’s time in power ended, caroling did not really experience growth until the 19th century, when joyful, more expressive hymns became more popular across England and Europe. During this time, some caroling groups gathered in public spaces to sing while others went from house to house. Today, the practice of Christmas caroling continues to bring joy to those singing and those hearing, with or without the wassail.

This Christmas season, from December 1st – 25th, I plan to highlight the history of 25 Christmas carols, most of which have been sung at one point or another by Christmas carolers. Some of them are currently extremely popular while others have been all but forgotten. Regardless, I’ve found them all fascinating and I plan to learn as much about them in the next month. I invite you to join me for the journey. 

Merry Christmas

*Image courtesy of Mario Mendez

Christmas Carol Countdown

I love Christmas carols. Now that we’ve made it past Thanksgiving, it’s awesome that we’ll be hearing them more on the radio and tv, online, and in worship services. Last December, I posted the stories of our most beloved Christmas carols. While this year, I’ve posted more about my diet and physical fitness struggles, I plan to release posts sharing the stories of 25 more posts on December 1-25. I’ve posted links to those from last year below. If you have a favorite Christmas carol you’d like for me to research and share, post it in the comments or send me a private message. Merry Christmas!

Angels From the Realms of Glory

Angels We Have Heard On High

Away In A Manger

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Go, Tell It On The Mountain

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Good King Wenceslas

Hark The Herald Angels Sing

I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day

I Wonder As I Wander

In The Bleak Midwinter

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

Joy to the World

Mary, Did You Know

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

O Holy Night

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Silent Night

The 12 Days of Christmas

The First Noel

The Little Drummer Boy

Welcome To Our World

What Child Is This?

*Image Courtesy of David Beale

Thank You, McDonald’s

Thank you, McDonald’s.

This may seem trivial to some, but it means a lot to me.

I live in Metairie, Louisiana about a mile from Orleans Parish. Not far from my home is an elevated round-a-bout at the intersection of Airline Drive and Causeway Boulevard. When I exit the roundabout toward my home, I have a great view of downtown New Orleans and the various routes of arriving there. I also see a McDonald’s. I’ve visited this McDonald’s hundreds of times over the last two decades for breakfast items for volunteer teams, a quick lunch for me, or a late night ice cream cone.

For the last few years, the sign which was high in the air displayed the wind damage of multiple hurricanes. I’m kind of ashamed to admit this, but the damage to the sign really bothered me. I used to wonder why, but now I think that the broken sign reminded me (and thousands of others) of the devastation of the multiple hurricanes we have experienced over the past several years. I was thinking on this one day as my wife and I were driving to Florida. I noticed that it wasn’t just the McDonald’s sign near me that suffered from this damage, but fast food and business signs all over Southeastern Louisiana and the across the Gulf Coast.

A week or so ago, the McDonald’s sign was replaced. Now, the new sign shines brightly, even when the skies around it are dark and dismal. And, in multiple ways, it reminds me that restoration is still happening around our city and region.

So, thank you McDonald’s. Thanks for replacing your sign. Thanks for being a part of our community.

The Day Before Black Friday

Sometimes I feel sorry for Thanksgiving. 

Some have called it the most neglected of the major holidays. Although it gets more attention than Ground Hog Day (sorry Bill Murray), it’s slowly getting squeezed out by the Christmas, the king of the hill as far as holidays are concerned. Even Black Friday, which has taken over Thanksgiving Friday and is making its moves on Thursday, gets more respect than it deserves. 

Thanksgiving does lack the pageantry and presents of Christmas. It’s meant to be simple, but so much has changed. It’s now become a day that’s more about overeating (gorging might be a better word), football watching (the original binge watching), dish washing (somebody has to do it), and Christmas shopping (sigh). 

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We can choose for Thanksgiving to be more of what it was meant to be. (It’s actually more of what Christmas should be as well) – a day when family and friends cease from their labor, thank God for his blessings, and enjoy some of his blessings, all the while growing closer together and closer to him.  

Sorry, Thanksgiving, for the way I’ve treated you over the years. This year, help me remember to be truly thankful. 

*Image Courtesy of Priscilla Du Prees

How the Church Shaped Halloween

Before I’m burned at the stake, let me explain. 

The roots of Halloween are found in the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced “SAHwin” – obviously phonics is somewhat different in Gaelic) The Samhain festival was celebrated on November 1, but actually started on the evening of October 31. It celebrated the harvest but also welcomed what was thought of as the dark half of the year. The ancient Irish and Scottish believed that the boundary between this earthly world and the afterlife became especially thin on Samhain, enabling communication with the dead. The ancient Gaelic population believed there were many gods and fairies. Samhain, in turn, involved many ritualistic ceremonies enhancing their connection to the spirit world, causing people to leave offerings on their doorsteps or in the fields for the spirits and fairies.

The Celts often celebrated Samhain by wearing animal fur costumes as a disguise against ghosts and spirits. Their celebrations included drunken feasts (yep, they were Irish) where they made lanterns by hollowing out gourds and placed candles within. The people were expected to join the Druid priests who built community bonfires where prayers were offered and cattle sacrifices were made. Each family was expected to bring part of the fire back to their home to relight their home hearth. 

The English name “Halloween” can be traced back to medieval Christianity. “Hallow” comes from the Old English word for holy. At the time, “All Saints’ Day” was called “All Hallows’ Day” and the day before, when an evening mass was held, was “All Hallows’ Eve”, which eventually transitioned to “Halloween” because after all, it was quite a mouthful. It is believed that the mass was initiated to give the evening perspective. Nothing takes your mind off of pagan revelry like taking communion and listening to a homily.

Christian leaders were also responsible for the official date of Halloween. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV began the tradition of All Saints Day when he dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the Saints. However, the date was May 13. One hundred years later, Pope Gregory III changed the date of All Saints Day to November 1 when he dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to the Saints. This date, however, was apparently more of a local or regional change. Finally, in the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV added All Saints Day to the Christian calendar, extending the date to people everywhere. With All Saints Day solidified on November 1st, All Hallows’ Eve was destined for October 31st, which coincidentally fell on the anniversary of Samhain.

With the spread of Christianity, the mystical rituals of earlier Halloweens became more lighthearted. People dressed as the Saints and recited songs to one another. Children went from door to door asking for “soul cakes,” which were biscuit-like treats. Soul cakes actually originated as a part of All Souls’ Day, a third day of celebration on November 2, but overtime morphed into the Halloween night concept we know as trick-or-treating. The tradition of dressing as Saints shifted when young Scottish and Irish pranksters opted to dress up in scary costumes in order to frighten their neighbors. Soul cakes slowly transitioned into candy, much to the delight of children and the manufacturers of chocolate better choice. 

So there you have it, well, sort of.

Even though Halloween can be filled with light hearted fun; and even though its date, name, and practices were heavily influenced by the medieval church; Even though Halloween is a time where children can get tons of chocolate and candy that they’re still eating till way after Christmas much to the dismay of their parents and to the delight of dentists everywhere; even though we can fill the Halloween and Fall season with all of these interesting facts and fun information, it is good to remember that Halloween, or Samhain, is still a day and time festival of the dead celebrated by Druids, Wiccans, Satanists, and Pagans. Even as we take part in simple family friendly festivities, let’s all remember who we are and whose we are and make a difference for God and for good wherever we may be and in whatever we might do.

But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for He called you out of the darkness into His wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Be safe out there. Be a light. Resist Evil. Make a Difference.

*Image Courtesy of David Menidrey

Lose It App at the 16 Week Mark

For 16 weeks, I’ve been trying my best to find a way to cheat the Lose It App. 

Finally, I’ve figured it out. You cheat by not entering everything you consume into the App.

However, the results are like cheating on an eye exam. I can cheat for the day by not entering everything I eat, but it doesn’t translate to my bathroom scale at the end of the week. I guess the proof is always in the pudding (as long as you enter it into the app).

After 16 weeks, I have begun to embrace the intermittent fasting feature as well. At first it seems silly to think of fasting for a 12 hour period. I mean, what good will that do? I probably come close to that several times a week anyway. However, when I begin the fasting time (which I now do about twice a week) I’ve come to see how often I do reach for food late in the evening or even when I wake up in the middle of the night. This feature helps me keep myself accountable and helps me leave it alone.

So, here’s the moment of truth. After 16 weeks, I’ve lost a total of 28.6 lbs. Not bad. It’s kind of exciting when I realize that I could be at the 30 lb mark in another week or so. 

Thanks for following my Lose It App journey. I plan to make an update every 4 weeks or so. See you at the 20 Week Mark.

*Image courtesy of Drew Beamer

Fighting For Survival

Today, I found myself in the midst of a battle. 

I was minding my own business, trying my best to provide for my family, 

When my adversary felt it was time to hinder my progress. 

At first, I was gentle and friendly, communicating with him that I wanted the best for both of us.

But he didn’t go for it.

Instead, his stubbornness grew.

I tried moving him to the left but he wouldn’t budge.

I tried moving him to the right to no avail. 

Suddenly, a crowd formed around us to watch the struggle.

Embarrassed by the attention, I redoubled my efforts to win the skirmish.

But it didn’t work and my frustration grew with every passing moment.

My fists soon developed minds of their own and they pounded the sides of my opponent.

When I could take it no longer, I grabbed my enemy and raised him over my head.

My strength multiplied as I yanked at his layers and finally ripped him in two. 

I dropped my foe to the ground and held on to the portion I had snatched away.

And then, following my neighbor’s example, I licked my thumb and rubbed it across the plastic bag I held in my hand as I stood in the produce aisle of the grocery store.

To my amazement, it finally opened.

Celebrating my victory, I placed my zucchini inside and continued my battle for food.

I repeated the process in the broccoli section.

I never learned this skill as a child. 

It wasn’t taught at home, at church, or at school, 

Yet, be forewarned good people,

For it is necessary for survival.

*Image courtesy of attentie-attentie.

Lose It App at the 12 week mark

I’ve been using the Lose It App for 12 weeks now. 

And…(Drumroll please)…

I’ve lost 22.2 lbs. 

I’m still pretty impressed with the process.

The app doesn’t judge me on what I eat, it simply tracks my caloric intake, my water consumption, my steps, other exercise (if I enter it), and my weight loss. It also encourages me to complete a 12 hour fast once a week. I typically do it from either 6pm to 6am or from 7pm to 7am.

I know, it sounds like a wimpy fast to just do it overnight. However, it’s been beneficial to me because I’ve found myself following that practice on at least half if not most of my nights now. 

And because fresh vegetables are lower in calories than most everything else I consume, I can eat more of them. This process has drawn me toward them in a subtle way.

Touche’ Lose It App people. Pretty clever of you.

I’ve got a long way to go, but this slow process of dropping weight has been good for me. I’m making a real lifestyle change and it feels good. 

Be watching for another update at 16 weeks.

*Image courtesy of Lose It

I Got The Tofu

Recently, I took my first bite of what I thought was a steamy plate of sliced chicken and vegetables in a savory Asian sauce. Suddenly, my gag reflexes began to engage. Something was incredibly wrong.

“Dear,” I said to my wife. “I think there may be something wrong with my chicken.”

“That’s not chicken,” she replied.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s tofu.” she answered with a smile. 

“Tofu!” I exclaimed. “Oh no! I’m not sure I’m ready for us to start eating tofu.”

For those of you who are unaware, tofu is a semi-food substance prepared by coagulating soy milk, then pressing the resulting curds into solid white blocks of varying softness, and finally marinating it overnight in liquid sadness.

“The secret to eating tofu,” my wife explained, “Is to eat it with something else on your plate. You see, on its own, it has no taste.”

“That’s the truth!” I said.

“Try some more,” she said. “You might even start to like it.”

Instead, I shook my head and said, “I’m not sure I can eat tofu. It sounds like a condition you get from an old pair of sneakers.”

“Eat your dinner,” she replied.

“I’m not sure about this,” I said. “What if I get sick and people ask me what I have? I’ll have to say, ‘I’ve got the tofu.’ Then people are going to start saying, ‘There goes John. He never washes his feet and now he has tofu.’”

“Eat your dinner,” she said once again.  

“I’m expected to finish this?” I exclaimed.

The expression on her face indicated that I had no choice.

So, I carefully partnered every bite of tofu with vegetables and wiped the plate clean of the sauce which also masked the absence of taste and personal freedom.

So far, we haven’t eaten tofu again. But there’s a block of it in our refrigerator. I discovered it after thinking it was cream cheese for my bagel. 

Sigh…

*Image courtesy of Sherman Kwan.