Advent Hymn of the Week: People, Look East

December 5, 2012 § 3 Comments

“People, Look East” is one of my favorite Advent Hymns.  Though it was not in the 1940 or 1982 Hymnals, it was brought in to use in the Episcopal Church through Wonder, Love and Praise.  The words were written by London poet/writer Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965). Originally titled “Carol of Advent”, it appeared in the Oxford Book of Carols, 1928 as a “Modern text written for adapted to traditional tunes”.  In this case, the tune was “Besançon”, a French melody from the Franche-Comté region of France.  The traditional hymn sung in England at the time was a Christmas carol “Shepherds, Shake off Your Drowsy Sleep” or “Chantons, bargiés, Noué, Noué”  Farjeon is best known for her text to the Irish tune “Bunessan”, “Morning Has Broken” as well as various children’s poems.

There are several things make this one of my favorite Advent Hymns–and why I’m sharing this one with you on the blog.  First, It is one of the few Advent hymns that seems to bring in the “greening” of the home that is often done in Advent– specifically in “Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table”.  For most of us, especially in the modern world where Christmas almost starts in October, we prepare our homes and trim the hearths over the next few weeks.  We start the anticipation of the Nativity still waiting in the darkness and hope of the Advent Season.  The poem then leaves the warmth of the home and journeys to the world also preparing, despite the dark and cold of the coming winter.

Growing up in Ohio, my mother would plant bulbs in the fall that would later bloom in the Spring–it was something that I enjoyed doing with her at the age 4. I can’t say I’ve gardened much since then, but I can relate in a nostalgic way to the idea of preparing for new birth and new life just as the world is shutting down for winter.  This hymn reminds me also of our celebration of Christmas in the mid-winter, or near the winter solstice wherein we have the longest night.  And though I know it is not the right time of the year for the actual birth of Christ, there is something in the romanticized near-pagan-infused coupling of the anticipation of the coming Christ that ties it all together for me. 
Lastly, on a much smaller note, I’m drawn to this hymn because of the music itself.  I’ve had trouble finding out the age of the tune other than several references to “Ancient French Tune” which is hardly helpful.  What I do know is that it is a tune from the region of France from which part of my family comes–a town only a few miles north of Besançon called Chenebier.  I wonder if my family in that little village knew the original carol and sung it. 

Advent is a time of preparing–for the coming of Christ as a child and in the return with “clouds descending”.  There are many hymns of foreboding and warning as well as those heralding Christ through John the Baptist; there are a few that refer to the ten virgins in parable and allegory–but few touch on the home preparation, the world preparing for the chosen time, and the anticipation of the angels announcing the arrival of Love, the Guest.

1. People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

2. Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

4. Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.
5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

So I have been hunting a good YouTube video relating to this.  The best I could find was a Ukrainian group called Зозуленька.  But seriously, how often do you get to see a bunch of Ukrainian youth in traditional clothing singing a French carol in English in the middle of a Wheat field with an Organ?

– Chap Day

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§ 3 Responses to Advent Hymn of the Week: People, Look East

  • Kirk Hollingsworth says:

    I’m delighted to see that “People Look East” is in “Wonder Love and Praise”, Chap. I hadn’t noticed. Back during my early years at St. Luke’s, when I was in the choir, we sang as an anthem it often during the Advent Choral Service–and I’ve always loved it.

    I was particularly struck by the lyrics because, as a small child I had a favorite children’s book by Eleanor Farjeon, called “The Old Sailor’s Yarn Box”. (It’s out of print, but available second hand on the Internet.) One does wonder about the derivation/nationality of the surname (and its pronunciation),,,

    The Zozulenka recording is great fun, although given the acoustics, I do wonder if it wasn’t recorded inside, and then lip-synched…


  • Hugh Grant says:

    Thank you Chap–I love your observation about home preparation and it will bring deeper meaning to our lighting of our advent wreath on the dinner table.

  • Tom Wharton says:

    Thanks Chap. I didn’t know this hymn,but it really does capture the contrast between the cold and darkness of the time of year with the warmth of the Advent season. It’s wonderful to hear all the deep connections it has in your life. Love the video…

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