Love Came Down at Christmas


Text: Origins. This hymn by Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) was first published in her collection Time Flies: A Reading Diary (London: SPCK, 1885 | Fig. 1). The collection as a whole was dedicated to her mother. It is a collection of devotional writing, prose and poetic, with an emphasis on Anglican feast days. “Love came down at Christmas” was given for December 29, in three stanzas of four lines, without any other commentary or information.


Fig. 1. Christina Rossetti, Time Flies: A Reading Diary (London: SPCK, 1885).


Rossetti later changed the last line to read “Love for plea and gift and sign.” This revision appeared in her Verses (London: SPCK, 1893 | Fig. 2) the year before her death.


Fig. 2. Christina Rossetti, Verses (London: SPCK, 1893).


Text: Analysis. The text is a brief meditation on a single character attribute of Christ: love. In the end, it expresses how worshipers are also called to love, just as Christ loved us. As such, this hymn draws from Scriptures such as 1 John 4:7-21 (“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God …”) or John 13:35.

Rossetti’s text might be an homage—incidental or intentional—to the hymn “My song is love unknown” by Samuel Crossman (1623–1684), which begins:

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.

The repeated use of a word, using the same root but in different forms (love, loveless, lovely) is a technique called polyptoton.

In Companion to Hymns and Psalms (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1988), p. 94, J.R. Watson summarized the hymn nicely, especially in making sense of the last line:

It is one of the crispest and most economical of Christina Rossetti’s poems: the Incarnation of the Godhead, Love divine, is echoed by love in human form, which is our plea to God, our gift to the world, and our sign to all that Christ has come as Redeemer.

Tune 1. Rossetti’s text is frequently paired with an Irish tune, GARTAN. This tune was first published in Ancient Music of Ireland from the Petrie Collection (Dublin: Pigott & Co., 1877 | Fig. 3), p. 131, arranged for piano by F. Hoffman, where it was under the general heading “Specimens of the ancient church music of Ireland” and simply labeled “Chant.” The melody had apparently been collected from the work of Irish scholar George Petrie (1790–1866), who had published some tunes several years earlier in The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (Dublin: University Press, 1855).


Fig. 3. Ancient Music of Ireland from the Petrie Collection (Dublin: Pigott & Co., 1877).


This tune was also given in Charles V. Stanford’s edition of Petrie’s works, The Complete Collection of Irish Music as Noted by George Petrie (London: Boosey & Co., 1902-1905 | Fig. 4), melody only, with a little more information. In Petrie’s manuscript, this had been collected from County Donegal from a Rev. James Mease. This printing of the melody varies from Hoffman’s in the way the last note stays on the tonic rather than rising to the mediant (the third).


Fig. 4. The Complete Collection of Irish Music as Noted by George Petrie (London: Boosey & Co., 1902-1905).


The melody was adapted as a hymn tune and printed with Rossetti’s text in the Irish Church Hymnal (Dublin: APCK, 1919 | Fig. 5), where it was given the name GARTAN, after Lough (Lake) Gartan in County Donegal, Ireland.


Fig. 5. Church Hymnal (Dublin: APCK, 1919).


This melody appeared twice in the collection Dánta Dé (Dublin: C.S.Ó Fallamhain, 1928 | Fig. 6) with more information about the tune’s roots. The tune was collected by W.H. Grattan Flood from a manuscript dated 1750 or 1756. The tune was named SANCTE VENITE and it was set to an Irish version of the Latin text “Sancte venite,” which has its roots in an important manuscript known as the Bangor Antiphonary (late 7th century). It seems that a yet-to-be-identified manuscript in Ireland contains the Latin “Sancte venite” with this tune, and the tune was known and sung in County Donegal in the 19th century.

Fig. 6. Dánta Dé (Dublin: C.S.Ó Fallamhain, 1928).

Some hymnals use an arrangement of GARTAN by David Evans from The Church Hymnary, Revised Ed. (Oxford: University Press, 1927). The tune is also frequently paired with Cecil Frances Alexander’s hymn, “I bind unto myself today.”

Tune 2. Rossetti’s text also commonly appears with the tune HERMITAGE by R.O. Morris. The tune was commissioned for Rossetti’s text by the editors of Songs of Praise (Oxford: University Press, 1925 | Fig. 7). Reginald Owen Morris (1886–1948) was a composer and professor of music who taught for many years at the Royal College of Music in London.


Fig. 7. Songs of Praise (Oxford: University Press, ©1925), excerpt.


for Hymnology Archive
10 December 2018
rev. 6 February 2019

Related Resources:

“Love came down at Christmas,” Songs of Praise Discussed, ed. Percy Dearmer & Archibald Jacob (Oxford: University Press, 1933), p. 63.

“Love came down at Christmas,” Companion to Hymns and Psalms, ed. Richard Watson & Kenneth Trickett (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1988), p. 94

“Love came down at Christmas,” New Oxford Book of Carols, ed. Hugh Keyte & Andrew Parrott (Oxford: University Press, 1992), pp. 392-393.

“Love came down at Christmas,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, ed. Carlton R. Young (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 475-476.

“Love came down at Christmas,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3A (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), no. 84.

“Love came down at Christmas,” Companion to Church Hymnal, ed. Edward Darling & Donald Davison (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), pp. 259-261.

“Love came down at Christmas,”

“Love came down at Christmas,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: