Summer is a fallow time for seasonal hymns. None of the great Christian Festivals falls in the two-month period covered by this Magazine. At Christmas, we sing joyfully (but not necessarily with great commitment!) about ‘the bleak mid-winter’ and how the snow is ‘deep and crisp and even’, and we are encouraged to ‘see amid the winter snow’. Even in hot countries and in the southern hemisphere where Christmas comes at mid-summer, there has often been nostalgia for these cold weather celebrations, though that is thankfully rather dying away with contemporary compositions by local hymn writers. So in our now familiar Caribbean-rhythm carol, See him lying in a bed of straw, the only concession to the weather is ‘a draughty stable’ but the welcome to Christ comes though ‘an open door’ – the irony is that the words of that hymn were in fact written in London by student, later a Church of England priest who was ordained in Liverpool Cathedral!
There are lots of familiar hymns about autumn and the season of harvest, and also about springtime, especially as it links with Easter and new life. We sing fairly regularly about ‘the cold winds in the winter, the pleasant summer sun’, but the abundance of life and joy we know and see and feel during these summer months has not been a great inspiration for hymn writers.
This is lack of summer hymns is in contrast to the many secular songs in praise of summertime, such as George Gershwin’s wonderfully atmospheric opening song of Porgy and Bess : “Summertime, And the livin’ is easy, Fish are jumpin’, And the cotton is high. Your daddy’s rich, And your mamma’s good lookin’, So hush little baby, Don’t you cry”. These are not particularly Christian values for us to sing about or celebrate. Furthermore, most of us will be ‘goin’ on a summer holiday. No more worries for a week or two!’, but even Cliff Richard’s association with these words does not bring it into our summer worship!
The most familiar hymn that explicitly brings the summer months directly into our worship is Summer suns are glowing over land and sea (Rejoice and Sing, 120). This typical Victorian hymn was one of a pair of seasonal hymns (the other was for autumn) written in 1871 by the then Bishop of Wakefield, William Walsham How, and was widely available in many 20th Century hymn books of UK denominations. It is not a particularly distinguished set of words. Despite the first verse, the hymn not really about summer, but really more about the light of God’s glory filling the world and filling our lives, happy light is flowing bountiful and free, a theme that is a very common one across many of our hymns. The tune normally associated with this hymn is called ‘Ruth’ after a hymn in an Oratorio of that name written by Samuel Smith, published in 1865, and brought to these words in a hymnbook edited by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1874.
As I write this in early June, we can only hope that we will have a glorious summer – it has been pretty good so far – and that we will remember God’s grace and bounty as we enjoy it, whether at home or away on holiday. A challenge to you all is to identify a hymn that reminds you most of summer and the joys of summer holidays. It may be a beach mission hymn, or summers in the garden (e.g. ‘Think of a world without any flowers’), or summer trips and visits (e.g. at the Church Camp). There may be a dearth of hymns that directly evoke summer, but there is sure to be a fund of hymns that will always bring something of summer, of the warmth and joy of God’s goodness, to you and to your family.