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Outdoors: Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming

Flock by Mackinaw bridge

The Advent carol “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” is very old, probably dating back the Middle Ages, and the lyrics and meaning of the carol have changed over the years.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, a “rose” would have been a symbol for the Virgin Mary, a lovely image still in use today. 

But during the Protestant Reformation, the meaning shifted to the birth of the Christ Child.

So when Lutheran composer Michael Praetorius arranged the tune most of us now recognize, the German lyrics translated to “Isaiah had foretold it” and paraphrased Isaiah 11:1: "And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."

This allusion would have been easily understood by people during the time of the prophets and also in 17th century Germany. 

When a tree or shrub is injured, even cut to a stump, if there is enough energy stored in the roots, it will re-sprout.

This is not news to folks who have tried to knock back buckthorn and other invasive species. 

But re-sprouts of a desirable species can be useful; a practice called “coppicing” dates back thousands of years and is still practiced today. 

The ancients learned that if healthy trees were cut to a stump, many stems would sprout and grow very, very quickly.

Early on, these sprouts were used as poles. 

By the 13th century, coppicing was the primary form of forest management in Europe.

The sprouts of coppiced trees could be used for fences, thatching spars, walking sticks, tool handles, laths and shingles.

Obviously, the coppiced shoots are the same species as the roots, so to sing that a shoot grew out of the stem of Jesse, one explains that Jesus was of Jewish descent.

During the Nazi Era in Germany, rather than admit that Jesus was Jewish or maybe to reference the Fatherland, they changed the words to "A light has arisen for us on a dark winter night."

So our blooming Rose could be the Virgin Mary “who bore to men a savior,” or Jesus, a “flow’ret bright,” or a light that “dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.”

Whatever your faith, may your darkness be dispelled this holiday season.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.