GTS History: Easter Caroling

Students at General are treated each day to the sound of the chimes in the tower of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. For students at the Seminary before World War I, though, the chapel tower was the scene of another special musical moment: Easter caroling.

LHJ p. 8-9

Article in Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1902

Beginning around the 1880s, students who stayed at the Close over the Easter holiday would tramp up to the top of the tower to sing hymns at dawn. Some enterprising vocalists, looking to increase their number, would run through the dormitories, banging on students’ doors to wake them up [1]. The singers were often met with bad weather; a reporter in 1906 writes that “although torrents of rain were falling,” the students sang brightly and with spirit, “clad in overcoats, but scorning the aid of umbrellas” [2].

 

Students in Belfry

Students can be seen at the top of the belfry

The student singers would usually carol for around an hour, typically beginning before six o’clock. First the students would sing a carol to the east, then the west, then the north and south. They were usually joined by a cornet, but as many as four trombones and trumpets joined in some years [3]. The students were a sight to behold; neighbors and passerby would see “a company of men in gowns and caps of black” at the top of the tower. The group would “stand out against the sky like living chessmen” [4], announcing the Resurrection.

NY Herald, April 16, 1906

Headline, Easter 1906

The “battlemented belfry” of the chapel tower where the students would sing is inspired by the tower at Magdalen College at Oxford [5]. Easter caroling at General was similarly inspired by a custom at Magdalen, which grew out of a tradition of singing  in the memory of a benefactor who made a bequest to the college. This was adapted to Easter caroling during the 16th century and continued on for several hundred years [6].

Ladies' Home Journal, April 1902

Easter Communion 1902

Caroling at General was a surprisingly popular event for the neighbors. The boarding houses on 20th and 21st Streets cited the proximity to the Close as an advantage for prospective renters [7] and the early morning singing was certainly a perk! One neighbor told a reporter that the men singing sounded “like the angels” and that some in Chelsea “would think Easter had almost stopped comin’ reg’lar…if we didn’t hear the boys sing up there in the morning” [7].  On Easter morning, “hundreds of windows were opened when the first notes were heard and a devout audience listened to the service” [8]. After the carols, the chimes would ring out, calling worshipers to an early morning Easter Communion [9].

This group of students caroled in the cold and rain for Easter 1906

This group of students caroled in the cold and rain for Easter 1906

Want to sing like the Easter carolers? According to tradition, the students would sing “The Strife is O’er,” “Christ, Our Lord is Risen,” and an Alleluia, among other hymns.

————–
[1]-[3] New York Herald. April 16, 1906.
[4] Hodges, Leigh Mitchell. “Easter Carols in a New York Belfry.” Ladies’ Home Journal 19: April 1902. 8-9.
[5] Dawley, Powel Mills. The Story of teh General Theological Seminary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. 262
[6] Hodges
[7] Dawley 289
[8] New York Herald
[9] Dawley 289

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One thought on “GTS History: Easter Caroling

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