Christians, awake! salute this happy morn
Whereon the Saviour of this world was born.
Rise to adore the mystery of love,
Which hosts of Angels chanted from above.
With them the joyful tidings first begun
Of God incarnate and the Virgin's Son.
Then to the watchful shepherds it was told.
Who heard the angelic herald's voice, behold
I bring glad tidings of a Saviour's birth
To you and all the nations upon earth.
This day hath God fulfilled His promised word.
This day is born a Saviour, Christ the Lord. (“Christmas Hymn” by John Byrom)
It’s a quiet little place in Southern York County, PA of a humble population of 2,000. There’s only one traffic light in the whole town. Most of the year the strongest attraction is the Mignano Family Restaurant, with authentic Italian food made by authentic Italians. But ask anyone who has lived in Glen Rock, PA and they’ll tell you there’s only one place to be on the night of Christmas Eve into Christmas: huddled under that one traffic light in the center of the town at midnight, heralding our Lord’s salvific entrance into the world with hymns of nineteenth-century England.
Glen Rock Carolers pass by their house.
2017 marks the 170th anniversary of this unique tradition.
It goes back to 1837, to the founding of Glen Rock by William Heathcote, who bought some land and built a wool mill by the Codorus Creek, which led to the creation of Glen Rock. The following year Charles Heathcote, Mark Radcliffe, and George Shaw, nephews of William, left their homes in Yorkshire, England to join the fledgling town in the new world and churn out thirty pounds of rope a day. It was at the end of that year that the tradition of the Glen Rock Carolers, to become the town’s pride over the coming years, began.
Transplanting an already 400-year-old tradition of Christmas caroling from England, Mark and James Heathcote (William’s brothers) along with the nephews Charles, Mark, and George, embarked upon the first Christmas tour of tiny little Glen Rock, bassoon in tow, to serenade the seven families then in residence.
The group now consists of fifty “Caped” members, lifetime members who have sung fifty years or more, and associate members waiting their chance to officially take up the Carolers’ mantle. The hymns, uniquely sung in the three-part harmony of Tenor, Soprano, and Bass, are currently accompanied by two trumpets and two trombones, although various instruments have been used over the years.
The group has donned uniform since 1934 and acquired additional hymns over the years, but the original group simply followed their love of Christmas and tradition and stepped out onto the Glen Rock streets in plain clothes with a repertoire of four English tunes from a time when Christian praise still contained theological and spiritual depth: “Christmas Hymn,” “Incarnation of Christ,” “Hark! Hark!” and “Hosanna.” The Carolers’ repertoire is now fifteen songs strong, with the American carols “Glory to God,” “Christmas Tree,” “O Jesus, Star of the Morning,” and “Softly, Sweetly Thro’ the Air” being added in the 1890’s, and the seminal “Silent Night” in the 1930’s, and a handful more in the ensuing eight decades.
To be precise, the evening begins with a free concert at Hanover Street’s Zion Lutheran Church at 10:45 PM, but the main “event” and the full joy of the Christmas spirit begins to pervade the air as Glen Rockers make their way just down the street to the traffic light where “this happy morn” is to be welcomed in chorus joyful and strong. As the choir begins to weave its way through the downtown streets, the coming of the Carolers is announced by a radiant lantern held high, and the “Peanut Man,” who hands out thirty pounds of legumes throughout the night—a tradition that began already in 1848 with Mark Radcliffe. Several hundred are there at midnight under the light, most trailing off in the first hours, although every year a few loyal “fans” manage to see the night through with the Carolers.
The star of Bethlehem led the Magi of old to the Christ Child, to bow their knees before Him and offer gifts of love, while in humble Glen Rock, since 1959, the Carolers are overseen by the star placed high on the hill behind Trinity UCC, which can be seen from many locations in the town and lights the night. The star belongs to no one, being supported by donations for the delight of all the community.
Having braved the elements and the call of a warm bed, after six hours or so of raising voice in song, the Carolers end their journey at the town Christmas tree, located directly across the street from the Glen Rock Mill Inn, where since 2014 also stands a monument to the original Carolers, with Thomas Ken’s words of Christian exultation:
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him all creatures here below.
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts.
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. (“Doxology”)