An 1840’s Christmas


by Moncure Daniel Conway
From his Autobiography

“I remember vividly my first Christmas in St. George’s (perhaps my eleventh year). How beautiful it all was. I sat in the cushioned pew with beloved relatives, near the rector’s wife (granddaughter of Betty Lewis, Washington’s sister), and surrounded by elegant people.

The church was festooned with evergreen, which seemed to find voice in the “Gloria” with its soft arid tender duel, “Thou that takest away the sins of the world.” My heart was at peace, and I was prepared to listen to the gospel of peace, as it came from the lips of the childlike old rector.

Dr. McGuire, with his noble countenance, with charming simplification without heat or gesture—read a poetic discourse, picturing a world at peace, when a new star was kindled in the sky. Then from the choir broke forth the Christmas hymn, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night.” That carol came to me as if from the very angels on the first Christmas day. Just above the red screen was visible the lovely face of the chief singer, whose tender voice carried the song into the depths of my heart.

Often had I read the story in the New Testament; I could re­peat every word of it from mem­ory; but then and there the glad tidings first reached me.   I had never before seen the young  singer who led the choir. I afterwards learned that her name was Ella Rothrock, and am told that she married and is living (1903) in Philadelphia. She is not likely ever to know that her voice first raised for a boy she never saw the star of a love for “all mankind,

Published by the Fredericksburg Times

Editor’s Note: The author, whose Falmouth family was prominent in the early Methodist Church here, was visiting Fredericksburg’s St George’s Episcopal Church at the corner of Princess Anne and George Streets since the Methodist Church of the period did not have a Christmas service. He grew up to become an internationally famous Uni­tarian minister and author. If he was 11 years of age, this story would have taken place in 1843.