The Hymns of Christmas
I love the hymns of Christmas, songs of praise to God for the gifts of salvation and eternal life through His Son Jesus Christ. A celebration of Christ’s birth wouldn’t be complete without them.
I also enjoy learning the stories behind Christmas carols: when, why, and by whom they were written.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is one of my favorites.
An Episcopal priest, Phillips Brooks became the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia as our country became embroiled in the Civil War. At the end of the war, Rev. Brooks eulogized President Abraham Lincoln at his funeral in 1865. A staunch supporter of the Union and the anti-slavery movement, by the end of the war his energy was depleted, and he found respite as he toured Europe and the Holy Land.
On Christmas Eve, 1865, he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Pausing on a hillside overlooking Bethlehem, he imagined the story of Mary and Joseph and the Baby and visualized the couple being turned away from the inn in Bethlehem. He almost thought he could hear the angels singing on the outskirts of town. That night, he attended the Christmas Eve service in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
He said, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.”
Three years later, in 1868, recalling his experience in Bethlehem, he wrote a poem for his Sunday school students at the Holy Trinity Church. He asked the church organist, Lewis Redner, to set it to music. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was first sung on Christmas Day by six Sunday school teachers and thirty-six students, and it fast became one of the favorite carols in American churches.
As I sing this song, I can imagine standing on the quiet hillside beside Rev. Brooks and thinking about the birth of our Savior.
“Away in a Manger” is the first Christmas carol I learned to sing. First published in the late 19th century, it is one of the most popular Christmas carols in the English-speaking world.
The origin of the first two verses is unknown. Although long claimed to be the work of Martin Luther, “Luther’s Cradle Song,” which he wrote for his children, it is now thought to be American in origin. Several reasons are given for this: 1) It appeared first in an American publication on March 2, 1882; 2) The song has never been found among Luther’s writings; 3) The earliest German text of the song is dated 1934; 4) The style was not Luther’s.
By 1891, “Away in a Manger” was sung throughout the United States. I wonder how many mothers rocked their children to sleep with this sweet lullaby. The third verse appeared in 1892 and is attributed to John Thomas MacFarland.
“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is an English hymn written by Charles Wesley and first appeared in 1739 in the publication Hymns and Sacred Poems. Based on Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men,” Charles wrote the poem about a year after his conversion, inspired by the ringing of the London Church bells as he walked to church on Christmas Day. It’s one of the few Christmas hymns written in the 17th and early 18th century because the ruling Puritans frowned on the celebration of Christmas.
Charles, along with his brother John, was a leader of the Methodist movement. He wrote the words of more than 6,000 hymns, wanting to teach the poor and illiterate sound doctrine.
Charles named his composition “Hymn for Christmas Day” and envisioned it sung to a majestic tune. Although he opposed changes to the wording of any of his poems, through the years the words were tweaked from the original. One of the notable evangelists of the Great Awakening and a student of the Wesley brothers, George Whitefield, changed the words of the first line, “Hark, how all the welkin [vaults of heaven] ring, ‘Glory to the King of Kings;’” to “Hark, the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King;’” and published it in his collection in 1753.
In 1840, the German composer and musician, Felix Mendelssohn, wrote a cantata commemorating the creation of the moveable type printing press by Johann Gutenberg. English musician William H. Cummings adapted some of the music from this cantata to fit the lyrics of George Whitefield’s version of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” the tune we commonly sing today.
As you sing the words of this beloved Christmas hymn, pay attention to the doctrine contained in the words and the majesty of the music befitting a hymn of worship for the Christmas season.
I photographed the illustrations that accompany these songs from an old Christmas carol book that belonged to my mother. Every Christmas this book appeared on my mother’s piano, and, as a young child, the illustrations fascinated me.