Twelve Days of Christmas Carols- Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

There’s quite the story behind “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  Originally written by Charles Wesley, this hymn was meant to be made up of ten stanzas, each with four lines.  Even more, it was originally intended to be sung to “Easter Hymn” (that’s the tune for “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”).  Just think of how long that would be, ten stanzas and four alleluias in each one!  To make it even more complicated, the famous opening lines (and thus the title!) used to be totally different.  Wesley wrote, “Hark, how all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of kings.'”  George Whitefield, another famous Methodist and associate of the Wesleys, didn’t like those words, presumably because people had already forgotten what “welkin” meant, and so he changed them to what we have today.  This didn’t necessarily make sense on every level, particularly in light of the fact that “the Herald Angels” did not, in fact, sing “glory to the newborn king.”  Actually, they didn’t even sing at all! Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Joy to the World

watts-santaToday we’re going to cover what is perhaps the most popular carol, “Joy to the World.”  But did you know that it actually isn’t a Christmas carol at all?  Written by Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” originally appeared in his 1719 The Psalms of David, and it was Watts’s unique take on Psalm 98.  The full title of Watts’s song book is The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship, which sounds like a noble effort, but in reality most of the words bear only a slight resemblance to the Biblical text.  Watts began his project in a time when many Puritans only allowed for the use of the Psalms in worship music (no other songs of any kind), and his title makes it clear that the goal was to “Christianize” the psalms, making the person of the Savior explicit.  In retrospect, Watts actually managed to supplant the use of Psalms in worship altogether, as most of his hymns are paraphrases at best and their popularity cleared the way for even less-textually based worship songs in the future.  As an extended result, there aren’t many psalm-singing churches left at all, not even among the Presbyterians.  But that is another conversation for a less happy occasion.  Today we’ll stick to the fun stuff. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Good Christian Men Rejoice

In dulci jubiloSpeaking of John Mason Neale, my favorite carol to sing is his “Good Christian Men Rejoice.”  As we said, Neale was predominately a translator, though he had no problem employing an aggresive sort of “dynamic equivalent” approach that often fell into paraphrase.  Such is the case with this song.  The original was a mash-up of German and Latin titled “In Dulci Jubilo,” written by the German mystic Heinrich Seuse in 1328.  You can read about his story here, but my favorite part is that he received a heavenly vision instructing him to compose a song about the baby Jesus.  He constructed a masterpiece.  The tune is also very old, dating back at least to 1400, which makes it one of the most ancient of all hymns still in currency today, Christmas carols or otherwise.  Of course, most of us change it up considerably, but it’s still an impressive tradition. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Good King Wenceslas

Good King WenceslasFor the 2nd Day of Christmas, I thought I would cover a slightly unorthodox carol.  “Good King Wenceslas” is set “on the Feast of Stephen” (which is today), and there are so many fun things about it.  The song, which was actually included in a book of Christmas Carols in 1853, was written by the popular and prolific hymn-writer John Mason Neale.  Neale was an Anglican priest and scholar, as well a sort of cultivator of ancient hymnody.  He wrote original pieces, but his most famous works are all translations (the Presbyterian Trinity Hymnal has 13 hymns with Neale listed as author, but all but two are translations).  You’ve probably never noticed, but it was Neale who translated “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain,” “The Day of Resurrection,” and “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation.”  Not a bad resume, to say the least.  “Good King Wenceslas” was an original, however, and, though lovable in its way, it is not on the same level as those treasures just listed.  In fact, there’s a fairly large body of criticism of “Good King Wenceslas” out there, upset with both its hagiographical lyrics and its barbarous tune-pairing. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Over the next two weeks I’d like to highlight some of my favorite Christmas carols.  Since the 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and last until Twelfth Night, I’m actually a day early, but I don’t plan on doing any sort of work, not even blogging, tomorrow, so I figured I’d start early.  The first one will be “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman.”  

Mr. Fezziwig's Ball

I like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” because of the minor mode (I like pretty much anything in a minor key), but also because of the rich and unique words.  As with most hymns and carols, the number of stanzas differs from place to place, and you might even find, to much chagrin, that a few words get changed here and there.  Most versions of this carol have five stanzas, but some have less.  A few even have as many as eight!  I’ll just stick with the first stanza and the refrain, since they are the most famous.

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.

The first thing to note is the grammar of the opening line.  It is not actually “God rest ye, merry gentlemen,” as most people assume.  It is instead, “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.”  The “gentlemen” are being addressed, and the song is wishing that God will “rest” them “merry.”  The verb “rest” simply means “to be” or “make,” much like we might tell someone to “Rest assured.”  And so what’s being sung is a request for God to make us merry.  Why?  Well, that’s what the rest of the song is about.

I also appreciate this carol’s inclusion of Satan.  The big man downstairs is too often left out of the Christmas season, but that just can’t be.  In a certain sense, Satan is the reason behind the “reason for the season.”  He was the one who held all mankind under his sway, causing the people to dwell in darkness and needing to be set free.  It was Satan who Christ came to defeat, and that meant that Christ had to come.  So I say, “Keep the Satan in Christmas.”  You really can’t tell the story any other way.

Never forget, the gospel is good news in the face of bad news.  It is salvation from sin and death.  Jesus is God’s answer to sorrow, suffering, alienation, and despair.  Christmas has to have room in its story for the darkness, or else it becomes just one more romance among the many sentimental stories we tell this time of year.  But of course, Christmas is also the story of how Light came into the darkness and filled it from within.

And that’s precisely what gives us hope, what gives us comfort and joy.  We remember that Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.  That’s good news.  Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

Merry Christmas, y’all.