The Christmas Carol With The Surprise Ending

The original author of O Come, O Come Emmanuel is unknown, but it was most likely an 8th or 9th century monk or nun. Roughly 1000 years after it was written, an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale discovered the song while reading Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum, an ancient book of Latin poetry and music. 

Neale lived in the Madeira Islands near the continent of Africa, where he started an orphanage, a school for girls, and a ministry to reclaim prostitutes. He understood many languages, including Latin, and was able to translate O Come, O Come Emmanuel into English. He first played and sang it for the people he served, who were considered the lowest of society. It was so well received that Neale included the song in his 1851 collection titled Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is written as if you are in the first century and you are awaiting the actual birth of the Messiah. An anticipation is there for what Jesus would bring. The original Latin text contains seven antiphons (verses) which work together to help the reader or singer to focus on the coming Christmas. Most modern hymnals do not include all seven and rarely in the same order as the original. Here are those verses in order and their related meanings:

  • O Sapentia (Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (Hebrew for God)
  • O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse) 
  • O Clavis David (Key of David)
  • O Oriens (Dayspring)
  • O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
  • O Emmanuel (God with Us)

You can see from the order above that the 8th and 9th century Christians sang these verses in the opposite order as most people today. Most importantly, they sang the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” verse last and wouldn’t do so until Christmas Eve. They did this because of the fulfillment of the song and the expectation of Jesus’ birth. 

Here’s the coolest thing.

The original Latin text creates a reverse acrostic which is not complete or seen until the last verse is sung. When the ancient worshipers finally sang this verse on Christmas Eve, the message of the reverse acrostic was solved for all the see. It simply proclaimed, “I shall be with you tomorrow.”

Click here to hear For King and Country’s version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Click here for Anna Hawkins version in English and Hebrew filmed in Israel

*Image courtesy of Mike Ralph and Unsplash.com

The Christmas Carol written by an Atheist, composed by a Jew, and translated by a Transcendentalist.

I once attended a worship service when the congregation attempted to sing O Holy Night. At the end, the worship leader shook her head, and said, “Well, that was awful.” As hard as it can be to sing, congregations around the world love this beautiful song. It has a majestic yet mysterious sound. It is regarded as holy but acknowledges the darkness within each of us. It also has a unique story.

It was Roquemaure, in southern France, in 1843. The parish priest wanted to commemorate the renovations of the church organ, so he commissioned a poem from the local poet and wine merchant Placide Cappeau. While on an overnight stagecoach to Paris, Cappeau penned Minuit, Chretiens, or Midnight, Christians. The priest was extremely pleased with the poem, especially because the author was an outspoken atheist. However, the lyrics were so beautiful, the priest pushed forward and shared them with Adolphe Adam, a prolific Jewish composer. The resulting Christmas Carol was titled Cantique de Noel. It premiered in 1847 featuring a local opera singer Emily Laurey.

Cantique de Noel became instantly popular with Christians across France. However, once word reached the church officials that Cappeau was an atheist who publicly spoke out against the church, the song was banned from liturgical use in France. Even so, the song continued to spread outside the church and grew in popularity.

Later, in 1855, John Sullivan Dwight, an American music critic and Unitarian Minister translated the song into English. He was a Transcendentalist who believed there was goodness (and possibly holiness) in everything and everyone. His translation liberties can be seen in our current version of O Holy Night. when the evening itself is seen as holy. For Dwight, the night was holy in and of itself, not simply because of its connection to Jesus’ birth. Most people missed this completely because the chorus includes the lyric, “O Night when Christ was born.” The song then continued to grow in popularity across the English speaking and French speaking worlds. 

The song is believed to have even played a part in the Franco-Prussian War. On Christmas Eve in 1870, French troops sang Cantique de Noel from the battle trenches. In the stillness, German soldiers heard the singing and were moved. In response, they sang a carol by Martin Luther. This impromptu Christmas worship resulted in a 24 hour truce in honor of Christmas. Now, there is a strong possibility that this never happened, but the story spread across France making the song wildly popular which resulted in its eventual reinstatement in the liturgy of French churches.

So, there you have it. O Holy Night was a song commissioned to celebrate an instrument, written by an outspoken atheist, composed by a devout Jew, translated by a Transcendentalist, banned from church use in France, finally used as an instrument of peace in a time of war. Most people sing it without concern to its origin, which is probably just as well, but it does go to show you that God can work through the most unlikely of sources to create something beautiful.

Click here to hear a version of O Holy Night sung by Carrie Underwood on the Tonight Show.

*Image used courtesy of Ales Krivec and Unsplash

The Christmas Carol with the Nasty Tune

In 1865, William Chatterton Dix, a businessman in Bristol, England, became ill. His sickness caused a near death experience which left him with severe depression. During his recovery, however, Dix became an avid reader of the Bible and experienced a personal revival of sorts. His reading led to his writing of several poems, songs, and hymns, including  the beloved Christmas carol What Child Is This? For the tune of his new song, Dix chose the tune from the well known English folk song Greensleeves. 

Greensleeves was a popular English folk song probably written in the 16th century. The lyrics of the song contain numerous references to a lady in green sleeves who cheated on her beloved. Popular legends claim that King Henry VIII composed the song for his mistress then wife Anne Boleyn, but there doesn’t seem to be much historical evidence for that theory. A more likely possibiliy is that the song was written about a loose young woman, possibly a prostitute, whose dress developed green sleeves because she frequently engaged in sexual activities in the great outdoors. Greensleeves could just as well have been titled Grass Stains.  

Ewwww!

Can you imagine the looks they gave each other in church when What Child Is This? was sung for the first time in church? It would be like a modern composer setting Christian lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On. However, it’s my guess that in 1865 that no one really thought much about the meaning behind Greensleeves and were simply happy to know the tune to the new Christmas carol. 

The truth is, the tune itself is amoral. It’s neither bad or good. It’s simply music. And I, for one, am happy that the tune Greensleeves was redeemed in a way and now helps us worship Jesus.

Merry Christmas.

Click here  to hear What Child is This? performed by Take 6.
Click Here to hear a version of Greensleeves performed by Tim Foust.

Image courtesy of David Beale and Unsplash

The Christmas Carol That Isn’t About Christmas

My little sister used to love the Christmas Carol Joy To The World. When she was little, she used to sing out, “Let every heart repair His room!” I can still hear my mother crying out, “Prepare! Sing it right. Prepare Him room.”

I’ve often wondered if my little sister would have enjoyed the Christmas Carol so much if she would have realized that it actually isn’t about Christmas. The lyrics were originally written as a poem in 1719 by the English hymn-writer Isaac Watts in His collection The Psalms of David. The poem was based on Psalm 98 which is actually more reflective of Christ’s second coming than of His birth. In 1836, a Boston music teacher set Joy To The World to music and published it in December which is why it became associated with Christmas. 

I’ve heard it said that ignorance is bliss. When I first learned the truth about Joy To the World, I couldn’t sing it during the Christmas season. It bothered me to no end that the entire world was wrong about the meaning of the song. But, as I matured, I thought, “Who cares?” It’s a great song of worship that brings joy to millions of people every year. Isaac Watts would be thrilled with the success of his poem. 

If the Lord is honored by it, that’s enough for me. Besides, I love the memory of my sister singing it. She’ll have to tell me if she still likes it when she reads this post.

Click Here to listen to one of my favorite renditions of Joy to the World by Whitney Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir.

*Image courtesy of Sincerely Me and Unsplash

Great Song, Terrible Name

One of my favorite Christmas carols has a dreadful name. In fact, its name may be the reason it isn’t included in many of today’s “happy and jolly” Christmas collections. However, to me, this carol has one of the best sentiments regarding Christmas. It always moves me.

The carol to which I’m referring is In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Georgiana Rossetti. 

Christina grew up in an artistic home and with representatives from the world of art and literature frequenting her family home. Unfortunately, Christina became ill at the age of sixteen and lived with poor health for much of the rest of her life. She faced the solitude of her sickness with a deep faith which can be seen in her writings. Not willing to let illness stop her literary contributions, Christina published three books of poetry, four devotional collections, and many Christian songs, including In the Bleak Midwinter.

With great skill, Rossetti creates a hopeless, desolate world, filled with bleakness and despair. Into this world, Jesus, Immanuel, God With Us, the Incarnate One, the Light of the World is born. Jesus transforms this world, bringing warmth and light into the most desperate of situations. Heaven’s glories couldn’t hold this Savior of ours back from bursting into our world. The humble circumstances of his birth didn’t dissuade Him from His mission of redemption. Hallelujah!

In the final stanza, the author is forced to deal with her own response to the Christ Child. What can I bring to Him or offer Him that would be of value to Him:

What can I give Him, Poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.

If I were a wise man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give him;

Give my heart.

Click here to hear the song performed by Keith and Kristyn Getty or Click here for a more liberal performance by Rend Collective 

Merry Christmas…

*Photo Courtesy of Red Dot on Unsplash