Being a song that was passed down orally, The First Noel may date to the 13th or 14th century. Some believe the song was inspired by a dramatization of the Christmas Story where actors would act out vignettes as they sang. The song does tell the story of Jesus’ birth from Matthew 2 and Luke 2, and would have worked well as a dramatized song with a repeating chorus.
The word “Noel” is French for “Christmas” which is derived from the Latin word “Natalis,” meaning “Birthday.” Even though “Noel” works well for the chorus of The First Noel, it’s strange to consider that when the ancient singers arrived at the chorus of each verse that they were simply singing, “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas….”
The First Noel was first published by Davies Gilbert in 1823 in Some Ancient Christmas Carols. Ten years later, William Sandys published the song in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern increased the popularity and prominence of the carol. The song originally had nine stanzas, but five are most commonly used today. In most recordings, artists rarely perform more than two or three verses which is a shame because it causes people to miss out on the story of the song. Though the angels appear to the shepherds in the first verse, most of the carol focuses on the journey of the wise men, giving the carol an Epiphany focus. The fourth verse is one of my favorites:
“This Star drew nigh to the Northwest; O’er Bethlehem it took its rest.
And there it did both stop and stay, Right over the place where Jesus lay.”
Click here to read all nine verses of The First Noel.
Click here to hear Claire Crosby and Family sing The First Noel
Pastor Phillips Brooks was a staunch abolitionist, which was probably why he was asked to speak at the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln. However, he is most remembered for writing the lyrics for the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem.
Shortly after the American Civil War, Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land which extended through the Christmas holidays. On Christmas Eve, Brooks traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback so he could attend a service in Constantine’s ancient basilica, built over the potential site of the Nativity. Of his journey, Brooks reported: “Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds…Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been.”
It was here, in the fields outside Bethlehem that Brooks first conceived the line: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.” Several years later, Brooks finally completed the song and asked Lewis Redner, his organist, to write the music. The song was first performed by the children’s choir of their church. It wasn’t long before the song was included in hymnals worldwide.
Even though Phillips Brooks and his wife never had children of their own, they had a great love for children. Later in life, they met and ministered to young Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf. Brooks explained the gospel of Jesus to Keller for the first time. Keller, through her teacher and translator Anne Sullivan, said, “I’ve always known there was a God, but until now I’ve never known His name.”
Even though the third verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem waswritten long before Helen Keller met Phillips Brooks, it shares what the joy of salvation might have felt like to her:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
Click here to hear O Little Town of Bethlehem performed by Chris Tomlin.
The Advent Hymn, Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming was originally a German Catholic hymn titled Gebetbuchlein des Frater Conradus (Say that 3 times fast). The manuscript containing the song was found in St. Alban’s Carthusian monastery in Trier, Germany, so its original authorship is anonymous. The song was focused on Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is compared to the rose mentioned in Song of Solomon 2:1 – “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.” The story is told that one Christmas Eve, a monk found a rose blooming in the woods. He placed the rose in a vase and placed it before the altar of Mary. Whether that is true or not, the song was published somewhere around 1582. This first version had 19 verses.
By 1609, Protestants had adopted the song and changed its focus from Mary to Jesus citing Isaiah 11:1 – “Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot, yes, a new branch bearing fruit from the old root.” Not to be outdone by the Catholics, the 1599 Cologne, Germany Protestant version of the song was published with 23 verses in Alte Katholische Geistliche Kirchengesang,which is a hymnal of sorts. I can just see the preacher now saying, “Ok, we’re going to sing all 23 verses unless someone makes a decision before the second verse.”
The version most known today was given a new tune by Michael Praetorius in 1609. Most collections today ironically contain only 2-3 verses.
Click here to hear a version of Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming by Reawaken Hymns
Adeste Fideles, is a Latin hymn which is translated O Come, All Ye Faithful. The official authorship has been given to John Francis Wade (1711-1786), whose name is included on most if not all of the earliest manuscripts. Even so, the lyrics and tune appear to be the result of a collaboration of several people over hundreds of years, although what we sing today is a 19th century version of an 18th century compilation.
Some believe that Adeste Fideles is not actually about Christ, but is instead about Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of James II, England’s last Catholic king. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie led a rebellion to restore the Catholic House of Stuart to the English throne. Fideles is believed to mean Faithful Catholic Jacobites. Bethlehem is also believed to be a term for England. If this is true, the song is actually a war cry shouting out, “Come and Behold Him, Born the King of the English.”
More recently, others believe that the 1980’s rock band Twisted Sister sampled the melody of their biggest hit, We’re Not Gonna Take It from O Come, All Ye Faithful. The melodies of the songs are very similar, but it’s purely coincidental. Jay Jay French, lead guitarist of Twisted Sister stated in a radio interview that the band discovered the similarities and recorded a version of O Come, All Ye Faithful for their Christmas album A Twisted Christmas.
I suppose I can ignore the possibility of O Come, All Ye Faithful having its origins with Bonnie Prince Charlie if it results in a song that God can use to get a rock group like Twisted Sister to sing “O Come, Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!”
Click hereto hear Adeste Fideles by Andrea Bocelli
Click here to hear O Come, All Ye Faithful by Tasha Cobbs
Click here to hear O Come, All Ye Faithful by Twisted Sister
*Image courtesy of Tim Mossholder **This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com
In The Bleak Midwinter is one of my favorite Christmas carols. It’s name may be the reason it isn’t included in many of today’s “happy and jolly” Christmas collections. However this carol has one of the best sentiments regarding Christmas. It always moves me.
In the Bleak Midwinter was written 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.
Ironically, In The Bleak Midwinter was first published as a poem in Scribner’s Notes in 1872. Its title at the time was simply A Christmas Carol. The song was later given its tune by the English composer Gustav Holst. It was first published as the Christmas hymn, or carol, with the title and roughly the same form we sing today, in 1906. If the song had kept Rossetti’s original title, it’s possible that people for the last 100 years or so would be confusing it A Christmas Carol, the famous novella by Charles Dickens.
Frankly, I’m glad the song has the dreadful name.
With great skill, Christina Georgiana Rossetti has written about a hopeless, desolate world, filled with bleakness and despair. Into this world, Jesus, our Immanuel, God With Us, the Incarnate One, the long awaited Messiah, the Light of the World, was born. The Lord Jesus miraculously transformed the world. Surprising so many, He brought and is still bringing warmth and light into the most desperate of situations. He lowered Himself to be born among us. In fact, the glories of Heaven couldn’t hold this Savior of ours back from bursting into our world. Even the humble circumstances of his birth couldn’t dissuade Him from His mission of redemption. Praise the Lord!
My favorite line of In The Bleak Midwinter, of course, comes in its final verse, Rossetti is forced to deal with her own response and worship of Jesus Christ. It’s a question we must all answer at one point or another in our lives.
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 In The Bleak Midwinter performed by Keith and Kristyn Getty or Click here for a more liberal performance by Rend Collective
One of the sweetest Christmas carols, loved by people of all generations, is Away In A Manger. It has often been considered the Jesus Loves Me of Christmas Carols.Because the author of the song was anonymous and because it was first published in a German hymnal in the mid-1800’s, people assumed the carol must have been written by Martin Luther. In fact, around the world, people began to call the song Luther’s Cradle Hymn.. However, there is no real proof of Luther’s authorship so the original source of the carol remains anonymous.
The beauty of Away In A Manger lies in its sweetness and simplicity. In a few verses, the carol shares about how God lowered Himself to be born among us in humble, crude circumstances. No wonder the lyrics basically pray: “Be near Me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray.”
I remember praying those words many years ago when my wife and I experienced a significant loss. In the midst of my grief, I attempted a personal planning session for the musical worship for an early December worship service. One of the songs we were to sing was Away In A Manger. As I sang the words, sadness overwhelmed me and I broke down in tears. I prayed then sat for a long while, contemplating the lyrics of the song and the love of God the Father who sent God the Son to be our God with us. I remembered the words of C.S. Lewis, “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.” Before my preparation session was over, I had written these two new verses for Away In A Manger:
No Longer A Baby, He grew to a man
Sent to us from Heaven to fulfill God’s plan.
He died on a cross to atone for our sin
Then rose from the dead to be alive again.
This Precious Lord Jesus Is All That We Need,
If We Make Him Our Savior and Our Lord Indeed,
O Please, Wondrous Jesus, Be With Us Today,
Fill Us With Your Spirit, We Now Humbly Pray.
Click here for an worshipful medley of Away In A Manger and Worthy Is Your Name by the Maverick City Gospel Choir featuring Kim Walker Smith and Chandler Moore
*Image Courtesy of Walter Chavez **This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com
The 12 Days of Christmas is a fun song that people of all ages sing at Christmastime. Until recently, I thought it was simply about a lucky guy whose true love gave him lots of presents. However, there was a time when The 12 Days of Christmas was used as an undercover teaching tool for children in the Catholic Church.
In the 16th century, the Church of England was the only legal church in England. If Catholics were going to raise their children in their faith and practice, they had to do so in secret. Even their lessons of doctrine and faith had to be reproduced by secret code. Even though The 12 Days of Christmas appears to be without purpose, it actually taught important doctrinal lessons. The 12 days marked the time between Christmas Day and Epiphany, when it is celebrated that the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem. The “true love” mentioned in the song is not speaking of a romantic love interest, but of the Lord’s love for each of us. Each day also has an undercover spiritual meaning. I’ll list them below as succinctly as possible:
1st Day of Christmas – The partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus, who gave his life for us, much as a mother partridge would do for her chicks. The pear tree also symbolizes the cross.
2nd Day of Christmas – The two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Doves are symbols of peace and truth as the Bible conveys.
3rd Day of Christmas – The three French hens represent the gold, frankincense, and myrrh presented to Jesus by the wise men. In the olden days, if a meal served three French hens, it was fit for a king.
4th Day of Christmas – The four calling birds represent the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) which cry out the story of Jesus for all to hear.
5th Day of Christmas – The five golden rings represent the five Old Testament books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy which showed not only the fall of man but gave hope that a Savior would come and offer a pathway to salvation.
6th Day of Christmas – The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of Creation. The eggs are a symbol of new life.
7th Day of Christmas – The Seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Romans 12:6-8 (Prophecy, Service, Teaching, Encouragement, Giving, Leadership, and Mercy). Children were often taught that when you follow the ways of the Lord, the gifts of the spirit moved in your life as easily as a swan swam on the water.
8th Day of Christmas – The Eight maids a-milking represent the common folk Jesus came to save who are follow the eight beatitudes (the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker, and the righteous.)
9th Day of Christmas – The Nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Dancing represented the joy of serving Christ.
10th Day of Christmas – The ten lords a-leaping represent the 10 Commandments because a lord was supposed to be just and noble.
11th Day of Christmas – The eleven pipers piping represent the 12 Disciples of Jesus minus Judas who fell away. They led the way in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
12th Day of Christmas – The twelve drummers drumming represent the dozen elements found in the Apostles’ Creed (You can read it here.) The drum symbolized the daily practice and rhythm of spiritual disciplines.
Fortunately, the time finally came in history when Catholicism was no longer a crime in England. However, by the time that happened, most people didn’t understand the undercover meanings behind the days and the gifts. Therefore, the song is most often thought of as a whimsical and fun Christmas song.
Click here to hear one of my favorite renditions of the 12 Days of Christmas by John Denver and the Muppets.
*Image courtesy of Stephanie Klepacki. **This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com
Traditionally, bells are rung at Christmas to announce the advent of the season. More so, they are rung to proclaim the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is certainly understood in the Christmas song Come On Ring Those Bells. It is considered by many to be contemporary Christian music’s first major contribution to well known Christmas classics. Even though the song has a country feel, it was actually written and composed by an Englishman and made popular by the daughter of Norwegian immigrants.
The song was written by Andrew Culverwell. He was originally from Somerset, England. He studied acting for a while before realizing he had a talent for writing and composing music. Culverwell wanted to make a difference for Christ, so he joined a contemporary Christian music group in England. He later moved to the United States to begin a solo recording career.
Culverwell wrote the song in 1976. The very next year, Come On Ring Those Bells was recorded and released on an album by the same name by Evelyn Tornquist Karlsson, better known to the world as “Evie.” The song was nominated for a Grammy award that same year. In this author’s opinion, it paved the way for future Christian artists to record the modern Christian songs we now all enjoy.
Click here to listen to Come On, Ring Those Bells by Evie.
My younger sister used to love the Christmas Carol Joy To The World. When she was little, she would 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 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.
Click Here to listen to one of my favorite renditions of Joy to the World by Whitney Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir.
Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, was an early leader in the Methodist Church. It has been reported that in his lifetime, he wrote over 6,000 hymns in order to teach the poor and illiterate sound doctrine. One Christmas day, as he walked to church, he was inspired by the sounds of the London church bells to write a new Christmas Carol. It was then that he quickly penned the lyrics to “Hark, How All the Welkin Rings.”
Charles Wesley’s new carol first appeared in 1739 in Hymns and Sacred Songs. It was intended to be sung to the tune of Christ the Lord is Risen Today.
Here are the first two verses of the original song:
Hark, how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say, “Christ the Lord is born today!”
Yeah, kind of different, huh?
A few years later, George Whitefield, a student turned colleague turned rival of John and Charles Wesley, adapted the lyrics into those we now sing (Well, mostly). He did publish the new revision and title it Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
Whitefield rarely gets credit for this change because of further developments to the carol. In 1840, Felix Mendelssohn composed Festgesang, a cantata celebrating the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable type. English musician William H. Cummings partnered a melody from one of the choruses with a revised version of White’s revised version of Wesley’s original text. The new tune was titled MENDELSSOHN. The new revision combined two shorter verses into one verse. The new version also repeated the first two lines of the first verse (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the newborn King) to match the new tune.
Listen to both versions below and judge for yourself.
Click here to hear Hark! The Herald Angels Sing performed by Nat King Cole Click here to hear Hark, How All the Welkin Rings performed by the Boys of Worcester Cathedral Choir.