Joy To The World – The Christmas Carol That Isn’t About Christmas

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.

*Image courtesy of Leon Oblak

Hark, the Herald Angels Sing- The Christmas Carol That Needed A Little Help

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.

*Image courtesy of Luke Stackpoole

There’s A Song In The Air – The Christmas Carol Whose Melody Was Written 30 Years After Its Lyrics

Josiah Holland was a photographer who left his craft to study medicine. After becoming a doctor, he once again left his vocation to pursue his love of literature and writing. Holland wrote articles for publications, then became a novelist and wrote poetry on the side. Being a strong and well known Christian, in 1874 Holland was asked to compose a poem for an annual Sunday School Journal. As a result, he penned a poem based on the first Christmas titled There’s A Song In The Air:

There’s a song in the air! There’s a star in the sky!

There’s a mother’s deep prayer and a baby’s low cry.

And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing,

For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King.

The poem probably would have been forgotten had Holland not decided to include it in a collection of his poetry originally titled Complete Poetical Writings. 

Thirty years later, in the summer of 1904, Karl Harrington was hot. Out of all of the music directors and composers in Methodist Churches everywhere, he had been selected to compile the songs for a new Methodist Hymnal. Even though he had been educated at multiple schools in both the United States and Europe and was a music professor at Wesley University, he felt overwhelmed by the task. Whenever the task of hymnal compilation became overwhelming, Harrington would often escape from his work by reading a book of poetry by one of his favorite authors, Josiah Holland. The second poem he read was titled There’s A Song In The Air. 

The poem partnered the sweetness of a mother and her newborn child with the grandeur of the life mission of Jesus Christ, the King of kings. Holland sat down at an organ with the poetry book. He read the poem aloud and composed a simple, yet beautiful melody to accompany the “lyrics.” In its completed version, There’s A Song In The Air was published in 1905 in the new Methodist Hymnal. 

Click Here to hear There’s A Song In The Air by New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu

*Image courtesy of Paul Arky

What Child Is This? – The Christmas Carol With The Nasty Tune

In 1865, William Chatterton Dix, a businessman in Bristol, England, became ill. He grew so sick that he had 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 possibility 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 called 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 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 Peter Hollens.
Click Here to hear a version of Greensleeves performed by Tim Foust.

*Image courtesy of Mario La Pergola

O Come, O Come Emmanuel – The Ancient 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 later, 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 had started an orphanage, a school for girls, and a ministry to reclaim prostitutes. He spoke 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.

The song 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 focus on the coming Christmas. Most modern versions 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 who declared these verses sang them in the opposite order than most people today. Back then, they wouldn’t sing the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” verse until Christmas Eve. They did this because it was the fulfillment of the song and of the expectation of the Messiah. 

The original Latin text creates a reverse acrostic which is not fulfilled or seen until the last verse is sung. When the ancient worshipers finally sang this verse on Christmas Eve, the reverse acrostic was solved for all the see. The message it proclaimed was “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 Tim Umphreys

The Hallelujah Chorus – The Christmas Choral Song That Made The King Rise To His Feet

For some people, the Christmas season hasn’t begun until they’ve heard The Hallelujah Chorus of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. For others, all they know about The Hallelujah Chorus is that it plays when Clark Griswold finally gets his Christmas lights working on Christmas Vacation. Either way, both sides most often agree that it is a great piece of music.

George Frideric Handel was born in Germany in 1685. Even though he was a talented musician and composer, he flunked out of college. He moved to Hamburg, Germany when he was eighteen and began to write operas, but he was only slightly successful. In hopes of greater inspiration, he relocated to Italy and began writing oratorios, large-scale religiously themed musical works for orchestra and voices performed without costumes, scenery, or action. It wasn’t long before George became known as the most acclaimed composer in all of Europe. A few of the top composers in England suggested that he move to London to be near them for creative interaction. Handel loved the city, the language, and the English theater, so he took them up on their offer, moved to England, and became an official British subject in 1727.  

George’s success continued in England. He was famous, rich, and powerful, at least for a while. Personal and financial issues began to plague him which impacted his work and his health. Before his 40th birthday, he suffered several strokes, was plagued by rheumatism, and began losing his eyesight. He went from living in riches in an extravagant home to lodging in a small home in a poor section of London. 

At the height of his poverty, Handel was contacted by Charles Jennens, a wealthy eccentric, whose ideas were as unusual as his bank account was large. Jennens had an idea for a new oratorio based around the biblical teaching about Jesus, the Messiah. The scriptures inspired Handel. He locked himself in his study and worked night and day. In seven days, he wrote the Christmas section of Messiah. The second portion, known as The Redemption Story, took another nine days. The final section, called The Resurrection and Future Reign of Christ on Heaven and Earth, took a final seven days. 

The first performance of Handel’s Messiah took place on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. He was nearly blind, but could still tell that the crowd was extremely appreciative. A few months later, he brought his new oratorio to the London stage. King George II attended the second night of the performance. The king was so moved by the first few notes of the Hallelujah Chorus that he stood to his feet. Everyone else in attendance followed suit. When the piece ended, Handel couldn’t see the king or the audience standing, but he could hear the thunderous applause. He felt then that he had written a timeless classic, destined to help the generations celebrate the birthday of the King of kings. 

Click here to hear the Royal Choral Society perform The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

*Image courtesy of the Birmingham Museum Trust

O Holy Night: The Christmas Carol Written By An Atheist

I once attended a worship service when, after a failed congregational singing of the Christmas carol O Holy Night, the worship leader stopped the music, looked out at the people, and said, “Well, that was awful.” As hard as it can be to sing, congregations around the world love to at least hear the carol sung skillfully each year. It has a majestic yet mysterious sound. It is regarded as holy but acknowledges the darkness within each of us. It also has a heck of a 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 written work 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 strong, the priest pushed forward and asked Cappeau to share it with Adolphe Adam, a prolific Jewish composer. The resulting Christmas Carol was titled “Cantique de Noel” and premiered in 1847, featuring a local opera singer Emily Laurey.

Even though “Cantique de Noel” was penned by an atheist, composed by a practicing Jew, and performed by a secular artist, it 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, Cantique de Noel 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 and believed there was goodness (and possibly holiness) in everything and everyone. He took some translation liberties with the song. This can be seen in our current version of O Holy Night when the evening itself is seen as being 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. 

It is believed to have even played a part in the Franco-Prussian War. On Christmas Eve in 1870, French troops started singing “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 so both sides could celebrate 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 the song sung by Carrie Underwood on the Tonight Show.

*Image courtesy of Markus Spiske

Mary, Did You Know? – The Christmas Song That’s Grammatically Incorrect (According To Some)

It was 1984 and Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia was preparing for their well known Living Christmas Tree presentation. Dr. Jerry Falwell, asked a virtually unknown singer/songwriter/comedian named Mark Lowry to put the program together. Lowry’s plan was to connect Christmas songs with play-like dialogue. 

As Mark Lowry prepared the music and the dialogue, he shared with his mother, Bev Lowry, that he wanted to capture the true essence of the first Christmas. Bev replied, “You know, if anyone knew Jesus was virgin born, it was Mary… and her silence at the cross is proof, I think, that her story was indeed true.” Mark Lowry turned his reflections on this into part of the dialogue for the play, which was wildly successful. However, the words he had written continued to live on him for years. 

In 1991, after Mark Lowry joined the Gaither Vocal Band, he told Buddy Greene, a renowned songwriter who was touring with the band, about the song. Greene asked to see the lyrics so Lowry wrote them down for him. Within thirty minutes, Greene had composed the melody of Mary, Did You Know? Mark Lowry loved the tune and began making preparations to record the song. 

Some sources report a humorous debate about the song between Gloria Gaither, wife of Bill Gaither, and Mark Lowry. Gloria said that the main line of the song was grammatically incorrect. She asked, “Shouldn’t the line actually be ‘Mary, do you know?’” Mark smiled and replied, “My version sings a lot better.” If you try singing the song with “do” instead of “did,” you will probably agree with Lowry.

Even though Lowry loved the song, he was concerned that the range of the song was greater than his own so he asked Michael English, fellow Gaither Vocal Band member to record the song. English agreed and released the song on his debut album. Even though the album was released in January, Mary, Did You Know? became an instant hit and has since been covered by over 500 artists. While more of a Christmas song than a Christmas carol, It has truly become a modern Christmas classic.

Click here to hear Mary, Did You Know performed by Tommee Profitt featuring Jordan Smith.

*Image courtesy of Omar Lopez

**Today’s post is an edited repost from 2021’s collection on Christmas Carol Origin story. Included by special request.

Carol of the Bells – The Christmas Song Born In Ukraine

Carol of the Bells is a favorite Christmas song for millions. Interestingly enough, this haunting, fun Christmas tune owes its origin to a Ukrainian winter well-wishing song whose lyrics had nothing to do with Christmas, or even bells for that matter. 

The original song, titled Shchedryk was written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich. The title is a derivative of the Ukrainian word shchedryj (say that three times fast) meaning bountiful. It tells the story of a swallow flying into a home declaring to its inhabitants that spring is coming soon and that they will have a plentiful new year. Leontovich had been commissioned by choir director Oleksander Koshyts to write a song for a Christmas concert based on Ukrainian folk melodies. He found the famous four note melody and the original lyrics in an anthology of Ukrainian folk melodies and adapted it for choir.

Shchedryk, in its new form, was first performed during a time of intense political struggle in Ukraine. To help their national situation, the Ukrainian government tasked Oleksander Koshyts (who had commissioned Shchedryk from Leontovich) with leading a Ukrainian choir tour across Europe, North America, and South America to promote Ukrainian music. Before their tour was complete, Koshyts choir had performed over 1,000 concerts. This precursor to Carol of the Bells became globally popular as the choir continued to introduce it around the world. It was first performed in the United States to a sold-out Carnegie Hall audience on October 5, 1921.

It wasn’t long before Peter Wilhousky, an American choir director, heard Shchedryk. The repetition of the tune reminded him of bells, so he wrote a new version of the song with new lyrics for his choir. Even though the song had been published in Soviet Ukraine twenty years earlier, Wilhousky published Carol of the Bells in 1936. It wasn’t long before the new version of the song was being performed regularly during the Christmas season across the United States.

Merry, merry, merry Christmas.

Click here to listen to Carol of the Bells as performed by St. George’s Chapel Choir at Windsor

*Photo courtesy of Phil Hearing

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In – The Christmas Carol That Proves That Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

In the movie Edward Scissorhands, Alan Arkin sings I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In while stapling artificial snow to the roof of his home. Just like that movie, the lyrics to that Christmas carol are really confusing. In a nutshell, they indicate that three ships with Jesus and Mary as their passengers sail into Bethlehem (which is surrounded by land) on Christmas Day (on Christmas Day).

The story behind I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In seems far-fetched and somewhat morbid, but it proves that truth is often stranger than fiction.

In 313 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. His mother, Helena, a well known believer in Christ, taught her son what she knew about the faith. Constantine sent Helena to the Holy Land to find proof of his new religion and to bring back as many symbols and relics as she could acquire. With the help of merchants, private citizens, and a few scam artists, Helena returned with several souvenirs: notably the cross of Jesus and the bones and skulls of the three wisemen. Constantine was so thrilled with the remains of the wise men, he promptly placed them in a fancy golden coffin and then donated them to the Bishop of Milan. 800 years later, the bones of the Magi were taken (some say stolen) by order of the pope and enshrined in a cathedral in Cologne, Germany. To this day, the shrine of the Magi still lie in the Cologne, Germany cathedral.

The 12th century boatmen who delivered the caskets to Cologne, Germany sang as they worked. As they traveled, the song morphed into a song about the skeletons of the wise men they were delivering to Germany. 

Kind of weird and morbid, huh? 

By the 16th century, the song had made its way to England and Scotland. The folk singers, bards, and minstrels changed the lyrics to be about the Holy Family arriving in Bethlehem, not by donkey, but by sailing ship. The folks of rural England and Scotland had no idea of biblical geography so no one seemed to mind that it’s technically impossible for ships to sail into Bethlehem. Some versions of the songs simply have the holy family waving while sailing by on Christmas Day. Some have Joseph steering the ship while others fail to mention him at all.

So, out of a questionable conversion, early religious artifact scam artists, royal naivete, papal “thievery”, and a morbid sea shanty came a light hearted fun Christmas song used for singing and dancing, which, in the end, I suppose, is fine, especially on Christmas Day (on Christmas Day). 

Click here for a fun version of I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In by Blackmore’s Night

*Professional photo at top courtesy of Jamie Morrison. Secondary photo is an actual photo of the Shrine of the Magi and is used courtesy of the Cologne Chapel in Koln, Germany.