Good King Winceslas: The Christmas Carol About A Kind Man

Kindness is rare these days, but in the 10th century, Good King Wenceslas, the Duke of Bohemia (in what is now the Czech Republic) was known for his kindness. His father converted to Christianity from paganism, but his mother, being the daughter of a pagan tribal chief, did not. His father died when Wenceslas was 13 and his mother immediately tried to turn him away from his faith in Christ. Wenceslas resisted and had her exiled when he became king at 18. 

Wenceslas was known far and wide for his acts of kindness. One biographer wrote this of his kind deeds: 

“Rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”

Wenceslas was loved by his people and he ruled them for a decade. However, at the young age of 28, Wenceslas was assassinated on his way to church by his brother. Fortunately, as a martyr, his influence lived on. He was canonized by the Catholic Church and is now the patron saint of the Czech state.

The carol Good King Wenceslas was written down in 1853 by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale. As the story and the song tells, Wenceslas sees a poor man collecting wood on a cold December 26th evening, when the Feast of St. Stephen is celebrated. Wenceslas finds out where the poor man lives, then along with his servant, he gathers meat, drink, and firewood and delivers it to the poor man’s home. On the way, his servant almost gives up because of the cold, but Wenceslas directs him to walk directly behind him. Miraculously, the servant feels the warmth of Wenceslas as he walks in the footprints of his master. The carol ends with a call to all Christians to bless the poor, and in doing so, find true blessings for themselves.

Even though Good King Wenceslas is not a song directly about Jesus, it is a song about someone who was Christlike at Christmastime. We could all learn a lesson from Wenceslas that kindness is a virtue worth keeping, especially if we are blessed with the means to bless others.

Click here to hear Bing Crosby sing Good King Wenceslas 

*Photo courtesy of Nathan Lemon and Unsplash

The Christmas Carol Written From Personal Experience

Pastor Phillips Brooks was a staunch abolitionist, which is probably why he was asked to speak at the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln. However, he is most remembered for writing the lyrics to 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 of the phrase: “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 was written 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.

*Image courtesy of Travis on Unsplash

The Christmas Carol That Ministered To Me

One of the sweetest Christmas carols, loved by people of all generations, is Away In A Manger. 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 ask in a sweet prayer like manner: “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 was trying to prepare to lead the musical worship for an early December 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. Before the 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 interesting arrangement of Away In A Manger by Moira Della Torre.

*Image Courtesy of Kelly Sikemma and Unsplash

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

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

New Verses to Away In A Manger

photo- courtesy of Unsplash - photo by Greg Rakozy

A few years ago, as Christmas approached, I was going through some personal struggles and even considered leaving the ministry. However, as I sat to review the worship music for the beginning of the Christmas season, I couldn’t stop singing the lyrics to Away In A Manger, one of my favorite Christmas carols. I love the simplicity of the song and am always impressed by the childlike faith it evokes.

Here are those first three stanzas:

Away in a Manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.          The Stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.                   I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky, and stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by me forever and love me I pray.            Bless all the dear children, in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

However, as I sang, I felt the song wasn’t complete, so on that day, I wrote two extra stanzas. Doing so help restore my faith and hope in the Lord. I pray they minister to you as you read them below.

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,                                                                                                                                                  Oh please, wondrous Jesus, be with us today. Fill us with your spirit, we now humbly pray.

Merry Christmas.

*photo courtesy of Unsplash

New Lyrics For “Away In A Manger”

jesus-birth

A few years ago, I wrote the lyrics for two additional verses for the Christmas Carol “Away In A Manger.” Please feel free to use them if you so desire.

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…

Merry Christmas.