An Unlikely Christmas Carol

Joy to the World

For years, Joy to the World has been a favorite Christmas carol of millions. Ironically, it was originally written as a poem (not a song) about the second (not the first) coming of Christ.

Here’s how it happened:

In 1719, Isaac Watts published a book of poetry based on the psalms. In the collection, he adjusted each psalm to reflect the work of Jesus in the New Testament. Joy to the World was his adaptation of Psalm 98. Isaac Watts interpreted the psalm as a celebration of Jesus’ role as King of both His church and the entire world.

Isaac Watts, however, did not write the melody of Joy to the World as we sing it today, but instead, instructed the reader/singer to present it in common meter to the common tunes of the Old Psalm Book of his day. Over the next 130 years, various melodies were written by several composers. Finally, in 1848, Lowell Mason published his version of Joy To The World with its current melody in The National Psalmist. It was his 4th revision of the song, sampling the opening melody from the chorus Lift Up Your Heads from Handel’s Messiah. Ironically, many today, when listening to The Messiah, believe that Handel utilized snippets of Joy to the World in His work to make it more recognizable and Christmasy.

So now we have a Christmas Carol which is written about the second coming of Jesus and was never even meant to be a song that is now a Christmas favorite for many around the world.

Merry Christmas

Related Posts: New Verses to Away In A Manger

The Trouble with “Joy to The World”


Some of our most beloved Christmas songs, when you stop to consider the lyrics, are not really about Christmas. Jingle Bells, Sleigh Ride, and Winter Wonderland are more about the winter season than they are about Christmas. My Favorite Things is from the musical The Sound of Music and takes place when children are frightened by a storm. Finally, Let It Snow and Baby It’s Cold Outside are about…well…not Christmas, that’s for sure.

And then, there’s the beloved Christmas carol Joy To The World, which as it turns out, is not really about Christmas at all.

Joy To The World, sung mostly at Christmastime, has more to do with the second coming of Jesus than the first. Isaac Watts, the English poet and originator of the lyrics, draws the song’s initial inspiration, not from the birth of Jesus narrative in Luke 2, but from Psalm 98. He paraphrased Psalm 98 in his collection titled The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Joy to the World was taken from his portion titled The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom based on the following from the King James Version:

Make a joy noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp and the voice of a psalm. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King. Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together. Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity. Psalm 98:4-9

So, how did the song become a Christmas song? Possibly from the combination of the poem by Isaac Watts with the music of George Frederic Handel, composer of The Messiah orotorio. Even though Handel and Watts may have known each other, they did not work together to create the Joy To the World song we sing today. A third party combined the Watt’s words with musical portions from Handel’s Messiah to create the tune that is sung today in North America. Since Handel’s Messiah is associated with Christmas and contains a “Christmas” section, the breakaway song, Joy to the World, has always been associated with Christmas.

So there you have it, one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time is not a Christmas song. Does it matter? Not really. Enjoy it and use it to worship the Lord, who was born in Bethlehem as a baby and will one day return to judge the world with righteousness.

Merry Christmas.

Why Many Worship Leaders Don’t Like (Or Are Afraid Of) Christmas Carols


Christmas is a special time of year for many Christians as they gather to celebrate the mystery that is the birth of our Savior. However, for many worship leaders, the Christmas season is a mystery, a conundrum, an enigma, for an entirely different reason:  Christmas carols.

For many years, a decade or more, I noticed a decline in the singing of Christmas carols in churches across America. Even though I’m beginning to see that trend reverse, there is still a resistance to Christmas carols from some worship leaders.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Christmas Carols are often written in traditional, hymnlike styles and basically sound old. This can be a inward struggle for some worship leaders who strive most of the year to create or maintain a modern style only to feel like they’ve been jerked back hundreds of years by one month every year. Many feel like they are caving into their stylistic principles just because it’s Christmas.
  • Christmas Carols are often written in key or time signatures unusual to worship leaders and instrumentalists, therefore making them more difficult to play and forcing preparation times to go longer. Worship leaders are often puzzled as to how to lead people into the presence of God when their team is struggling with figuring out the music.
  • Christmas Carols have the dual problem of being wordy and containing antiquated lyrics, making them less relevant to many congregations. To compound the problem, most churches typically only sing them at Christmas, so worship leaders, singers, and congregation members find it easy to forget the words while finding it hard to decipher them. Being tied to the music or a confidence monitor for words often makes it difficult for a worship leader to lead others in worship.
  •  Christmas Carols change chords often, sometimes containing 3 to 4 chords per measure. This compounds the problem for worship leaders and their teams when they are already struggling with an overabundance of unusual key and time signatures and unusual lyrics. Because of this, worship teams are sometimes frustrated, glued to the music or lead sheet, and completely self-focused, making it extremely difficult to lead people deeper into worship.
  •  Sometimes, Christmas Carols just don’t appeal to people and they can’t explain why. I asked one worship leader why he never led Christmas Carols and he answered, “Because they’re stupid and I hate them.”


So what are worship leaders to do? Should they just quit singing Christmas carols and ignore the Christmas season altogether? Should they completely cave in and go traditional for one month of every year? Is there anyway to strike a balance with modern worship music and Christmas carols?

I did a quick survey of a few worship leaders I know who are successfully integrating carols into their times of musical worship. Here are a few of their answers:

  • “When possible, simplify and rewrite the chord progressions by allowing for less harmonic movement. For example, some hymns and carols may have 3 or 4 chords per measure of music. Try reducing it to 1 or 2 when possible.”
  • “Mash them up. Think through how to combine Christmas Carols and worship songs that can be sung in conjunction with each other. This can be done by adding in the chorus of a new or favorite worship song as a tag to a Christmas Carol or vice versa.”
  • “Update the carols musically and creatively with production elements, different arrangements, varying instrumentation, modernizing the chords while keeping the melody, mashing them up with current worship songs, and writing extra choruses and bridges with modern words.”
  • “Don’t wait until right before the service to prepare. Find an arrangement with a demonstration your team can listen to throughout the week. Provide the music or lead sheets for them in advance and ask them to come to practice prepared to worship.”
  • “Use mashups. Every Christmas song we’ve done this year has been a mashup with other songs our congregation already knows well. This way, the song isn’t such a shock to the system for everyone involved, including the musicians onstage. It makes the music easier to play, even familiar in some situations. It’s actually been really exciting for me to find interesting ways to combine new and old songs in a fun way. I the fact that it forces me to think in creative ways…”
  • “Have a rehearsal before your pre-service runthrough to prepare your Christmas songs. Taking time to work through songs without the pressure of a service starting in an hour or less gives the worship team time to perfect the songs, allowing them to feel more natural to you.”

worship leader

To millions of people, the Christmas season, Christmas carols, and Christmas songs provide a reminder that God loved the world so much that He gave us Jesus. In this hectic world, Christmas carols can slow us down, help us forget about our frustrating pace of life, and remind us of the real meaning of Christmas. Hopefully, the suggestions above can help worship leaders and worship teams not be frustrated while preparing to lead people in times of worship utilizing carols in the Christmas season.

(Special thanks to my worship leader friends for their input)