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

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”

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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.