Throughout Advent, I invited the congregation at Lebanon UMC to vote for their favorite Christmas Hymns, and for the first Sunday after Christmas, we counted them down– well, not in order, but as part of the worship service. I shared some history of each song, gleaned from the wisdom of the Internets, and I did my best Casey Kasem impression.
The Top Eleven Favorite Hymns of Lebanon UMC
Joy to the World
Your third favorite Christmas song is not a Christmas song at all. Note the lack of virgin mothers, of mangers and cattle, of baby Jesus himself! It’s about as much a Christmas hymn as the 1971 Three Dog Night song by the same name (Jeremiah was a bullfrog!). The hymn we know refers not to the first coming of Christ, but to his return in glory: The Lord has come. Still, it has captured the spirit of the Christmas season, and on some lists is the number one Christmas song in the United States. Here it earned the third place spot. Its repetition and infectious tune make it a joy to sing, a joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, a joy to you and me, a joy to the world.
O Little Town of Bethlehem (2)
In 1865, an Episcopal priest from Philadelphia traveled to Europe and then to the Middle East, where he saw the village of Bethlehem itself. Inspired by the sight, he later wrote a poem, which he shared with his church’s organist, who then wrote the tune. The resulting hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem, was first sung in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, in 1868.
Away in a Manger (6-tie)
Some claim this hymn was written by Martin Luther and sung to his children as a cradle song, just as I sing it to one of my children nearly every time I tuck him in. However, no manuscript by Luther has ever been found, and those who speak German say the song feels more clunky in German than in English, so this is probably just a myth. Rather, this song is thought to have originated with German American Lutherans in Pennsylvania (where some of my family is from, so maybe my ancestors wrote it!). There, the first two stanzas appeared in a Sunday school book for children in 1885.
What Child is This (4)
The words to this favorite Christmas hymn were written in 1865 by, of all people, an English insurance company manager who underwent a serious illness and experienced a spiritual renewal. The words were later set to the traditional English folk song Greensleeves. Although English in origin, today the song is more popular in the United States, including here where it grabbed the number 4 spot.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (9)
Your ninth-favorite Christmas hymn is also not a Christmas hymn, but an Advent song, expressing the deep longing for the deliverance of God. The Latin text was first documented in Germany in 1710, and the tune we use hails from 15th century France. The seven stanzas come from seven O Antiphons, each expressing a title for God, sung by monastics in the seven days leading up to Christmas, over a thousand years ago.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing (10-tie)
Although *only* tying for tenth place in our poll, this one is ours– written by Charles Wesley, who with his brother John, launched what would become the Methodist movement. The original opening line was “hark how all the welkin rings,” and for those of you who were not reading Wikipedia last night, the “welkin” is the “firmament of heaven”. The tune we use today was written by Mendelssohn, one of the greatest composers of the 19th century. Like many Christmas hymns, and hymns in general, the tune and lyrics did not originate together, but when put together, the result is Christmas magic.
Angels We Have Heard on High (6-tie)
And speaking of Angels… This next hymn is one of the most mysterious of all Christmas hymns; the origins of ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ are shrouded in mystery. Urban legend says that the Gloria refrain originated as early as 129 C.E., when the bishop of Rome ordered the singing of a nativity hymn, however no record of this incident or the music exists, and it is unlikely that a piece of music could survive so long. Other legends state it was a French folk song, sung as shepherds on the fields and hills in that country called to one another. One scholar of hymns concluded that his best guess was that the hymn was actually written in France in the 18th century. By 1816, it was known in England, where– and I have always wondered at the similarity between these two hymns– it served as the inspiration for the English hymn, Angels From the Realms of Glory.
Silent Night, Holy Night (1)
You are not alone in loving this number one hymn. Translated into over 140 languages, ‘Silent Night’ is the third best-selling single of all time. Originally written in 1818 in German as an upbeat dance, by 1914 it was a soft lullaby, one famously sung on the Christmas Day truce during WWI. The Pope had called for a day of peace, but no one thought that could really happen. Somehow, however, it did; peace broke out, soldiers from both sides laying down weapons, decorating their trenches and barracks, playing games together, taking pictures together, and solemnly gathering and burning their dead together. A second silent night, a second Christmas miracle, broke out in the European trenches. It’s said the German troops began singing, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht… and the British joined in, All is calm, all is bright…
O Holy Night (8)
Originally written in French, ‘O Holy Night’ was translated to English by an American Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston in 1855. He was an abolitionist, and was especially moved by the line in the third stanza, Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother… The song was initially incredibly popular in France in the Catholic Church, and later in the American North during the Civil War, but it was denounced by the French church when it was discovered that the author of the lyrics became a socialist, and that the composer of the music– a friend of the author, whom the author had asked to write music for his poem– was oh horror of horrors, a Jew. How could he possibly compose a hymn of praise for the Christ child? The song was declared lacking in musical taste and devoid of the spirit of religion. Some combination of the condemnation by the French church, association with those godless Unitarian Universalists and the anti-slavery movement (while many denominational publishing houses– including ours– were situated south of the Mason-Dixon line), and plain old copyright issues, mean the hymn isn’t in many hymnals, including the United Methodist Hymnal. See if you think it lacks musical taste or is devoid of religious spirit.
O Come, All Ye Faithful (5)
Your fifth-favorite Christmas hymn was written in 1744 in Latin by an English lay man and set to music by him as well– an uncommon practice as we have seen in the context of other hymns, the words and the music were published together in 1751. They were translated into English 100 years later. The music, however, has also been attributed to a later composer, and dated 1782, so some confusion about the tune’s origin exists. The hymn speaks of the high adoration of Jesus; these are not your grandkids’ “adorbs”. The opening words, in Latin, adeste fideles (which my auto correct kept trying to render adept fiddles), mean, “be present, faithful ones”. More than just commanding us to come, the hymn calls us to deep presence.
Go Tell it on the Mountain (10-tie)
Our final Christmas hymn does not hail from France, or Germany, or England, or New England. This song originated as an African American spiritual, and as such, it was passed down orally long before it was written down. The man credited with publishing and preserving it, John Wesley Work, Jr., was the first African-American collector of spirituals, seeking to preserve the richness and heritage of the American slaves. The song was made more popular by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, during a musical tour to raise money for their university. These students were at first reluctant to share publicly the spiritual songs, laden with the complex history of both slavery and freed African-American people. The song was known to be sung by slaves in the south as early as 1865. In the 1960s, Peter Paul and Mary adapted it as a civil rights anthem, but it properly remains in the hands and in the legacy of the African-American slaves who first sang it, telling of the joyful hope of salvation and the call then– and still today– to not only receive the gift of Christ’s presence, but to proclaim it, share it, and live it.