Favorite Christmas Hymns

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


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.

Maybe this means the powers that be are listening!

As I posted earlier, the news that the work on a new United Methodist Hymnal has been postponed generated many ideas about what might spring up in the meantime, including a couple of great discussions over on the facebook group for the new hymnal.

This morning, Dean McIntyre from the General Board of Discipleship emailed that group and asked us (all 1800 of us!) what our ideas are. I hope this means they’re willing to take some of ours into account! Here’s my response to his question:

Dean, I am so glad you asked!

A member of this group named Steve has a great post about what he dreams the hymnal might be here: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=828639436#/topic.php?uid=49135229167&topic=8993. Likewise, Jeremy has another thread about how we might proceed here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=49135229167#/topic.php?uid=49135229167&topic=8988.

Combining these two, I want to strongly suggest that the hymnal go super-digital. Using open source technology like Wikipedia does, you could have Methodists from all around the world suggest new songs for review, post alternative lyrics to classic tunes (or gender and ethnically sensitive lyrics for classic hymns), submit alternate psalter settings or uses, and write prayers for inclusion in an online-only hymnal supplement, and so much more! Imagine a truly global hymnal for a truly global church! People could tag hymns with keywords for faster indexing (still no index for The Faith We Sing, which is a huge hindrance, and whatever mind put together the 89 Hymnal didn’t use the keywords I want– where do I find hymns about ‘inclusiveness,’ or ‘diversity,’ or ‘mother’s day’ or ‘Native American heritage’ or a slew of other ideas? If I could add keywords or tags, and so could everyone else, suddenly we’d have many more ideas about which hymns might best fit the Word of the day.

As we build an online coalition of ideas and resources, available as it becomes ready, perhaps for an annual or one-time access key fee but produced at very minimal cost, this material could be culled, refined, and gathered for use in a printed hymnal in the future. Churches like mine would purchase probably half as many hardbound hymnals no matter what’s available online (we have probably 200 UMHs but found we only needed 60 FWSs since we use the projector screen now), but would regularly access the digital online hymnal for lyrics to paste into PowerPoint, prayer ideas, to listen to alternate tunes, and to search the ever-expanding index and find a beloved song that fits perfectly with the message that the worship team is trying to communicate through the service. At the same time, nothing would prevent a church from remaining with the hard-bound hymnal, and using the new paper hymnal when it comes out, never needing to spend the extra for the online resources if they weren’t planning on using them. I think you’ll find that even though the median age of this facebook group and other online United Methodist communities is relatively young (compared to, say, the median age of United Methodists in the U.S.), many if not all of us are still very sensitive to the needs of older print-based generations to keep the hymns, tunes, and media formats (i.e. books) that move and shape them in their faith. So while I personally cringe at “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I would by no means recommend striking it from the Hymnal– although I hear there are some lovely alternative lyrics out there that might interest me.

And ditch the hymnal on cdrom. That Folio view format used for the UMH&FWS, as well as for the NIB is just horrendous and unhelpful. Again, better to have it online and ask for an access fee. Then glitches and typos (o so many typos in the FWS!) can be fixed quickly, and the user interface can be improved in terms of searchability, bookmarking, and so on. All of this for the cost of a couple of web developers and some moderators (many of whom might be hanging around this group just waiting for an opportunity to moderate a conversation about sacred music).

While the print version of the hymnal may be becoming less cost-effective and less frequently used in worship, United Methodists are still people who sing in large part so that we can express and grow in our faith. Sacred music is alive and well–hymnody is alive and well–and you have literally thousands (almost 1800 right on this group) of people who are willing to help and share their creative ideas about how best to do that in an ever-changing context. The Gospel the Wesley brothers brought to bar music, I’m betting we can bring to the web database, the iPod, and the mp3 archive.

Blessings to you and your colleagues in this important work, and thank you again for asking. We hope you’re listening to our ideas here. It gives me tremendous hope and excitement about our church and its musical gifts to the world.

Becca Clark
pastor, Troy Annual Conference
Trinity UMC, Montpelier & Grace UMC, Plainfield VT

That Old Time Hymnal; it’s good enough for…

The United Methodist world is abuzz with the news: production on the new United Methodist Hymnal, slated for the 2012 quadrennium, has been halted.

While my congregation rejoices that this means the copies of The Faith We Sing we just bought are not going to be obsolete right away, and I rejoice that people aren’t going to dump a gozillion Hymnals in recycling bins just yet, it’s a great opportunity for us to rethink what a hymnal can and should be in our context.

As usual, my friend Jeremy got me thinking about what such a hymnal might look like. But it was a Facebooker named Steve who wrote down what I was thinking and so much more. His vision for the new Hymnal is something I would like to see embraced by United Methodists at a grassroots level as well as by the publishing house and the General Church.

Join the conversation! What would you like to see in a new Hymnal?

[editorial note: wow! my fingers haven’t had their coffee yet; i caught a ton of typos, but I’m sure I missed some.]