Good King Wenceslas – written in 1853

GOOD KING WENCESLAS                                                            written in 1853

The Story

“Good King Wenceslas” is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a Czech king going on a journey, and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the day after Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia.

Wenceslas was one of the early Christian rulers in Bohemia. When he was 5 years old, his father was killed in battle and his mother became the head of state, ruling the country with a firm hand. During this time, his grandmother, Ludmilla, took care of Wenceslas and brought him up as a Christian (she smuggled priests into the house to help teach him). Wenceslas became king when he turned 18, and was known as a wise and diplomatic ruler.

The story in the song may have been fictitious; the true-life story of Wenceslas was certainly nothing to sing about at Christmas time. Wenceslas was invited to a banquet where his enemies had planned to assassinate him. Though weapons were drawn, the official historian wrote, “God did not permit them to strike”. The next morning, Wenceslas went to church, where the plotters were waiting. At the age of 22, he was murdered on the church steps.

Wenceslas sought to rule as Christ would rule. He helped the poor. He improved the cultural standards of the people. And today, in Prague, though it has been more than 1,000 years since his death and though the country has passed through various governments, he is still remembered by a statue of him riding on horseback; it stands in the middle of Wenceslas Square.

John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was strongly high church in his sympathies, and had to endure a good deal of opposition, including a 14 years’ inhibition by his bishop. So, Neale translated the Eastern liturgies into English, and wrote a devotional commentary on the Psalms. But, he is best known as a hymn writer and, especially, translator, having enriched English hymnody with many ancient and medieval hymns translated from Latin and Greek. More than anyone else, he made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian hymns.

In 1853, Neale wrote the lyrics to this song, in collaboration with his music editor,  Thomas Helmore. Neale’s lyrics were set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol “Tempus adest floridum” (“The time is near for flowering”) first published in 1582.

 

I’ve never sung this song in a church service. I’ve never even heard it sung in  a church service.  It would not be considered a hymn, but a carol.  It teaches nothing of Christ or His birth. But, it does seem to speak of a Christian lifestyle lived by a Christian man.

Why is this one of my favorite “Christmas songs”? Because it’s such a quirky song, sung in a quirky way… and there are days I can’t get it out of my head!

            And I can also remember days, growing up in Grand Haven, MI, when my dad would make tracks in the snow for me to follow…

The Song

            Read this Christmas song, and – today – live a life filled with deeds worthy of being written about.

ALL:
Good King Wenceslas looked out, upon the Feast of Stephen,
when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even:
brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
when a poor man came in site, gathering winter fuel.

KING:
“Hither, page and stand by me!  I you know it telling:
yonder man who is he, where and what his dwelling?”

PAGE:
“Sir, he lives a good way hence, underneath the mountain;
right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

KING:
“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
you and I will see him dine, when we take them thither.”

ALL:
Page and monarch forth they went, forth they went together,
through the wild wind’s loud lament, and the bitter weather.

PAGE:
“Sir, the night is darker now, and the wind grows stronger;
fails my heart – I know not how, I can go no longer.”

KING:
“Mark my footsteps well my page, follow in them boldly:
you shall find the winter’s rage, chills your blood less coldly.”

ALL:
In his masters steps he trod, where the snow lay even,
strong to do the will of God, in the hope of Heaven:
therefore, Christians, all be sure, grace and wealth possessing,
you that now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear – written in 1849

IT CAME UPON THE MIDNIGHT CLEAR                                   written in 1849

The Story

Though he was a Unitarian minister, Edmund Sears (1810-1876) believed in the deity of Christ. He also believed in the angel’s message of “peace on earth”.

Sears served the Unitarian congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts before moving on to a larger congregation in Lancaster. After 7 years of hard work, he suffered a breakdown and returned to Wayland. He wrote this song while serving as a part-time preacher in Wayland. Writing during a period of personal melancholy, and with news of revolution in Europe and the United States’ war with Mexico fresh in his mind, Sears portrayed the world as dark, full of “sin and strife,” and not hearing the Christmas message.

Sears is said to have written these words at the request of his friend, William Parsons Lunt, for Pastor Lunt’s Sunday School. One account says the carol was first performed by parishioners gathered in Sears’ home on Christmas Eve, but it is unknown to what tune as Willis’ familiar melody was not written until the following year.

This hymn, written in Massachusetts in 1849, focuses in that angels’ song of “peace on earth” (though the Bible never really says they sang those words). Like many other hymns written in America during the mid-1800s, it might be called a “horizontal hymn”.  Such hymns called people to live well, to be at peace, and to honor God. It seeks to encourage people who are bent “beneath life’s crushing load”, as the third verse says, to stop and hear the message of Christmas shared by the angels.

Peace was a timely topic when Edmund wrote these words. Tensions were rising in America, leading toward the Civil War. It is believed Sears’ song was not focused on Bethlehem, but on his own time… and on the contemporary issue of war and peace. But the peace promised by the angels is not just international… it is personal, too.

The Song

            Read this Christmas hymn, and – today – be a peacemaker, sharing that peace of which the angels spoke.

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,

from angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold:

“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from Heaven’s all-gracious King.”

The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.

 

Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,

and still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;

above its sad and lowly plains, they bend on hovering wing,

and ever o’er its babel sounds the blessèd angels sing.

 

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

and man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.

 

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,

who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;

look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.

O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!

 

For lo!, the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold,

when with the ever-circling years comes round the age of gold.

When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,

and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.

The First Noel – written in 1833

THE FIRST NOEL                                                                            written in 1833

The Story

“Noel” is a French word that may have come from either the Latin word natalis meaning “birth” or the Latin word novella meaning “new”. In one sense “noel” refers to the whole Christmas season; in another it refers to the good news that announces Jesus Christ has come. The first Noel, the song says, was sung by an angel to poor shepherds. The chorus rings out like a message from the corner paper boy: “News! News! News! Hear all about it! The King of Israel is born today!”

Early folk carols such as this one often had a memorable chorus and several verses, each presenting some new angle to the story. An individual or group could sing a verse, maybe one newly made up, and the whole crowd would join in on the chorus.

“The First Noel” was first published in its present form by William Sandy (1792-1874) in 1833.

This Christmas hymn is memorable for at least 2 reasons:

1)  It is incredibly difficult to sing.

The first verse seems to fit the tune structure… but all the remaining verses have to hold syllables over several notes or squeeze syllables into a single note. It seems forced… and that makes it difficult to sing.

2)  It is incredibly difficult to sing.

It is a beautiful song to be sung as a solo. So, when it is sing well, it is remembered as one of the more beautiful Christmas songs.

The Song

Read this Christmas hymn, and – today – imagine what it might have been like to have heard that “first noel”.

The first Nowell the Angel did say was to certain poor Shepherds in fields as they lay.
In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep, in a cold winter’s night that was so deep.

CHORUS
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell. Born is the King of Israel.

They looked up and saw a star shining in the East, beyond them far,
and to the earth it gave great light, and so it continued, both day and night. (Chorus)

And by the light of that same Star, three Wise Men came from country far,
to seek for a King was their intent, and to follow the Star wherever it went. (Chorus)

This Star drew nigh to the North West; o’er Bethlehem it took it’s rest.
And there it did both stop and stay, right over the place where Jesus lay. (Chorus)

Then did they know assuredly within that house, the King did lie;
one entered in then for to see and found the Babe in poverty. (Chorus)

Then enter’d in those Wise Men three, full reverently upon their knee,
and offer’d there, in His presence, their gold, and myrrh, and frankincense. (Chorus)

Between an ox stall and an ass, this Child truly there born He was;
for want of clothing they did Him lay all in a manger, among the hay. (Chorus)

Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord;
that hath made Heaven and earth of nought, and with His blood mankind hath bought. (Chorus)

If we in our time shall do well we shall be free from death and Hell;
for God hath prepared for us all a resting place in general. (Chorus)

Silent Night – written in 1818

SILENT NIGHT                                                                                  written in 1818

The Story

In their village, high in the Austrian Alps (think Heidi), a Catholic priest and his organist often talked about the hymns their church sang. They agreed the perfect Christmas hymn had not yet been written. Then, just before Christmas in 1818, the church organ stopped working. A mouse had chewed through one of the ballasts and it would no longer pump as it should. Suddenly, they needed a new hymn that could be easily sung by the congregation, even without a booming organ to lead the way.

Joseph Mohr (1792-1848), the priest, took up the challenge and quickly wrote the words for “Silent Night. He handed those words to Franz Gruber (1787-1863), the organist, who said, “You have found it – the right song – God be praised!” It was a more personal Christmas song than those that had been written before. Gruber wrote a tune that could effectively be played and sung with guitar accompaniment.

But, the hymn might have remained an obscure Alpine folk song if it weren’t for the man who came to repair the organ. A few days after Christmas, he got a copy of the song and began sharing it with others. Soon, touring groups began to sing it in concerts… spreading its popularity even further. Today, it is the favorite Christmas hymn of many.

The Song

Read this Christmas hymn, and – today – imagine being a fly on the stable wall… and hearing this song being sung.

Silent night, holy night!  All is calm, all is bright
‘round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace… sleep in heavenly peace
Silent night, holy night!  Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,

heavenly hosts sing, “Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born!  Christ the Savior is born!”
Silent night, holy night!  Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,

with dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth… Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.

Angels From The Realms Of Glory – written in 1816

ANGELS FROM THE REALMS OF GLORY                               written in 1816

The Story

            James Montgomery (1771-1854), a newspaperman in London, had been imprisoned twice for his controversial editorials. But there was no controversy when he wrote this Christmas poem and ran it in his newspaper column on Christmas Eve, 1816.

Other than Isaac Watts, probably no writer by that time contributed more to the development of Christian hymns than this unique journalist who championed the cause of the poor and downtrodden, as well as foreign missions. It is fitting that the music was composed by a blind organist, Henry Smart (1813-1879), the designer and builder of some of England’s finest organs and one of the outstanding musicians of his day.

In writing this hymn, James referred, not only to the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth, but also to the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, where the Messiah is called the desired of all nations (Hag. 2:7), who would come suddenly to His Temple (Mal. 3:1).

The Song

            Read this Christmas hymn, and – today – spend a few moments worshiping Christ the King!

Angels, from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth;
ye who sang creation’s story, now proclaim Messiah’s birth:

CHORUS:
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.

Shepherds, in the fields abiding, watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing, yonder shines the infant light: (CHORUS)

Sages, leave your contemplations, brighter visions beam afar;
seek the great Desire of nations, ye have seen His natal star: (CHORUS)

Sinners, wrung with true repentance, doomed for guilt to endless pains,
justice now revokes the sentence, mercy calls you—break your chains: (CHORUS)

Though an infant now we view Him, He shall fill His Father’s throne,
Gather all the nations to Him; every knee shall then bow down: (CHORUS)

All creation, join in praising God the Father, Spirit, Son;
evermore your voices raising, to the ‘ternal Three in One: (CHORUS)

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus – written in 1744

COME, THOU LONG-EXPECTED JESUS                                  written in 1744

The Story

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was a prolific hymnwriter who wrote at least 18 Christmas hymns, but he was never content with simply painting the picture of the manger scene. He needed to go deeper. In this hymn, he begins to allude to scriptural prophecies of Christ. Moving on to personal application, he continues: Christ is not only the “desire of every nation”; He is the “joy of every longing heart”. He is not only the Child born with the “government… on His shoulders” (Is. 9:6); He is also “born to reign in us forever”.

Such personal application was a hallmark of the Wesleys’ ministry. Charles and his brother, John, challenged the staid Anglican traditions of their time. The church of their day had great scholarship; its theology was orthodox. Christians sang hymns straight from Scripture. But the Wesleys asked, “Does this mean anything to you? Is the Biblical story about long-ago events or about what is going on in your life?” The urged people to meet Christ personally and to include Him in every part of their lives – even their hymn singing.

This hymn text has been put with different tunes… two of which are sung more often than the others, and those two are sung about equally. So, the way you sing this Christmas Carol may be different from the way the person next to you might sing it (but hopefully not in the same congregation at the same time…).

The Song

            Read this Christmas hymn, and – today – imagine the excitement of receiving something you’ve waited for a long time.

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set Your people free;
from our fears and sins release us
by your death on Calvary.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope to all the earth impart,
dear desire of ev’ry nation,
joy of ev’ry longing heart.

Born Your people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King;
born to reign in us forever,
now Your gracious kingdom bring.
By Your own eternal Spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by Your all-sufficient merit
raise us to Your glorious throne.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel – written in 1100s

O COME, O COME EMMANUEL                                                    written in 1100s

The Story

This Christmas hymn is ancient (coming from the 12th century), not only in its text, but also in its music. While the tune used today was not used until the 1800s, it is based on plainsong… the type of music used in church during medieval times. The lack of strict rhythmic measures gives the tune a free-flowing style. You can imagine each line being sung and held… so the sound would echo throughout a stone cathedral; then, just before the sound of that line would die, the next line would begin.

The text developed without the chorus as a series of liturgical phrases used during Advent. Each verse concentrates on a different biblical name for Christ: Jesus is Emmanuel – “God with us”, “Wisdom from on high”, “Desire of nations”, and “Dayspring”.

The Latin text was first documented in Germany in 1710. It has been translated and re-translated throughout the centuries.

Verses 1 & 4 were translated into English by John Mason Neale (1818-1866).

Verses 2 & 3 were translated into English by Henry S. Coffin (1877-1954).

Though the text version we sing was not written until 1861.

The Song

Read this Christmas hymn, and – today – focus on Jesus, the Reason for the Season!

The 1710 Version —

Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel… and ransom captive Israel…
that mourns in lonely exile here… until the Son of God appear;
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel… shall be born for thee, O Israel!

Draw nigh, O Jesse’s Rod, draw nigh… to free us from the enemy;
from Hell’s infernal pit to save… and give us victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel… shall be born, for thee, O Israel!

Draw nigh, Thou Orient, Who shalt cheer… and comfort by Thine Advent here,
and banish far the brooding gloom… of sinful night and endless doom.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel… shall be born for thee, O Israel!

Draw nigh, draw nigh, O David’s Key… the Heavenly Gate will open to Thee ;
make safe the way that leads on high… and close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel… shall be born for thee, O Israel!

Draw nigh, draw nigh, O Lord of Might… Who to Thy tribes from Sinai’s height
in ancient time didst give the Law… in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel… shall be born for thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high… and order all things, far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show… and cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel… shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind… all peoples in one heart and mind;
bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;… fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel… shall come to thee, O Israel.

The 1861 Version —

O come, O come, Emmanuel… and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here… until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel… shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free… Thine own from Satan’s tyranny ;
from depths of hell Thy people save… and give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel… shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high… and cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night… and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel… shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come… and open wide our heav’nly home ;
make safe the way that leads on high… and close the path to misery.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel… shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Adonai, Lord of might… Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times didst give the law… in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel… shall come to thee, O Israel.

O Come, All Ye Faithful – written in 1743

O COME, ALL YE FAITHFUL                                                         written in 1743

The Story

            John Francis Wade (1711-1786) made his living copying manuscripts by hand, and he became famous for his artistic calligraphy. Because he sometimes copied music as well, scholars have been unsure whether or not John Francis actually wrote this song… or simply wrote it down after someone else authored it.

The song was originally written in Latin as Adeste Fidelis, but that was not problem for Wade. He was Roman Catholic, and all services in the church at that time were conducted in Latin. Apparently, in 1750, John Francis slipped this hymn into a manuscript he was copying for the English Roman Catholic College in Lisbon, Portugal. Over 30 years later, in 1785, it was sent to the Portuguese Chapel in London, and the tune became known as the “Portuguese Hymn”. The Duke of Leeds heard it sung there and included it in the repertoire of his own singing group. It soon became known around the world.

The Song

            Read this Christmas hymn, and – today – ensure you are one of the faithful who is called!

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant; O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels;

CHORUS

O come, let us adore Him!  O come, let us adore Him!
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal; lo, He shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created; (Chorus)

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation; O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest; (Chorus)

See how the shepherds, summoned to His cradle, leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
we, too, will thither bend our joyful footsteps; (Chorus)

Lo! Star-led chieftains, Magi, Christ adoring, offer Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
we to the Christ Child bring our hearts’ oblations. (Chorus)

Child, for us sinners poor and in the manger, we would embrace Thee, with love and awe;
who would not love Thee, loving us so dearly? (Chorus)

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning; Jesus, to Thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. (Chorus)

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – written in 1739

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING                                         written in 1739

The Story

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) wrote over 6,000 hymn texts, but this one may have been his best one! In singing this hymn, we not only join the shepherds under a canopy of singing angels, we also learn about the Jesus they proclaimed. We discover who He is and what His coming means.

Because Charles was a somber man, he initially requested these lyrics be placed with a slow and solemn tune. The tune was eventually changed to become the exuberant carol it is today.

Wesley’s carol is filled with powerful scripture ideas; a month could be spent studying these verses. But let’s focus on that last 4 lines: “Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die; born to raise the sons (and daughters) of earth, born to give them second birth.” These are the reasons why Jesus came: so we would not have to face eternal death… so He could raise us with Him… so He could regenerate us into children of God.

For these reasons and so much more, He deserves our praise. “Glory to the newborn King!”

By the way, we have no record the angels ever actually sang their message.

The Song

            Read this Christmas hymn, and – today – listen for the messaging angels!

Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconcile.
Joyful, all ye nations, rise, join the triumph of the skies;
with the angelic host proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’!”
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”

Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail, the incarnate Deity,
pleased as Man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”

Hail, the heaven-born Prince of peace!  Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by; born that man no more may die,
born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Joy To The World – written in 1719

JOY TO THE WORLD                                                                      written in 1719

The Story

When is a Christmas carol not really a Christmas carol? Maybe when it doesn’t actually focus on the birth of Christ. This “Christmas carol” is a good example…

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) based this hymn text on the last half of Psalm 98, which celebrates the coming of the Lord to judge the world in righteousness. In other words, it is intended to celebrate Christ’s second coming, not His first!

In that psalm, the psalmist calls on all creation to sing and shout for joy at the Lord’s coming. There is nothing in that psalm… or in Watts’ paraphrase… that specifically mentions the birth of Christ, just the Lord’s return in judgment.

This song was first published in 1719 in Watts’ collection; The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. The tune’s origins are unclear. The name “Antioch” is generally used for the tune; it is often attributed to George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) on the grounds of a ‘chance resemblance’ to choruses in the oratorio Messiah (premiered 1742). Other hymnals credit the tune to Lowell Mason (1792-1872), who introduced it to America (US) in 1836 as ‘arranged from Handel’.

As of the late 20th century, “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America.

So, should we stop singing this hymn at Christmas? No! This hymn celebrates God’s involvement with His people – and that work of God began in earnest in a stable in Bethlehem.

The Song

            Read this hymn, and – today – celebrate with joy!

Joy to the world! The Lord is come; let earth receive her king;
let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing, and heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! The savior reigns; let men their songs employ;
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
the glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love,
and wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders, of His love.