Snowflake garland on a piano

A few months ago, I wrote about some of the most-loved hymns in Church history and the back stories that made them the classics they remain today. I thought it’d be fun to do the same with a few Christmas carols this month.

9th century

1. O Come, O Come Emmanuel

The original writer of this haunting hymn remains unknown, but the most widely acknowledged guess is a simple monk or nun. In the early 19th century, an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale was reading an ancient book of poetry and hymns and dusted off this unknown Latin poem, which was complete with music accompaniment.

Neale knew 20 languages, including Latin, and was able to translate this song into English. He lived in the Madeira islands near Africa, where he had established an orphanage, a school for girls, and a ministry to reclaim prostitutes. Neale first played this hymn for the people he served, thought to be the lowest of society. The hymn has remained in popular rotation ever since.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel by The Civil Wars

1719

2. Joy to the World

At this point in history, most songs sung in European church services were the Psalms in the Old Testament. Though Isaac Watts loved the Bible, he felt that these songs felt “unnatural” to sing in their modern-day English translations.

After one Sunday service, 15-year-old Isaac complained about “the atrocious worship.” One of the deacons challenged him with, “Give us something better, young man.” He went home and penned his first hymn, and the love of hymn-writing stuck with him the rest of his life.

In 1719, his book “Psalms of David Imitated” was published, not as a new paraphrase of David, but as an imitation of him in New Testament language. Watts’ perspective was the Psalms bursting forth in their complete fulfillment. Joy to the World is the “imitation” of the last half of Psalm 98.

Watts transformed the old Jewish psalm of praise for historic deliverance into a song of rejoicing for the salvation of God that began when the Jesus came “to make his blessing flow far as the curse is found.”

Music is from George Frederick Handel, and some scholars say it resembles his greatest work, Messiah.

Joy to the World by Sufjan Stevens

1739

3. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Charles Wesley originally wrote this poem to be recited on Christmas Day, but it wasn’t the version we know today. The original was ten four-line verses, and instead of singing “Glory to the newborn King,” the line was, “Glory to the King of kings.”

That line was changed by George Whitfield, a student of Wesley’s, and he was also the one who eliminated the verses we no longer sing and who made the ones we do sing longer. (The line change to “newborn King” from “King of kings” was a controversial statement at the time; the former claims that the angels praised God the Father when Jesus was born, the latter claims Jesus himself was praised. This caused a riff between the men.)

Nonetheless, this hymn remains one of the most theologically rich carols we still sing, and music was later added by Felix Mendelssohn.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by Amy Grant

Christmas caroler in a porcelain village

1818

4. Silent Night

Josef Mohr was the pastor of the Church of St. Nicholas at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg, Austria. After an evening Christmas program on the 23rd, Mohr took a longer way home that took him up over a hill overlooking the village.

Reveling in the silence of the wintry night, the Christmas play he had just seen made him remember a poem he had written a couple of years before, and decided those words might make a good carol for his congregation the following evening at their Christmas Eve service. The next day, he went to see the church organist, Franz Gruber, who had only a few hours to come up with a melody for a guitar.

On Christmas Eve, the little Oberndorf congregation heard Gruber and Mohr play their new composition. The carol spread across northern Europe, and in 1834, singers performed Silent Night for King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who then ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas Eve.

Twenty years after “Silent Night” was written, the song was brought to the United States, in New York City’s Trinity Church. Silent Night is now sung in more than 300 different languages around the world.

Silent Night by Sarah McLachlan

1847

5. O Holy Night

A parish priest in a small French town commissioned a local poet and wine commissionaire, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, to write a poem for the village’s Christmas Eve mass. Cappeau read through the birth of Christ in the gospel of Luke en route to Paris, and finished the poem O Holy Night by the time he reached the city.

Cappeau turned to his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to compose the music to the poem, and three weeks later, the song was sung in the village on Christmas Eve. Initially, Cantique de Noel (the song’s French name) was widely loved by the Church in France, but when leaders learned that Cappeau was a socialist and Adams a Jew, the song was uniformly denounced as unfit for church services. But the common French people loved it so much, they continued to sing it.

The song came to the U.S. via John Sullival Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War. Moved by the line in the third verse, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease,” he published it in his magazine and quickly found favor in the north during the war.

Even though it was banned in France, the song was still popular among the people. On Christmas Eve in 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian War, a unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked into the battlefield, and started singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the song’s first line in French.

After singing all three verses, a German solider emerged and started singing, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” the beginning of a popular hymn by Martin Luther.

Fighting stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day. Soon after, the French Church re-embraced O Holy Night.

O Holy Night by Third Day

The history behind 5 great Christmas carols

Last year I created three different Christmas playlists on Spotify—instrumental, dinner party, and reflective. Add them to your repertoire if you need some good background music this month!

There are hundreds of other beloved Christmas hymns—which one is your favorite?

{Photos by Amanda Munoz and }

comments (closed):

  1. 1

    Tsh,
    I loved this! I had to smile when I read about the 15 year old calling worship “atrocious”…where have I heard that before? Anyway, I wish I had the comeback line of the pastor that if you don’t like it give me something better and “Joy to the World” was born. Knowing the story behind the carols lets me enjoy singing them even more than before. I like “Joy to the World” even more now, but my longstanding favorite is “Silent Night”. Thanks Tsh!
    Blessings,
    Bev

  2. 3

    Oh, this is just right up my alley. Love reading these stories behind the songs! And O Holy Night is always and forever my fave.

    Thank you, Tsh!

  3. 4
    Lynn Morrissey says:

    Thank you so much for sharing the stories behind the songs. It makes the singing of them all the richer. What I particularly love about the story of Silent Night is the reason behind the use of the guitar. The organ at the Church of St. Nicholas was not working, which threatened the singing (sans accompaniment) at the Christmas Eve service. Isn’t it just like the Lord to make the best of a bad situation? I’m singing Cantique de Noel (The Song of Christmas) this month at church, and it’s likely my favorite Christmas solo. Thank you for sharing the beautiful background behind it, and it’s also proof that God can use us all to share His truth–a socialist and a Jew. I particularly love singing it in French, and including the English translation, which is different from our English version. Thanks again for sharing, and Merry Christmas!
    Lynn

    • 5

      Very cool that you sing the French version!

    • 7

      I too feel that “O Holy Night” is one of the most inspiring and awesome songs I hear at Christmas. Even now I can hear the chorus in my heart. I worship the Lord for His great sacrificial love for us in giving His Son in order that we might know God and be His adopted sons and daughters.

  4. 8

    These are some of my most favorite songs. Their history is so rich and interesting…thanks for doing the research. :)

  5. 9

    Tsh, this was SO fun to read!! I’m a big fan of old hymns, and with Christmas being my favorite section of the hymnal, I loved finding out more history behind some of my favorites. Also, I blame you for my opening up a Spotify account =) Thanks for giving me three great stations to follow!

  6. 11

    Silent Night has always been my favorite. I love reading about the history of songs.

  7. 12

    I absolutely love hearing the stories behind these songs. It makes them so much more meaningful! Thanks for this post.

  8. 13

    My favorite has always been O Come, O Come Emmanuel since I heard it sung in the most awesome soprano voice when I was a child… It still brings tears to my eyes because of that one time!! Some 40 years later.

    I also like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen sung in deep voices. =) We like to play with that one at home and see who can do the deepest voice the longest.

    Thanks for the wonderful history behind these songs.

  9. 14

    Very cool, Tsh! My family attends a contemporary church service these days, but there is something about these old classic carols in a traditional sanctuary. Especially when they are sung with strings or brass, it just means Christmas to me. Now to know these stories too just makes it that much more special.

  10. 15

    I didn’t know that Silent Night was first done on guitar! For years, I played guitar with my family (as in all five of us played parts together) on Silent Night for our Christmas Eve service. We played in the background while everyone lit their candles, and once the candles were all aglow, we all sang the verses together. It was beautiful. And now that memory is extra special.

  11. 16
    Yewande says:

    What a beautiful post. O come O come Emmanuel and O Holy Night are two of my favourites. It was so lovely reading the stories behind them. So wonderful. I love hymns so much.
    Thank you Tsh.
    For those who like instrumentals, found this on youtube O come O come Emmanuek by The Piano Guys
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO7ySn-Swwc

  12. 17

    I respect anyone who respects Sufjan and his Christmas arrangements. His Joy to the World is perfection.

    I think you might like The Brilliance’s Advent albums if you haven’t heard them (Michael Gungor’s brother, David + Gungor’s amazing pianist, John Arndt). Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are both on Spotify, and they came out with a “B-sides” a few days ago. Here’s a sample: http://thebrilliancemusic.bandcamp.com/track/joyful-joyful

    They actually even do a Joy to the World that’s based off of Sufjan’s version. I’m assuming they asked permission. But like I said, I respect anyone who respects Sufjan. ;)

  13. 18
    Christa Horst says:

    Love this! Thank you for the history. Also, if anyone is interested there is a wonderful film-Joyeaux Noel. It is based off the story behind O Holy Night’s impact during Christmas Eve on the war lines of French and German soldiers. We watch it every Christmas.

  14. 19
    Laura Susan says:

    Thank you, Tsh! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve fallen in love with O Come O Come Emmanuel, especially singing it at the beginning of Advent.
    Another favorite is Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. The version from Red Mountain Music on the album “Silent Night” is excellent!

  15. 20

    I love all the really old stuff: Of The Father’s Love Begotten; Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming; The Coventry Carol; The Holy and the Ivy.

    O Holy Night always zings me.

    And then there’s Mary’s Boy Child, which, as a child I sometimes thought was called Hally Corcut or Mary’s Pork Chop!

  16. 21
    Beth Williams says:

    Tsh,

    Thank you thank you thank you for researching and getting the background on these songs. I love it when God uses music to calm angry souls–especially during war times.

    It was 1914 during World War I when fighting was fierce. German troops began putting Christmas trees out in front of their trenches. They began singing Christmas Carols and back & forth Germans, French and English all sang songs and decided to declare a truce until after Christmas. This became known as Silent Night.

    On another note–I love the song Silent Night so much that I did sign language to it this morning at church. It was done on harmonica with a few other instruments no words. People loved it.

    I love learning the background to song. Thanks for doing this research!

    God bless and have a Christ-filled Christmas!

  17. 22

    This is so great! This was our history lesson for today. And now I need to go check out Spotify vs. Pandora….

  18. 23
    Jennifer B says:

    So powerful!
    O Holy Night has been my favorite and the history of it now makes me love it all the more. Thanks!