This year, one of the most popular Christmas carols celebrates its 300th anniversary: ‘Joy to the World’, written in 1719 by Isaac Watts, an English theologian and minister.

Isaac Watts belonged to the ‘Nonconformist Congregational Church’, not the Anglican Church. Now the interesting thing is that the nonconformists didn’t celebrate Christmas. They were purists and thought that, since Christmas is not necessary for our salvation, it shouldn’t be observed.

Which leads us to the question: why then did Isaac Watts write a Christmas carol?

The simple answer is: he didn’t.

Watts wasn’t very happy with the church music of his day and decided to write new texts. In 1719, he wrote numerous hymns inspired by the psalms of the Bible. And one of them was ‘Joy to the World’, which is a paraphrase of Psalm 98. And if you listen carefully to ‘Joy to the World’, you notice that the name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned, let alone the babe in the manger – there is no reference to Christmas.

Yes, Watts talks about the Messiah – but believes that the Lord is among us each and every day.

‘Joy to the World’ wasn’t even sung to the same melody we know and cherish today – a hymnal from 1836 is the first witness of Watts’ lyrics set to the tune we know today – and, by the way, this tune is attributed to Georg Friedrich Händel.

But God sometimes works in mysterious ways. And so Watts’ enthusiastic words and Händel’s uplifting melody turned into one of the most popular Christmas carols ever.

And maybe this happened because Christmas embodies joy. Mary rejoices after the Angel Gabriel announces to her that she will bear God’s son. The angels and shepherds rejoice in the fields. God is coming among us, God comes to dwell with us. How could we not feel joyful about that?

There are quite a few carols from different traditions that reflect how ‘Heaven and Nature Sing’. Today, we will sing these carols and learn more about their background stories.

 

Angels we have heard on high

Angels we have heard on high from a traditional French carol known as Les Anges dans nos campagnes (literally “the angels in our countryside”), whose first known publication was in 1843 – though the origins of this carol are unknown.

The English lyrics from 1864 loosely translate the words from the original French carol and tell the story of the encounter between the angels and the shepherds in the field. Each verse climaxes in the angels’ song of praise, ‘Gloria in excelsis deo’ – Glory to God in the Highest. Heaven sings God’s praise.

Most Sundays we join in the heavenly song when we sing ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ or ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’ – as we do now.

 

Freu dich, Erd und Sternenzelt/Let our gladness have no end

The next carol we will sing as our gospel acclamation is the most famous Czech Christmas carol, which probably originated in the 15th century. The German translation is rather loose, although the message is the same: we rejoice because Mary gave birth to Jesus.

The English translation is actually closer to the Czech original than the German translation.

But in the German translation from 1844, the realm of praise is extended to cosmic dimensions: Freu dich, Erd und Sternenzelt – rejoice, earth and all stars. All nature participates in the salvation and the joy Jesus’ birth brings.

 

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen / Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

The Bible is full of metaphors taken from nature to describe God or our relationship with God. The next carol we will sing alludes to Isaiah 11, where we hear a prophecy about the coming messiah, who will be from the house of King David:

‘A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.’ Isaiah 11, 1-2, NRSV

Jesse is King David’s father; his house is alluded to as a stump, since the dynasty of King David, Israel’s idealized king, had long ceased to exist by the time the Book of Isaiah was written down. But there is hope that a new king will arise, a shoot, a new branch.

Now you may notice that our next song, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen / Lo, how a rose e’er blooming’, doesn’t talk about a branch, but about a rose. Here we have an interesting language evolution.

‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’ oringinated in the Catholic church of the 16th century and focuses on Mary, the mother of Jesus. There are some versions that don’t talk about a ‘Rose’, a rose, but a ‘Reis’, which is an old German word for shoot. The ‘Reis’ at some point morphed into a ‘rose’ – and this most likely came about because Mary, often was symbolized as a rose – a beautiful flower, surrounded thorns, which, of course, allude to the crown of thorns worn by Jesus as he was crucified, but also Mary’s suffering as she had to witness her son’s death. Hence we sing about a rose today.

As I already said, the original Catholic version of the song focuses much more on Mary, who, according to the second verse of the carol, is the shoot, from which then comes the flower, Jesus Christ. Protestants had theological problems with that notion. In 1609, Michael Praetorius, one of the most prolific Protestant hymn writers, kept the first verse, but changes all other verses to reflect the focus on Jesus Christ. In the Protestant version, Christ is shoot and flower. This is the version we still have today, and this is the version that also was translated into English in the 19th century.

 

Cold December flies away

The next carol, is a traditional Catalonian carol of unknown origins. ‘Cold December flies away’ doesn’t seem to tell the Christmas story – however, it is full of symbolism taken from the natural world that alludes to God’s saving grace through the birth of Christ. The dead of winter gives way to the new life of spring through the sending of the ‘Son, beloved of heaven’.

Even the forces of nature can’t resist the power of God. God’s power is greater than sin and death. By the way, you will notice that the image of the rose is appearing again in this carol – which, again, tells you that this image was popular in the late medieval and renaissance ages in Europe.

 

O Tannenbaum/O Christmas Tree

O Tannenbaum/O Christmas Tree is one of the most popular Christmas carols in Germany. Its roots can be traced back to the 16th century – back then, it was a folk song with no connection to Christmas. The first verse as we still sing it today already existed back then; but then there are different versions of the verses that follow.

The melody and theme of the evergreen tree were used again and again as poets and lyricists put their own spin on this song. In the early 19th century, for example, German poet August Zarnack wrote a tragic love song using the melody. He compared the faithfulness of the evergreen branches to the unfaithfulness of his lover.

In 1824, a teacher from Leipzig, Ernst Anschütz, kept the first verse and composed three more verses which focused on the tree as a symbol for hope and for God’s faithfulness to humanity. It has to be said that it was custom in Germany by the early 19th century to decorate trees at Christmas time, so it wasn’t a stretch to use the old folk song and make a Christmas carol out of it.

 

Good Christian Friends, Rejoice (In Dulci Jubilo)

Good Christian Friends, Rejoice, which is a translation of ‘In Dulci Jubilo’, was conceived as a Christmas carol from the very beginning. This carol can be traced back to the 14th century. Originally, it was written as a so-called ‘macaronic’ song – which means, two languages were interwoven, in this case a traditional Latin text and German.

The original version of the first verse sounded like that:

In dulci jubilo – that’s Latin

Nun singet und seid froh,

Unsres Herzens Wonne, – German
Leit in praesepio – here the first word in German, but the verse then switches to Latin
Und leuchtet als die Sonne – German
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O.
Alpha es et O. – Latin

A purely German version was first published in the hymnal of Hanover in Germany in 1646. In 1853, john Mason Neale translated the carol entirely into English and named it ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’, which, today, is ‘Good Christian Friends, Rejoice’. It’s a rather loose translation of the original Latin/German text, but captures the spirit of the song: human beings, these creatures somewhere between nature and heaven, participate in the praise of God at the birth of Christ, who is the Alpha and the Omega, beginning and end.

 

Carols 2019

 

Angels we have heard on high

Angels we have heard on high from a traditional French carol known as Les Anges dans nos campagnes (literally “the angels in our countryside”), whose first known publication was in 1843 – though the origins of this carol are unknown.

The English lyrics from 1864 loosely translate the words from the original French carol and tell the story of the encounter between the angels and the shepherds in the field. Each verse climaxes in the angels’ song of praise, ‘Gloria in excelsis deo’ – Glory to God in the Highest. Here we literally have heavenly creatures sing God’s praise.

Most Sundays we join in the heavenly song when we sing ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ or ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’ – as we do now.

 

Freu dich, Erd und Sternenzelt/Let our gladness have no end

The next carol we will sing as out gospel acclamation is the most famous Czech Christmas carol, which probably originated in the 15th century. The German translation is rather loose, although the message is the same: we rejoice because Mary gave birth to Jesus.

The English translation is actually closer to the Czech original than the German translation.

But in the German translation from 1844, the realm of praise is extended to cosmic dimensions: Freu dich, Erd und Sternenzelt – rejoice, earth and all stars. All nature participates in the salvation and the joy Jesus’ birth brings. And so let us sing:…

 

Es ist ein Ros / Lo, how a rose

The Bible is full of metaphors taken from nature to describe God or our relationship with God. The next carol we will sing alludes to Isaiah 11, where we hear a prophecy about the coming messiah, who will come out of the house of King David:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

Jesse is David’s father; his house is alluded to as a stump, since the dynasty of King David, Israel’s idealized king, had long ceased to exist by the time the Book of Isaiah was written down. But there is hope that a new king will arise, a shoot, a new branch.

Now you may notice that our next song, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen / Lo, how a rose e’er blooming’, doesn’t talk about a branch, but about a rose. Now here we have an interesting language evolution.

‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’ oringinated in the Catholic church of the 16th century. There are some versions that don’t talk about a ‘Rose’, a rose, but a ‘Reis’, which is an old German word for shoot. The ‘Reis’ at some point morphed into a ‘rose’ – and this most likely came about because Mary, the mother of Jesus, often was symbolized as a rose – a beautiful flower, surrounded thorns, which, of course, allude to the crown of thorns worn by Jesus as he was crucified, but also Mary’s suffering as she had to witness her son’s death. Hence we sing about a rose today.

Now the original Catholic version of the song focuses much more on Mary, who, according to the second verse of the carol, is the shoot, from which then comes the flower, Jesus Christ. Protestants had theological problems with that notion. In 1609, Michael Praetorius, one of the most prolific Protestant hymn writers, kept the first verse, but changes all other verses to reflect the focus on Jesus Christ. In the Protestant version, Christ is shoot and flower. This is the version we still have today, and this is the version that also was translated into English in the 19th century.

 

Cold December flies away

The next carol, which will be sung by Nicole as a solo, is a traditional Catalonian carol of unknown origins, from Spain. ‘Cold December flies away’ doesn’t seem to tell the Christmas story – however, it is full of symbolism taken from the natural world that alludes to God’s saving grace through the birth of Christ. The dead of winter gives way to the new life of spring through the sending of the ‘Son, beloved of heaven’.

Even the forces of nature can’t resist the power of God. God’s power is greater than sin and death. By the way, you will notice that the image of the rose is appearing again in this carol – which, again, tells you that this image was popular in the late medieval and renaissance ages in Europe.

And so let us listen now as Nicole sings us ‘Cold December flies away’.

 

O Tannenbaum/O Christmas Tree

O Tannenbaum/O Christmas Tree is one of the most popular Christmas carols in Germany. It’s roots can be traced back to the 16th century – back then, it was a folk song. The first verse as we still sing it today already existed back then; but then there are different versions of the verses that follow.

The melody and theme of the evergreen tree were used again and again as poets and lyricists put their own spin on this song. In the early 19th century, for example, German poet August Zarnack wrote a tragic love song using the melody. He compared the faithfulness of the evergreen branches to the unfaithfulness of his lover.

In 1824, a teacher from Leipzig, Ernst Anschütz, kept the first verse and composed three more verses which focused on the tree as a symbol for hope and for God’s faithfulness to humanity. It has to be said that it was custom in Germany by the early 19th century to decorate trees at Christmas time, so it wasn’t a stretch to use the old folk song and make a Christmas carol out of it.

And so we have another carol in which nature is assigned a part in praising God.

 

Good Christian Friends, Rejoice (In Dulci Jubilo)

Good Christian Friends, Rejoice, which is a translation of ‘In Dulci Jubilo’, was conceived as a Christmas carol from the very beginning. This carol can be traced back to the 14th century. Originally, it was written as a so-called ‘macaronic’ song – which means, two languages were interwoven, in this case a traditional Latin text and German.

The original version of the first verse sounded like that:

In dulci jubilo – that’s Latin

Nun singet und seid froh,

Unsres Herzens Wonne, – German
Leit in praesepio – here the first word in German, but the verse then switches to Latin
Und leuchtet als die Sonne – German
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O.
Alpha es et O. – Latin

A purely German version was first published in the hymnal of Hanover in Germany in 1646. In 1853, john Mason Neale translated the carol entirely into English and named it ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’, which, today, is ‘Good Christian Friends, Rejoice’. It’s a rather loose translation of the original Latin/German text, but captures the spirit of the song: human beings, these creatures somewhere between nature and heaven, participate in the praise of God at the birth of Christ, who is the Alpha and the Omega, beginning and end.

 

Vom Himmel Hoch, da komm ich her

I talked quite a bit about nature – now it’s time to let heaven sing once more.

Martin Luther wrote than 30 hymns for all the feast days of the church, among them ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her’ – From Heaven above to earth I come. According to legend, he wrote this carol for his children in 1535. ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ tells the story of Jesus’ birth in 15 verses – this carol is essentially a pageant that can be reenacted.

Now Luther did not come up with the melody – which shows you that, throughout history, it was common to repurpose melodies and songs. ‘O Tannenbaum’ is not an anomaly.

Luther used a popular minstrel song of his day, ‘Ich kumm auß frembden landen her und bring euch vil der newen mär’ – which roughly translates to ‘I come from foreign countries and have plenty of news to share’. Such songs were used to capture the attention of the people as news and gossip was shared in the market places.

In Luther’s version, the angels become the minstrels, those who share not only news, but good news with the shepherds – and by implication with us. We are invited to praise God, together with the heavenly host, as we marvel at the gift of the Christchild.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post is also available in: Englisch