Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ / All Praise to You, Eternal Lord
Martin Luther loved Christmas. I’ve mentioned it before, so please excuse me if you’ve already heard this: Luther suffered from bouts of depression and could be quite a hothead, but when Advent came around, he was full of joyful anticipation and giddy as a child. As part of the Reformation, Luther threw out many feast days that were found on the Roman Catholic calendar, especially the numerous saints’ days, and rather focused on the feast days, the holy days, that celebrated God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and especially the Son, Jesus Christ. Christmas thus became a much more important feast day on the Protestant church calendar.
Christmas in pre-Reformation times was merely observed in church, but not in the way we do it today. Maybe a mass or two would be said, the choir would sing a Latin chant that befitted the day, and that was it. Luther brought Christmas into the home – he encouraged the celebration of Christmas in families, and he composed several fairly simple carols in German that could be sung by everyone and that taught the Christmas story and the meaning behind it. After all, most people in Luther’s days were still illiterate, although Luther tried to change that, and singing hymns and carols in the native tongue was an ingenious way of teaching people the Bible and theology.
One of Luther’s early Christmas carols is ‘All Praise to You, Eternal Lord’, ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’, which he wrote around 1524. In this carol, Luther talks about the story of Christ’s birth, but also about the consequences of this birth for humanity: that we are forgiven and redeemed.
In those days, Luther was still quite Catholic – he modeled his carol after a Latin sequence that was used in midnight masses on Christmas day, called ”Grates nunc omnes”. The translation of that sequence is as follows: We all give thanks to the Lord, our God, who redeemed us from Satan’s might and power through his birth. So let us sing merrily with his angels, glory in the highest forevermore.
A telltale sign that Luther used a sequence used in mass is the penitential response ‘Kyrieleis’ – a form of ‘Kyrie eleison’, Lord have mercy, that we still hear in the German version of Luther’s carol today.
Interestingly, in the English interpretation of Luther’s carol, the penitential cry ‘Kyrie eleison’ becomes a shout of joy, ‘Hallelujah’! Given the good news of great joy for all people, the birth of Christ, which redeems us from sin and death, I think the hallelujah is quite appropriate. But the ‘Kyrie eleison’ reminds us, that we are still sinners, who benefit greatly from the miraculous birth in Bethlehem. And whether you sing ‘Kyrie eleison’ or ‘hallelujah’, let us sing now thankfully ‘All Praise to You, Eternal God’ – ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’.
Vom Himmel Hoch / From Heaven Above
This is Luther’s most famous Christmas carol. He wrote the lyrics in 1535, as his children begged him to write a song that would go along with a Christmas pageant they were planning to perform in their home on Christmas Eve. Luther was a good sport and quickly came up with a whopping 15 verses, which tell the Christmas story told from the perspective of the angels in the field. ‘From Heaven Above to Earth I Come to bring good news to ev’ryone.’
Now Luther could come up quickly with the verses to ‘From Heaven Above’ because he used a simple melody already in existence. It was the tune of ‘Ich kumm aus fremden Landen her’, ‘From distant countries now I come to bring the news to everyone’ – this was a minstrel’s song, that would be sung in the marketplaces, as the minstrel would bring the news – those were the days before the internet, the radio, TV and even newspapers. With a simple rhythm, the lyrics of a minstrel’s song could be altered to match the news of the day very easily.
Now the tune Luther first used for ‘From Heaven Above’ was different from what we know as the tune today. I did some research and actually found the melody. So this is what ‘From Heaven Above’ would have sounded at first, using the minstrel’s song’s melody (sing).
Four years after Luther wrote the lyrics, he also composed a new melody. And this is the choral we still know and use today. So let us sing with the angels, the heavenly minstrels, ‘Vom Himmel hoch -From Heaven Above’.
Vom Himmel Hoch, o Engel, kommt
The next carol also talks about Angels. It is called ‘Vom Himmel hoch, o Engel kommt’, ‘From Heaven Above, o Angels, come’, not to be confused with ‘From Heaven Above to Earth I come’, the carol we just sung.
The Protestant Reformation caused many reactions by the Roman Catholic Church. This is often called the ‘Counter Reformation’, although many in Catholic circles today prefer to call it the Catholic Reformation. Starting in the 16th century, certain groups within the Roman Catholic Church actually picked up some of Luther’s ideas and thus started their own Reformation of the Catholic Church – for example, they introduced hymns in the native language of the people into worship.
‘Vom Himmel hoch, o Engel, kommt’ is a carol that was first published as part of a compilation of different hymns in the Catholic diocese of Cologne in 1622. The writers are anonymous, but probably are Jesuits.
Now this sweet Christmas carol was published in the times of the 30 Year War, which actually was a series of wars between Catholic and Protestant forces, a war that ravaged most of Europe. Scholars assume that the gentle tune of ‘Vom Himmel hoch, o Engel, kommt’, was a reaction to the horrors of war, giving people comfort and hope.
Once we sing this song, you will also notice that this carol most likely originated as a lullaby – and, in fact, many folksy carols dealing with the birth of Christ use lullaby melodies to describe the sleeping child in the manger, or how Mary rocks her babe to sleep. So here we have a carol in which the angels are asked to descend from heaven to sing a lullaby for Jesus as they use a wide array of musical instruments, among them cymbals and trumpets. Go figure.
By the way, the repeated ‘eia, eia, susanni, susanni, susanni’ is a typical element in lullabies from the period when Middle High German was spoken. Eia is merely a sound to hush down the child, and ‘Susanni’ is a composition of the words ‘sause’, which best is translated as ‘moving with a swishing sound’, and ‘ninne’, which is the cradle. Eia, eia, susanni thus can best be translated as ‘Hush, cradle, rock’.
I apologize that we don’t have an English translation for this old German carol, but I still invite all to now help the angels sing the babe in the manger to sleep. ‘Vom Himmel hoch, o Engel, kommt’.
Away in a Manger
But now back to Martin Luther. The next carol we are going to sing, ‘Away in a Manger’, is often attributed to Martin Luther and also known as ‘Luther’s cradle song’ – another lullaby!
In an American publication from 1882, the anti-Masonic ‘Christian Cynosure’, the lyrics to ‘Away in a Manger’ were printed with the following introduction: ‘The following hymn, composed by Martin Luther for his children, is still sung by many of the German mothers to their little ones.’
Other publications would repeat that claim. However, ask a German, and they will tell you that they’ve never heard or sung this carol in German. And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that scholars denounce the claim that ‘Away in a Manger’ was written by Martin Luther using the following arguments:
- No text in Luther’s known writings corresponds to the carol.
- No German text for the carol has been found from earlier than 1934, more than fifty years after the first English publication. That German text reads awkwardly, and appears to be the result of a translation from the English original.
- The unadorned narrative style of the carol is atypical of Luther who could never throw off his role of educator and doctrinarian. The lyrics are just too sweet and innocent for Luther.
It is most likely that this song was written for a 19th century children’s play about Martin Luther celebrating Christmas with his children. So this carol is definitely of North American origin.
Nevertheless, it is one of the most popular carols in the English speaking world. In England, it even ranks no. 2 on the list of most popular Christmas carols. The words were set to different melodies; the two most popular are called ‘Cradle Song’, composed by William Kirkpatrick in 1895, and the melody called ‘Mueller’, written by James Murray in 1887. In a minute, we will sing the latter.
But first I would like to dedicate this song to the memory of Kathryn Weidmann, my husbands’ mother, who passed away just before Christmas last year. Away in a manger was her favorite Christmas carol, and we sang it together again and again when we last visited her before she died.
Joy to the World
Now the Protestant Reformation took on quite different expressions. One of the groups that developed in England as a consequence were the so-called Nonconformists – Nonconformists being all religious Protestant groups that separated themselves from the Anglican state church.
The Puritans for example were among the Nonconformists. Nonconformists were excluded from many parts of public life in England and were not allowed to attend elite colleges like Oxford and Cambridge. The Puritan Nonconformists coming to the North American continent in the 17th century hoped to escape a religious and societal system that they experienced as oppressive.
Now the Puritans and other Nonconformists rejected Christmas as a church celebration. Partly this was for theological reasons, but partly also as a reaction to the quite secular and often bawdy revelries that would go along with Christmas. As there briefly was a Puritan majority in the British Parliament, the celebration of Christmas even was forbidden in Great Britain from 1658-1660.
And Puritans coming to the New World didn’t celebrate Christmas and would even fine non-Puritans living in their territories who did. Now talk about a war on Christmas! Partly because of the strong influence of Puritans on U.S. American society and politics, Christmas was not declared a national holiday until 1880.
I’m telling you all that because I think there is a certain irony in the fact that one of the most beloved hymns sung during the Christmas season was written by a British Nonconformist, Isaac Watts, who lived from 1674-1748 and who did not celebrate Christmas. Watts, though very bright, was denied education at the prestigious schools in England because of his confession. He became a minister in the nonconformist tradition and was an avid and very skilled hymn writer. He wrote hundreds of hymns, 13 of which we still find in our green Lutheran hymnal; among them are perennial favorites such as ‘O God, our help in ages past’, ‘Give to our God immortal praise!’, and ‘Jesus shall reign’.
But his most famous hymn is ‘Joy to the World’. Watts based this hymn, not on the Christmas story, but on Psalms 96 and 98. Watts intended this hymn to be in expectation of Jesus’ second coming, but not to describe Jesus coming as a babe in the manger. And if you look at the lyrics, you will, indeed, find that there is not a word about Jesus’ birth.
By some ironic twist this hymn became one of the most beloved Christmas carols in the English speaking world. My hunch is that Watts would turn in his grave if he knew. But then maybe he wouldn’t, since people all around the world now sing his lyrics, which carry a deep theological understanding that many other carols describing the birth of Christ just don’t have, especially those that are based on lullabies.
And note: whereas ‘Joy to the World’ is still listed as a Christmas carol in the older green hymnal we have, in the newer cranberry book, it is listed in the Advent section, where it actually belongs, according to Watts.
So let us close our Christmas carol sing with ‘Joy to the World’.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German