This Sunday, we will hear the stories behind our beloved Christmas carols.
From Heaven Above/Vom Himmel hoch
Martin Luther wrote this song for his children, supposedly as a Christmas gift, in 1535. As so often, he took a folk melody and wrote new lyrics. For “From Heaven Above”, he usedthe melody of a “Spielmannslied”, or a minstrel’s song. Those minstrels would be the main news channel of those days, traveling from town to town and proclaiming the latest – or not so latest – news and gossip. The original song would have sounded more like that: “From foreign lands to you to bring the news to everyone”.
The entire Christmas story is told in this song, 15 verses in all, which made it easier for the illiterate folks of his day to hear the story. But then there is some good Lutheran theology in it, too, explaining the consequences Christ’s birth has for all of humanity. By the way, Christmas wasn’t celebrated much in Luther’s days; it was just another day on the Christian calendar which had to compete with many other church festivals or saints’ days. As many of those church festivals were thrown out with the Reformation, Christmas became a much more important celebration during the church year.
I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve
From Germany we now travel to Norway. This carol, ‘I am So glad each Christmas Eve’, is not a traditional song, but rather started out as a poem. Marie Wexelsen lived during the 19th century in Norway and was a prolific poet and hymn writer; her hymns were and are known throughout Norway. Her words about her joy on Christmas Eve and the joy about God’s love for a world in need sound wonderfully genuine. Please note that we can tell Wexelsen is from the Lutheran tradition: whereas in many Catholic carols, we have the virgin Mary mentioned, here the focus is on Jesus Christ. Martin Luther, and with him other reformers, were of the opinion that Mary was venerated and adored too much, often even more than Jesus, the Savior, himself. That’s why we have this shift, and unfortunately Mary, mother of Jesus, almost got lost in the Protestant tradition.
Soon Wexelsen’s words were set to music by fellow Norwegian, Peder Knudsen, who chose a simple and kind of folksy melody befitting the merry words. I am so glad it’s Christmas Eve, or better, Jeg er sa glad hver julekveld (please excuse my Norwegian), has become the quintessential Christmas carol in Norway. Think of it as the Norwegian “O du fröhliche” or ‘Joy to the World’. So who says Norwegian Lutherans can’t celebrate and sing for joy? Let us now gladly join the song, “I am so glad each Christmas Eve”.
Lo, How A Rose E’re Blooming/Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen
This carol is somewhat of an oddity. How does a rose make it into the Christmas story? Well, it has something to do with translation. The lyrics were written in Germany as early as the 14th century. The old German word “Ros” could be the flower Rose, but also a new shoot of a plant, a ‘Reis’. So this carol refers to the poetic prophecy in Isaiah 11:1: There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
And, just by the way, since the ‘Ros’ did not make much sense to me when I was little, I always thought of a ‘Ross’, a horse, which had sprung away…
The melody was probably written some time in the 16th century in a German monastery.
Now there is a significant difference between verse 2 of this carol in the Catholic and in the Protestant version: whereas we are used to identifying Jesus as the rose, the shoot, which with Mary we behold, in the Catholic version Mary is the actual rose, the shoot. Protestants, of course, denounced the veneration of the Virgin Mary and thought they needed to give the lyrics a more Christ-centered spin. Whichever version you prefer, it is still one of the oldest and most beautiful Christmas carols we have.
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
This, again, is a carol which at first was sung to a different melody. Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister, wrote the words around 1849 in Massachusetts. Unitarianism in those days focused on the social implications of the Gospel. Now in the mid 19th century, industrialization was on the rise. The railways and factories were built. With industrialization came a different kind of hardships for workers. So when Sears refers to the “Babel sounds”, we may think of factory noises. And the words “above its sad and lowly pains, “and you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low” all of a sudden have a much more concrete meaning. This Christmas carol is supposed to bring hope to those who suffer daily strife – hope, that, above and through it all, the angels continue to sing their song, even and especially for those who are at the bottom of society.
Unfortunately, the melody by Richard Willis the lyrics were paired with, with its lullaby tune, takes away some of the power of the words.
Let All Together Praise our God/Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allegleich
Nikolaus Herman, a German hymn writer and passionate follower of the Reformation in 16th century Germany, found beautiful words for this reality in his Christmas Carol, “Let all Together Praise Our God” (ELW 287): ‘Let all together praise our God before the highest throne; today God opens heav’n again and sends the only Son.’ And, in the final verse, he writes, ‘Unlock the door again today that leads to paradise; the angels bars the way no more. To God let praises rise!’
Herman wrote this carol at the height of the Reformation, and legend has it that there was an alternative version to the last verse: ‘Unlock the door again today that leads to paradise; the CLERGY bar the way no more. To God let praises rise!’ ‘Heut schließt er wieder auf die Tür zum schönen Paradeis – der Klerus sthet nicht mehr dafür, Gott sei Lob, Her’ und Preis’. This, of course, was meant to be a jab at the Roman Catholic Church of those days and its teachings, that regular folks like you and me don’t have access to God unless through a holy person, like a priest.
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
From Germany, we now move to Poland. Infant Holy, Infant Lowly is an old Polish carol. As you probably can tell, we have the melody of a lullaby here. In almost every culture, we find Christmas carols which actually are lullabies, often sung by Mary to her baby Jesus, beautiful in their simplicity.
This Polish lullaby is an old folk song. The lyrics suggest that simple people found those words to describe the whole Christmas story in a mere two short verses: swiftly winging, angels singing, bells are ringing, tidings bringing, Christ the child is Lord of all! Christ the Child is Lord of all!
So let us enjoy the beauty of this old song – and the simple truth of what Christmas means for us and all creation.
Stille Nacht/Silent Night
I assume many here have heard the story behind this arguably most beloved Christmas carol of all time. This song actually was the result of a ‘make it work’ moment, and a truly inspired quick fix. According to legend, on Christmas Eve in 1818, the bellows of the organ in the small town of Oberndorf in Austria had been gnawed and destroyed by mice. The priest, Joseph Mohr, and the Organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, had to come up with a solution, since Christmas Eve services were about to start. So they took a poem Mohr had already written in 1816, and Gruber composed a beautiful and easy-to-learn melody that could be accompanied on the guitar. The people of Oberndorf loved the new carol, and it spread quickly to the ends of the world.
Now there is a less romantic version of this story: the small organ in the church was just so out of tune that Mohr and Gruber decided to write a carol that could be accompanied by the guitar – but I personally favor the story about the little mice…
By the way, though Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to one of the most famous songs in this world, he died penniless – as a priest, he wasn’t allowed to keep any royalties, but gave them away to charity. Thanks for the gift of this beautiful song, Father Joseph! And thank you, Franz Xaver Gruber.
This post is also available in: German