The Word and Music of Old

Life and Happiness

I’ve been co-authoring my church Advent readings now for a few years and it’s been such an enlightening experience. Last year, we looked at how each person in the Christmas story was affected by the star of Jesus. How each person, from the wise men to the shepherds and even the angels, were affecting by one moment in the sky.

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This year we’re defining our Advent wreath candles for those who may not know the significance of them (see here if you aren’t sure either) and then comparing them to Christmas hymns throughout the ages. What we’ve found has, once again, been quite enlightening.

Many Christmas hymns did not start out as songs at all. “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming,” a song about the prophecy that foretold of Jesus’ birth, actually began as a 23 stanza poem! Thankfully when it was set to music the musicians narrowed it down to only 4 stanzas. Can you imagine singing a 23 stanza hymn??

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“Love Came Down At Christmas” was also a poem. Since being written in 1885 it has had numerous musical accompaniments.

Many of the songs we sing at Christmas today are centuries old.

“Silent Night” was first written around 1818.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” dates back to 1739! It too started as a poem and did not have the upbeat tempo that we associate with it today.

“It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” was written in 1849. Many people call it “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”. The original author, Edmund Sears, wrote the hymn as a melancholy reflection on his times as a minister, but although it does have some “dark” stanzas, it has become one of the most popular Christmas hymns we know today.

“O Holy Night” was also originally a poem: “Minuit, chrétiens” (Midnight, Christians) written by a wine merchant in 1847. Placide Cappeau wrote the poem as a favor of the parish priest who wanted something to commemorate the recent renovation of the church organ. Cappeau complied even though he was a professed atheist! How’s that for planting a seed!

This is only a tip of the iceberg when it comes to Christmas music. Other countries have their own sounds, words and variations of some of the tunes we know best. Many that we sing in churches today stem from the early 18th century and we’ve been singing them ever since.

What Christmas Hymn is your favorite? Do you know its history?


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