Christmas Songs from the Heart

William Edgar
Monday, November 1st 2004
Nov/Dec 2004

In every instance in the lyrical arts, but especially Christmas music, we sing what we feel. If you want to know what a certain group believes about the biblical message, go to a Christmas service and ask why a certain repertoire is chosen. In some cases the choice of old-fashioned music represents keeping a wall that holds the congregation at a safe distance from the tough challenges of discipleship. Occasionally the genre of music chosen by a particular group simply displays ethnic pride. Sometimes singing Christmas carols means a break with tradition, rebelling against a more sober, décor-less Protestantism. But the way we sing Christmas music is always a statement that goes beyond the simple retelling of the biblical story. Indeed, sometimes the question is whether to sing any at all.

Christmas music did not emerge without controversy. Although the Scriptures give us no sure date for Christ’s birth and the earliest Christians apparently did not mark the event, by the fourth century Christmas was celebrated in the church. It took considerable discussion before the date of December 25th was settled upon. A major reason for the choice was to give believers a Christian alternative to the pagan festival of the winter solstice. From the twelfth century on, special Christmas music became a regular aspect of the church’s life, especially for the ordinary believer. Still, in every era there was always a minority, sometimes a sizable one, which protested both the carols and the feast day.

On the Continent, in the wake of the Reformation, a few, including Calvin, Knox, and other Reformed people, objected to the celebration of Christmas altogether. Yet, a majority of the reformers, Calvinists and Lutherans alike, were content to honor the tradition, insisting on reminding believers of the deeper meaning of the Incarnation that it signified. In Great Britain the Puritans and the Anglicans argued about Christmas. The Puritans thought the Sabbath to be the only red-letter day authorized in Scripture, while Anglicans argued that whereas feast days were always authorized in the Bible commemorating such particular events as the deliverance from Egypt, it made sense to celebrate Christ’s birth and other such occasions, for the “special recognition of these marvellous works,” as Bishop Joseph Hall, a Calvinist Anglican, put it.

In New England, many early settlers disapproved of Christmas. Samuel Sewall once noted that on December 25, 1685, “Carts come to Town and shops open as is usual.” Later, Harriet Beecher Stowe compared a dark and empty Congregational Church on Christmas Eve to the neighboring Episcopal church, decorated with greens and lighted candles, and filled with the sound of the “Te Deum.” By the end of the eighteenth century things were changing. William Billings and Nahum Tate composed special music for Christmas. In Claremont, New Hampshire, December 25, 1793, folks enjoyed singing Royal Tyler’s “Hail to the Joyous Day.” No tune is mentioned, but soon the hymn “Amherst” by William Billings became a favorite musical setting for Tyler’s words. The melody is typically in the tenor:

Hail to the joyous day,
On which our Lord was born;
Lift high the vocal lay,
And sing the blissful morn.
Your voices raise!
To hail the morn
On which was born
The Lord of Grace.

Interestingly, the very earliest recorded Christmas song in North America is the Huron carol, “Jesus Ahatonhia,” by Jean de Brebeuf, the Jesuit missionary to Canada. The text was transcribed in 1750 by another Jesuit, Girault de Villeneuve, and then translated from Huron into French by Paul Picard, one of the last Native Americans left who still knew the native language. Finally, it was translated into English and published in the anthology America in 1953, to the ancient Breton noël, “Une Jeune Pucelle” [A Young Maiden].

As can be expected, Christmas music reflects (and encourages) the theological views and spirituality of the milieu that produced it. For example, the German Pietists have brought a certain feeling into Christmas music, a genre in which they have excelled. The best-known Lutherans with certain Pietist devotional leanings were Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach. Their larger oratorios conceal a warm-hearted, personal devotional style. German immigrants brought their customs over to the new country. On Christmas night, 1742, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Count Zinzendorf improvised “For Us No Night Can Be Happier.” Nicolaus L. Zinzendorf arrived in America in 1741, recommended to the Penns by George Whitefield. Though he returned to Germany just over a year later, he left a number of congregations and schools, and several Moravian hymns, throughout Pennsylvania and New York. Bethlehem has continued as a center for Christmas music in the German style ever since. According to the sensibility of many such carols, Jesus is an innocent babe, to be adored with appropriate tenderness. Caspar Kriebel’s “Now Sleep My Little Child So Dear” was published in the 1762 Schenkfelder hymnal. It suggests that though we all were infants born in sin, only the Christ Child can save us.

A number of our favorite Christmas songs continued in this vein, the best known of which is surely “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Written in 1818 by the assistant minister of St. Nicholas Lutheran Church in Oberndorf, Upper Austria, to music by the church’s organist, Franz Grüber, it was originally scored for two voices, a choir, and a guitar. The story has it that the carol was hastily cobbled together because the organ had broken down. It soon took on a life of its own and was sung throughout the Tyrol, and then all of Germany. The first known English version is from 1858 in Brighton, England. It came to the United States in 1865. And then it passed into the folk traditions of people quite literally around the world, from India to Africa to Latin America.

The nineteenth century saw a veritable flourishing of Christmas music in America and abroad. It was a time of expansion and exploration. In 1857, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., wrote the words and the music to “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Hopkins’s father, a pioneer born in Dublin, was successively an ironmaster, a school teacher, a lawyer, a minister, the bishop of Vermont, and finally the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. His mother was a German from Hamburg, and both of them were considerable musicians. John Henry’s career was also quite diverse, taking him to Georgia and New York, but music was always prominent. As a minister and educator, he became a leader in the development of Anglican hymnody. Several of his hymn and poetry anthologies were best-sellers. Surely the journey motif in “We Three Kings” is a reflection of the American pioneer spirit.

The twentieth century brought a decidedly sobering tone, even in America. Thus, a more modern version of the Magi’s journey is expressed in Earl B. Marlatt’s “Through the Dark the Dreamers Came.” Written in 1927 with music by Mabel W. Daniels, it combines English and Latin words, in the meditative key of D minor. Marlatt held impressive degrees in religion from Boston University, the University of Berlin, and Oxford. He became dean of the School of Theology at Boston University, and then moved to the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. But it may have been his experience as a lieutenant in the field artillery in World War I that definitively characterized his theological understanding of suffering and redemption. The last stanza of “Through the Dark” concludes:

It was worth the journeying
To the weary end;
For they found their dream, a King
And a friend.
Maxima, maxima,
Gloria Dei Maxima.

Today, in keeping with globalization, our tastes are somewhat eclectic. There is still plenty of romanticism in our selections. But we are generally moving away from a sentimental devotion to the baby Jesus, toward a concern for justice and help for the oppressed. We have been inspired by the churches around the world to see beyond the “little town of Bethlehem” to the deeper significance of Christ’s coming for the blind and the captives (Luke 4:18).

Particularly poignant in many of our more contemporary carols is the contrast between the powerless child and the power of God to save. This theme is at the forefront in hymnals such as Carol Our Christmas: An Upside-down Christmas, a book and CD from New Zealand with lyrics by poets Joy Cowley, Eileen Duggan, and Peter Cape. Composers include David Dell, Colin Gibson and Roy Tankersley. Shirley Erena Murray, a fourth-generation New Zealander, a regular lyricist for recent hymns from the heart of Wellington, is the editor and executive secretary of the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust.

Several Christmas hymns in the collection are by Marnie Barrell. This one, written in 1995, can be set to several tunes, including “Obeisance” by Ian Redner or “Ashburton” by Colin Gibson.

All who would see God’s greatness,
Draw near, bend down, look low:
See how love appears among us
As small as a child. Then go,
Tell of greatness made so small,
Tiny and hidden, God of all.

Would you receive God’s power?
Draw near, find strength in this:
Laid open to all our violence
Is love that will not resist.
This is our God, who chose to be
Tied with our bonds to set us free.

If it is true, as Digby Mackworth Dolben said it, “Poetry, the hand that wrings, Bruised albeit at the strings, Music from the soul of things,” then it is especially true of the poetry of Christmas. This year, why don’t we try to think more carefully about what we sing? The soul’s health is at stake.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2004 issue of Modern Reformation.

Photo of William Edgar
William Edgar
William Edgar (PhD, DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), an associate professor at the Faculté Jean Calvin, and an accomplished musician.
Monday, November 1st 2004

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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