The Stories Behind the Carols

It happens earlier each year, it seems. Christmas decor appears in marketplaces and store windows while advertisements brag to have met all of your gifting needs! Background Christmas music provides a cheery atmosphere. Last week I overheard a cashier commenting, “I’m already sick of Christmas music,” to which the customer replied, “Oh, I could listen to it all year long!” Most everyone has an established opinion on when Christmas music ought to be played. Whether you are the “after Thanksgiving” or “anytime after July” or “strictly during the week of Christmas” kind of person, come along as we explore the history of several enduring Christmas carols. Hopefully, by looking more closely at a few of these songs, we can regain an appreciation that too often is lost to familiarity.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel was first penned in the eighth or ninth century. Although we do not know the exact date or the author’s identity, we do know that it was sung (or chanted) during Advent. In the original Latin, the first line of all seven verses begins with an antiphon (a short chant) and in this case is a prophetic name of Christ. Taking the first letter of each second word spells SARCORE. Reading it backward reveals a two-word Latin acrostic, Ero cras, meaning, “I will be present tomorrow.” This poetic riddle honors the coming of the Christ child.1

In 1851, John M. Neale translated the hymn from Latin to English and we, centuries later, still commemorate Christ’s coming as we sing in celebration and in recognition of the promises fulfilled.2 The running theme, prophecy fulfilled, is carried throughout its text by a minor tune which beckons us to reflect on the promise and person of Christ.

Joy to the World

This ever popular carol is credited to three collaborators. Isaac Watts wrote the poem in 1719 while rewriting the Psalms as a hymnbook. He wrote purposefully in light of the New Testament, explicitly pointing to the person and work of Christ. Ironically, this hymn is not so much describing Christ’s first advent, but anticipating His second coming!3 Watts even borrowed several opening bars from Handel’s Messiah, specifically from Lift Up Your Heads”. Such borrowings were common, as it was believed that music from such great musicians had in itself innate beauty.4 Lowell Mason later combined Watts’ text with a tune which he called “Antioch.” The result is the song as we know it, a beloved hymn derived from Psalm 98, which calls us to joyful anticipation of the coming of Christ, when we will be eternally united with Him.

Silent Night

In 1818, a small band was roving the Austrian Alps, reenacting the story of Christ’s birth. Their scheduled performance at St. Nicholas’ church instead ended up in a private home, due to the church’s organ being out of commission. Moved by the drama, Josef Mohr took the long way home after the service. While strolling along the mountain, the assistant pastor’s gaze rested on the peaceful, snow-covered village below. He was reminded of a poem he had written a few years before and was inspired to try to make it a carol for his congregation to sing the next day. The following afternoon Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber (the church organist) worked to write a simple melody. Within a few hours, they had a carol that could be sung without the organ!

That night, the congregation sang it for the first time, accompanied by Gruber’s guitar. The song soon gained popularity across northern Europe. It was performed for King Frederick William IV of Prussia by the Strasser sisters in 1834, after which he ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas Eve. Twenty years after it was written, the Rainiers sang it in the United States – still in German. It wasn’t until 1863, nearly fifty years after it was first sung, that it was translated to English and today “Silent Night” is sung in more than 300 languages.5

What Child Is This?

William Chatterton Dix was named after Thomas Chatterton, a poet. His father wrote a biography on Chatterton, which accounts both for his middle name and for the love of poetry which passed from father to son. Although Dix was an insurance salesman, his true passion was poetry. When he fell seriously ill, he endured personal spiritual crisis. During this time he spent much time in prayer and in reading Christian literature. He triumphed over his trial as a man of strong faith, and devoted much of his later poetry to Christian themes. Some sources theorize that “What Child Is This?” was derived from one of Dix’s longer works, “The Manger Throne,” which would not be at all unlikely.6

Each stanza begins with a rhetorical question which is answered and explained in the latter part of the verse. Today, we often sing all three verses with the same refrain, which is rather unfortunate because the response to the query, “Why lies He in such mean estate?” is incomplete without the full stanza.

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

The conclusion of the matter is simply and reverently stated in the last stanza.

Come, peasant, king, to own Him,
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

During this season when so often a million and one things are screaming for our time and affection, let us not forget the true wonder of Christ incarnate, the work of salvation He graciously wrought, and the promise of His second coming. In such rejoicing, may our lives be more accurate examples of the grace He extends, the change He brings, and the comfort of the believer found rejoicing in His promised return.

Ruthie Stoltzfus.jpg Ruthie Stoltzfus has been recently transplanted to Elnora, Indiana where she happily resides with her husband, Julian. She enjoys working on projects with Julian- making their house “home,” cooking , sewing, chatting over a good cup of coffee, and hanging out with her nieces and nephews.  She is passionate about displaying the gospel, being discipled, and maintaining relationships that impact the next spiritual generation.

Sources Used


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