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Five of my Favourite Christmas Carols – How they Originated and Became Widely Popular

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by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Merry Christmas and a Happy new Year Friends!

It’s Christmas season again!

An integral part of Christmas is the singing of Christmas carols in churches as well as at events celebrating Christmas.

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The Many Faces of Christmas – Shaped Wooden Puzzle from Sri Lanka ~ Photographed at an exhibit of over 900 nativity scenes hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Eugene, Oregon, USA-pic-by Mary Harrsch

There was a time when carolling was an important part of Christmas. ‘’Carol parties” including someone dressed as Santa claus would visit the homes of church members during night and sing carols.Refreshments would be served at each and every home. A few firecrackers too would be lit.

Nativity scene-Near Central Park, NY-Dec 2015

Nativity scene-Near Central Park, NY-Dec 2015

This practice of carolling has become near extinct but happily the tradition of conducting special carol services and carol festivals continue. Most church services relating to Christmas feature the singing of carols.Christmas dinners and parties too witness loud carol singing though not tuneful at all times.

Most carols sung during yuletide are perennial favourites.Each person has his or her particular favourites. I too have many,many favourite carols. Though I would love to post them all here I have not done so for obvious reasons. Instead I have compiled a tiny selection of my favourite carols and take great pleasure in sharing five of them with you all on my blog.

O Come, All Ye Faithful – St. Anthony’s College Kandy Choir

1. Oh Come All ye Faithful:

The immensely popular English carol “Oh Come all ye faithful”has its origins in another carol “Adeste Fideles” written in Latin. Authorship and composition of Adeste Fideles was long disputed with the names of several being bandied about.One description called it the Portugese hymn. It was in 1947 that the mmatter was conclusively cleared.It was proved that both the music and words of the four verses in Latin were composed and written by an Englishman from Lancashire John Francis Wade(1711 -1786).Wade was living in a Catholic monastery in northern France when he wrote this.

There have been many translations into English of Adeste Fideles. The most popular and widely used one is “Oh Come all ye faithful”.It was done by an Anglican living in London,Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880).The carol is usually sung last in church services conducted on Christmas eve. The lines”Oh come let us adore him” sung softly first, repeated a little louder next and finally in a loud crescendo is a singular hallmark of this carol.”Oh come all ye faithful”is universally popular and often referred to as “the International carol”.

King’s College Cambridge Choir

2. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

This carol regarded at one time as one of the four great Anglican hymns was written by Charles Wesley the son of an Anglican clergyman and brother of John Wesley who pioneered the Methodist church.The inspiration for the hymn was the sounds of London church bells Charles heard while walking to church on Christmas day.When Charles wrote it in 1739 the opening couplet was “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”.It was Wesley’s fellow evangelist George Whitefield who amended the opening to what it is today in 1753. In 1760 Rev.Martin Madan substituted a few lines to what was originally written by Wesley.

When Charles Wesley wrote the words he requested that it be set to slow solemn music.This was adhered to but the current buoyantly joyful tune in use today was an adaptation by the English musician William H.Cummings. The tune was originally composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 for the second chorus “Gott ist Licht” (“God is Light”), of the cantata Festgesang (“Festival Song”). Festgesang was written by the German composer to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and the invention of printing. Mendelssohn died in 1847 and in 1855 Dr. William Cummings,adapted and harmonised the music to the words of Wesley resulting in one of the most uplifting Christmas Carols.

WCSI Immanuel Choir Singapore

3. “We Three Kings of Orient Are”

This is a carol with a lilting melody very much similiar to a marching tune.It was written in 1857 by an ordained deacon of the Episcopalian church named Rev.John Henry Hopkins Jnr. Rev Hopkins who served as the music director of the New York General Theological Seminary wrote the words and also composed the melody for a grand Christmas pageant he organized in new York in 1857. It later found its way into hymn books in 1863.

The song was written as having been sung by the wisemen from the East who journeyed to Bethlehem to pay homage to baby Jesus.The tale related in the Gospel according to St.Mathew does not specify the number of wisemen but it has been assumed that they were a trio because the number of gifts namely Gold,Frankincense and Myrrh were three.The Bible refers to the wisemen being guided by a star which is now commonly called the star of Bethlehem. In later years ,oral tradition transformed the three wisemen of the east into three Kings from the Orient. Western Christian tradition regards the three Kings as Melchior a king from Persia,Balthasarr a king from Arabia and Gaspar a king from India.

Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir

4. “Joy to the World the Saviour’s come”

This carol is said to be the most published Christian hymn in North America.It was written in 1719 by an English writer of hymns Isaac Watts. Based on Psalm 98 .Watts wrote it as a hymn glorifying Christ’s expected second coming rather than his birth.With the passage of time certain verses of the hymn went out of use and the four verses sung are regarded as a Christmas carol.

The tune sung today was adapted and arranged to the words of Isaac Watts by Lowell Mason(1792-1872) in 1839.Mason’s tune is based on an older melody composed by William Holford.This composition named ‘comfort’ by Holford is said to be derived from Handel’s’’Messiah’’. The refrains like ‘and heaven and nature sing’and ‘repeat the sounding joy’etc appear in the orchestra opening and accompaniment of the choruses in Messiah. Mason adapted the tune to the words of Watts and changed the tune’s name to ‘Antioch’.

Winchester Cathedral Choir

5. “Silent night, Holy night”

This wonderful carol was originally written as“Stille Nacht,Heilige Nacht’in German.It was first sung on Christmas eve in the year 1818 at the St.Nicholas Parish church in the village Oberndorf by the river Salzach in Austria.The words were written in 1816 by a young priest Fr.Joseph Mohr who invited Fransz Xaver Gruber to set the words to music. Gruber was a schoolmaster and church organist.Gruber did so and “Stille Nacht”was rendered by both Mohr and Gruber during mass on December 24 th 1818.

The translation into English in 1859 by Episcopaliaan Bishop John Freeman Young is the version sung nowadays as “Silent night”. It has been translated into 142 languages. The melody used today is more of a slow,reflective lullaby that differs slightly from Gruber’s original tune that was more lively and sprite.The UNESCO declared the carol as an “intangible cultural heritage”in March 2011.

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Crib at Six Mile Run Reformed Church, Franklin Park, NJ- December 2014

I do hope that the quintessence of these five favourite carols imbue you all with festive cheer and the Christmas spirit.May peace,hope and goodwill be experienced and shared by all of us

And now let me once again wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year through the eternally popular 16th century English Carol:

“We wish you a merry Christmas…………………..and a happy new year!


DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com

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