Carols bring Christians together around the Christ Child lying in the manger. During Advent and at Christmas, Christians everywhere sing more or less the same repertoire. Through our carols, we share the same deep delight at the birth of a poor child who was to become the Saviour of all human beings.
The carols are wonderfully ecumenical in their origins. Four verses and the tune of ‘Adeste Fideles’ (‘Come all ye faithful’) come from an eighteenth-century Roman Catholic layman, John Francis Wade. ‘Angels we have heard on high’ is a traditional French carol, now commonly sung to a tune arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes (d. 1958), an American organist and composer. The text of ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ was written by Charles Wesley. Its widely used melody is taken from Felix Mendelssohn, who was born into a Jewish family and brought up a Lutheran. Isaac Watts, a non-conformist, composed the words of ‘Joy to the world’. The music, although often attributed to George Frederick Handel, seems of be of English origin.
An Episcopalian bishop, Phillips Brooks, wrote ‘O little town of Bethlehem’, and the tune we normally hear accompanying this comes from Ralph Vaughan Williams.
‘Ding dong merrily on high‘ is sung to a dance tune from sixteenth-century France; the text was composed by an English enthusiast for carols, George Ratcliffe Woodward (d. 1934). We owe ‘Away in a manger’ to a nineteenth-century children’s book used by American Lutherans. The words for ‘See amid the winter’s snow’ were written by Edward Caswell, who became a Roman Catholic and joined Blessed John Henry Newman in the Birmingham Oratory. Sir John Goss, an Anglican organist and composer, provided the musical setting.
‘Silent night, holy night’ was the work of two Austrian Catholics, the priest and organist of a country church. An Irish Protestant, Nahum Tate, probably composed the text of ‘While shepherds watched their flocks‘, which is often sung to a tune taken from Handel.
These and other familiar carols have been composed by members of different Christian communities who lived in various parts of the world. The carols have also proved splendidly ecumenical in their use. No other collection of hymns are sung so widely by Christians when they celebrate one of the two central feasts of their liturgical year.
With a happiness that lights up their faces, Christians sing together the carols. With the birth of the Christ Child, light has replaced darkness, and real freedom has taken over from sin. The beautiful ‘Sussex Carol’ catches the common joy of Christian believers: ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing/To hear the news the angels bring/News of great joy, news of great mirth/News of our merciful King’s birth.’ The words of this carol go back to a seventeenth-century Irish bishop, Luke Wadding. In the early twentieth century, Vaughan Williams discovered the text and the tune that we use today, when he heard it sung at Monk’s Gate in Sussex. Hence it is called the ‘Sussex Carol’.
Such carols bring Christians together around the manger. They blend beautifully text and music to unite us all and lift our spirits at Christmas. But they also remind us that the shadow of the cross falls across the birth of Jesus.
Some carols foreshadow the suffering which the Christ Child will endure for all human beings. Thus the penultimate verse of the traditional English carol, ‘The first Nowell‘, declares: ‘and with his blood mankind has bought’. ‘In dulci jubilo’, a medieval German carol, arranged by J. M. Neale (d. 1866) and entitled ‘Good Christian men, rejoice’, subtly links Bethlehem and Calvary when the second verse repeats: ‘Christ was born for this.’
The carols that feature the Magi and the gifts they offer foretell the passion of Christ. Myrrh is an aromatic resin that was widely used in the Middle East to embalm corpses. From early times Christians understood that gift to symbolize the death and burial of Jesus. ‘We three kings of Orient are’, a nineteenth-century Christmas carol from Pennsylvania, devotes a whole verse to the gift of myrrh: ‘Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/breathes a life of gathering gloom/sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/sealed in the stone-cold tomb.’ Such carols unite Christians with the Magi in worshipping the Christ Child, whose birth is already overshadowed by the cross.
When we sing our favourite carols this Christmas, let us rejoice in their very ecumenical origins and in their use by Christians everywhere. The carols light up our faces with vivid joy. But they also recall how the shadow of Calvary fell over Bethlehem. Jesus was born into a world of all-pervasive pain and suffering.
Featured image credit: Little Twon of Bethlehem, by Phillips Brooks. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons