Christmas is my favorite time of the year. Not because of decorations, presents, or the promise of snow but because of the celebration of a child who was born to save me from a life without hope, without love, and without life everlasting. Jesus Christ, the hope of the world has come and brings life eternal through the forgiveness of sins by the gift of salvation for those who trust in Him.
Now that is something to sing about! The hymns that are sung at Christmas time and all year ‘round tell of the promise of a coming Messiah, the birth of a King, the life of a miracle worker, and the death and resurrection of a Holy LORD. We sing these beautiful melodies to remember and celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
“This Advent and Christmas hymn expresses and acknowledges a particular tension we ought to be aware of during the Christmas season. Just as, in the prophecies from Isaiah, a “rose,” or stem, shoots up from the stump, so too do we celebrate Christ’s birth in the knowledge that He brings life out of death. Our celebrations of Christmas must always point us to Easter. We celebrate Christ’s life because His death brings us a new kind of life. So too, the season of Advent points us not only to Christmas, but to the second coming of Christ, when He will finally make all things new. This is a beautiful and peaceful hymn, but there is just a touch of melancholy in the tune. Even in the arrangement the composer was able to convey the tension amidst our celebration, the sorrow that must lie within our rejoicing, if only for a moment. We know what is coming that week before Easter morning, and this should give us reason to pause. But we also know that the tiny babe whose birth we celebrate, our “Rose,” came to “dispel…the darkness everywhere.” Thus, even amid the tension of life out of death, we celebrate the ultimate life we are promised in Christ.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/lo_how_a_rose_eer_blooming
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
“This ancient advent hymn originated in part from the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons,” part of the medieval Roman Catholic Advent liturgy. On each day of the week leading up to Christmas, one responsive verse would be chanted, each including a different Old Testament name for the coming Messiah. When we sing each verse of this hymn, we acknowledge Christ as the fulfillment of these Old Testament prophesies. We sing this hymn in an already-but not yet-kingdom of God. Christ’s first coming gives us a reason to rejoice again and again, yet we know that all is not well with the world. So along with our rejoicing, we plead using the words of this hymn that Christ would come again to perfectly fulfill the promise that all darkness will be turned to light. The original text created a reverse acrostic: “ero cras,” which means, “I shall be with you tomorrow.” That is the promise we hold to as we sing this beautiful hymn.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/o_come_o_come_emmanuel_and_ransom
The First Noel the Angel Did Say
“This carol tells a story loosely based on the Gospel accounts in Luke 2 and Matthew 2 of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, with the shepherds, the star, and the wise men. The first two lines of the final stanza calls us to action – as the wise men reverently worshiped the Christ, so we should “with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord.” The last two lines recall that our Lord is the Creator and the Savior of the world.
This carol tells a story loosely based on the Gospel accounts in Luke 2 and Matthew 2 of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, with the shepherds, the star, and the wise men. The first two lines of the final stanza calls us to action – as the wise men reverently worshiped the Christ, so we should “with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord.” The last two lines recall that our Lord is the Creator and the Savior of the world.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/the_first_noel_the_angel_did_say
O little town of Bethlehem
“In 1865, the year the Civil War ended and President Lincoln was assassinated, themes of peace and quiet would probably have been welcome to Americans. In that year, the Rev. Phillips Brooks took a trip to Israel and saw Bethlehem and its surrounding fields on Christmas Eve, which eventually inspired him to write this Christmas hymn. In contrast to some other Christmas hymns that emphasize the glory of God as seen in the grand chorus of angels, Brooks focuses on the quietness of Christ’s birth, and how little the larger world paid attention. The final stanza is a prayer that Christ would come and be present with us.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/o_little_town_of_bethlehem
Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
“In Genesis 3, one of the great tragedies in all of Scripture occurs. Adam and Eve sin against God, and are banished from the garden as God puts a curse upon the ground. It is a heartbreaking rupture in God’s perfect creation, and it is hard not to read this text without feeling a twinge of despair. And yet, before the curse comes a promise. God declares that the woman shall bear offspring that will crush the head of the serpent. Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God, will come to break the curse, to renew the creation, to make whole what is now broken.
In Psalm 98, all of creation is called upon to make a joyful noise before God, for the Lord has come to “judge the earth,” and restore His Creation. We should not fail to see our own hand at work in the destruction of creation, in our sins of waste and decadence. This “judgment of the earth” is, in some part, a judgment of us as caretakers. But God is merciful and full of grace, and rather than leave everything in our hands, He gives us the Life-giver. In this beautiful hymn, Isaac Watts makes the connection between the coming of Christ into this world and the beginning of that restoration. Christ brings “joy to the world,” a light where there is darkness, growth where there is decay. And we, along with all Creation, respond with a song of praise.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/joy_to_the_world_the_lord_is_come
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
“This hymn by Charles Wesley was written within a year of Wesley’s conversion. Thus, as Albert Bailey writes, “the inspiration of his newly-made contact with God was still fresh” (The Gospel in Hymns, 100). Rather than simply tell the nativity story, Wesley pours theological truths into this text. The first verse tells the story of the angels proclaiming Christ’s birth, and the second and third verse go on to make it very clear why the angels sang. Simply by describing Christ, Wesley tells us the entire Gospel story. We are told of Christ’s nature, his birth and incarnation, his ministry, and his salvific purpose. The Psalter Hymnal Handbook describes the hymn like this: “A curious mixture of exclamation, exhortation, and theological reflection. The focus shifts rapidly from angels, to us, to nations. The text’s strength may not lie so much in any orderly sequence of thought but in its use of Scripture to teach its theology. That teaching surely produces in us a childlike response of faith; we too can sing ‘Glory to the newborn King!’”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/hark_the_herald_angels_sing_glory_to
Silent Night, Holy Night
“In the small, quiet town of Oberndorf, Austria, on a snowy Christmas Eve, a priest and an organist wrote what is now the most beloved Christmas carol world-wide. Stories abound as to the exact circumstances of the hymns origin, and there are societies dedicated to the task of protecting the authentic hymn text and story. If you ever visit Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, you can visit a replica of the Silent Night Chapel. Movies and operas revolve around the hymn, and almost every recording artist that has ever made a Christmas album has recorded it. In a sense, this spreading of the Word is a joy. But these honors should also make us wary. Paul Westermeyer writes, “Partly because of its popularity, STILLE NACHT can easily point to itself rather than beyond itself to the Word” (Let the People Sing, 153). It is important, then, to not simply listen to what we might consider a quaint, nostalgia-evoking carol, but to sing out the depth of these words. For the “dawn of redeeming grace” is something far greater and grander than any song we could ever write.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/silent_night_holy_night_all_is_calm_all
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
“The inspiration for this hymn, like Horatio Spafford’s “It is Well With my Soul,” came out of tragedy and remorse. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, having an injured son and a dead wife, wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day. The third verse, which says, “And in despair, I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to men,’” shows the depth of despair Longfellow experienced. The fourth verse shows the faith and hope in God that Longfellow had in the face of despair.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/i_heard_the_bells_on_christmas_day
Angels We Have Heard on High
“It’s a simply beautiful image: the shepherds in a great field, staring up in wonder at a sky full of the heavenly hosts, singing out their praise and joy, the echoes of their song of reverberating off the mountains to add to the cacophony. It isn’t hard to imagine the shepherds’ response. This group of young boys must have looked at each other wide-eyed, then whooped and cheered and run as fast as they could into the village, a stampede of sheep following them. Giddy with excitement and out of breath, did they burst into the stable and crowd around the manger? Or did they stop at the stable door, suddenly shy and overwhelmed, and peek in at the couple holding a tiny baby? Did they fully understand what they were witnessing? Do we even fully understand what they were witnessing? This hymn invites us to “Come to Bethlehem and see.” Today, we go to Bethlehem. We peak through the stable doors, and we kneel in amazement before the Christ child, our ears still ringing from the angels’ song. More so than the shepherds, we are able to see who this child is, because we know the Gospel story. We know that the angels would come again, this time to announce that Christ was not where the women looked for Him, but that He had risen. It isn’t hard to imagine that a “Gloria” would have been on those angels’ lips as well.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/angels_we_have_heard_on_high
Sing We Now of Christmas
“The importance of this song is that it highlights several of the most important parts of Christ’s birth; from the rejoicing of heaven and earth (with shepherds and angels), to the fulfilling of prophecies (the coming of the wise men). It reminds us that Christ’s birth changed the world. It reminds us that God became man and took a weak body of flesh to become closer to us.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/sing_we_now_of_christmas
We three kings of Orient Are
“The opening stanza is about the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem. The middle three stanzas explain a meaning for each of the three gifts. Gold signified royalty, and frankincense, deity. Myrrh foretold that the Christ child was born to die. The last stanza summarizes the song, calling Jesus the “King and God and Sacrifice,” and ending in a peal of alleluias.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/we_three_kings_of_orient_are
What Child Is This
“Have you ever studied the words of Isaiah 9:6-7 (they begin, “For to us a child is born”) and realized just how strange they are? At first glance, the grand titles and expectations seem absurd to place on a child. It’s a strange picture – a small child, hunched over like Atlas, a parliament building set on his shoulders, wearing a crown, perched on a throne, with a very troubled look on his face, as if to say, “What in the world am I doing here?” And yet, this is exactly what these verses tell us to be true. Of course, there was no actual building, no real throne, and no crown but one of thorns. But the thought is still astounding – this child, this baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, would be the fulfillment of these promises. He would be, and is, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. It is this astonishing prophecy that we keep in mind when we ask the question, ‘What child is this?’”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/what_child_is_this_who_laid_to_rest
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
“In one of his many “Coop’s Columns” on the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship website, former Calvin College chaplain, Dale Cooper, recalls a moment in which he was travelling home to his young family after spending the summer in Geneva. He was calling his wife from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to arrange his pick-up in Grand Rapids, when his then four-year-old son asked for the phone. Cooper writes, “His only words to me— a sigh, really: ’Daddy, when am I going to be where you are?’” (Cooper, “Coop’s Column – Spirit at Work: Guarantor”).
It is this sigh of longing that we express when we sing the words of Charles Wesley’s beautiful Advent hymn, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” For though we know that Christ goes with us and before us every day, we long for the day when we are with Him in all of the fullness and glory He will bring. We long for the day when we are with Him in a New Heaven and New Earth, when all things are made new. And just as a four-year-old crawls into his father’s arms after an extended absence, so too we long for the day when we will be at rest in Christ, enfolded in the embrace of our Savior.”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/come_thou_long_expected_jesus_born_to
Go, Tell It on the Mountain
“In the Bible, the mountain often represents the holy presence of God. Moses has to go up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and to see the Promised Land. In the Gospel, Jesus is transfigured on a mountain, an event signifying the full embodiment of the divine nature and holiness of Christ. In the Old Testament especially, the mountain is also a place that is set apart – not just everyone can go up the mountain to be in God’s presence. Psalm 24:3 asks, “Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?” God’s presence came down to the mountain, and the mountain was the barrier between the Israelites and God’s presence, much like the curtain in the temple dividing the people from the Holy of Holies.
When Christ was born however, God’s presence came down to His people in a new form, in the helplessness of a baby. And the story doesn’t end there – Christmas points us to Easter, when Christ ripped the curtain in the temple and became the bridge between us and the Father, God’s holy presence in and among us. When Christ was transfigured, he had with him Peter, James and John. The glory of the LORD was no longer barred from His people. The mountain is no longer a barrier between us and God, but a place to shout the good news of God’s presence among his people in the incarnation of Christ Jesus, to ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain.’”
Read more at https://hymnary.org/text/while_shepherds_kept_their_watching
What is Your Favorite Christmas Carol?
With the stories, theology and personal reflections of these Christmas carols we pray that the true meaning of Christmas will fill your heart and mind this season and throughout the year.
We would love to hear your story of how a Christmas carol has sparked worship in your heart and home. Email us at [email protected].