It’s all too easy to look up at the end of December and – poof – like excess glitter in the floor that fell from some cheap ornament, the moment gets vacuumed up or packed away for next year like another decoration.
So this Christmas, how can we truly be present and not just buy presents?
The answer is surprisingly found in the most fundamental of places – in singing traditional carols together. Redemption drew a baby breath that first chilly Christmas night, offering eternal breath to a forlorn world dying to be rescued. And yet even before Jesus lay snuggled up in the manger, the miraculous story of rescue was already being sung about. Mary sang about him in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-51). Zechariah sang about him in the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79). And of course, on the night of his birth, the skies over Shepherds’ Field became a vertical stage for hosts of choiring angels.
We have literally been created, compelled and commanded to sing, thus it’s no surprise that the oldest Christmas traditions are the masterpieces of the hymns: the carols. Here are ten timeless hymns none of us should ever forget.
1. Hark! The herald angels sing
Penned by Charles Wesley and included in his 1739 Methodist hymnal, it was later set to music by Felix Mendelssohn. It began as, “Hark, How All the Welkin Rings,” but George Whitefield did us all a favour by changing the words to ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’.
2. Come thou long expected Jesus
This appeared in Charles Wesley’s book of 18 Christmas songs in 1745, and it’s one of my three favourite hymns today. Imagine the centuries of waiting, longing and weeping coming to their fruition when people – and indeed all of us today – can find our ultimate supernatural rest in Christ. “Israel’s strength and consolation / Hope of all the earth thou art / Dear desire of every nation / Joy of every longing heart.”
3. O come, all ye faithful
This one is a Christmas call to worship, mostly likely written by John Francis Wade, a Catholic artist who created beautiful manuscripts decorated with exquisite floral images. His hymn, ‘Adeste Fidelis’, remained a Latin masterpiece for a hundred years before being translated into English by Rev Frederick Oakeley. For congregational and acapella purposes, this carol sings beautifully.
4. In the bleak midwinter
This carol is among our most plaintive, partly because of the haunting melody by Gustav Holst. Penned by English poet, Christina Rossetti, the lyrics first appeared in 1872. The last stanza says it all: “What can I give Him, poor as I am? / If I were a Shepherd I would bring Him a lamb; / If I were a Wise Man I would do my part, / Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”
5. Joy to the world
With its triumph cadence and rousing spirit, this carol was written by the man who is frequently called the ‘Father of the English hymn’, Isaac Watts. It was published in 1719 and wasn’t even originally considered a Christmas carol.
6. O come, O come Emmanuel
This is a medieval Latin hymn dating from the 800s. It was one of a series of antiphons that were sung every December, and it isn’t hard to imagine the mystic beauty of this hymn echoing off the walls of remote monasteries during the Middle Ages. This particular antiphon was discovered by an English minister and musician named John Mason Neale, who rendered it into English and published it in 1851.
7. Joy has dawned upon the world
This a hymn Stuart Townend and I wrote back in 2004. Stuart wanted to draw out parts of the Christmas story, such as the gifts of the magi, that aren’t particularly present in other Christmas hymns. Melodically, we wanted to give this carol the same fit and feel people might expect from classic Christmas songs they sang growing up in church.
8. Angels we have heard on high
This has one of the most joyful and well written choruses ever composed. The lyrical journey shines a light on the reality of incarnation in a way that refreshes the soul each time you sing it.
9. O little town of Bethlehem
Such a well-known carol, this was inspired by a visit to Bethlehem by Phillips Brooks, a pastor from Philadelphia. Around 1867, Brooks wrote the lyrics and passed them along to the church’s worship leader, Lewis Redner, who composed the melody. It was first sung by a group of six Sunday school teachers and 36 children.
10. Once in Royal David’s City
While this might be one of the least known of these ten carols, we mustn’t lose its message or music. Cecil Frances Alexander was an Irish pastor’s wife who published this carol for children in 1848. Today, many consider her works too deep to sing in adult congregations. If ever we needed empirical evidence that the Irish actually did save civilisation, this may actually be it.
Singing these carols together reminds us that hope has dawned in the little town of Bethlehem, in Royal David’s city, and that we should all join the triumph of the skies.
Keith Getty, together with his wife, Kristyn, is globally recognised as a modern hymn-writer. Their latest book is Sing! – How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family & Church. For a free download of the carols ‘Joy has dawned upon the world’ and ‘In the bleak midwinter’ mentioned above, please visit www.gettymusic.com/merrychristmas.