It's all too easy to look up at the end of December and - poof - realise the opportunity for meaningful reflection has passed, 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? We find the answer in the most fundamental (and perhaps surprising) of places - in reflecting on the biblical truths contained within the carols we sing. It can be easy for familiarity to stop us absorbing the meaning of the words but if we want to make it to January feeling restored rather than run-down, we need to take time to reacquaint ourselves with one of our oldest Christmas traditions; the masterpieces of the carols.
Here’s our top 10 timeless carols to focus our minds and hearts on the very deep and transformative truth of Emmanuel, God with us.
1. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
It was penned by Charles Wesley and included in his 1739 Methodist hymnal. This theologically rich classic is unlike many other carols; it embodies the entirety of the gospel and it gives us a moment in the busyness of Christmas to reflect on the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ birth: “Born that man no more may die / Born to raise the sons of earth / Born to give them second birth”.
2. Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
This appeared in Charles Wesley’s book of 18 Christmas songs in 1745, and it’s one of our three favourite hymns today. The song captures how centuries of waiting, longing, and weeping find ultimate resolution 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
Most likely written by hymnist John Francis Wade in 1744, this is a Christmas call to worship; it beckons us to simply come and adore “Christ the Lord”. For congregational and A cappella purposes, this carol sings beautifully.
4. In the Bleak Midwinter
This is among our most plaintive carols, partly because of the melancholic 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 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 triumphant cadence and rousing spirit, 'Joy to the World' was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. Based on Psalm 98, it wasn't even originally intended to be a Christmas carol. Yet no Christmas concert or Christmas eve service would be complete without it.
6. O Come, O Come Emmanuel
This is a medieval Latin hymn dating from the 800s. Its haunting, metrical chant contains a mystical beauty and the poetic lyrics reassure us of God’s promise being fulfilled – the long-awaited Messiah will come.
7. Joy Has Dawned
This is a hymn we wrote with Stuart Townend 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 feel people might expect from the classic Christmas songs they grew up singing in church.
8. Angels We Have Heard On High
It's one of the most joyful and well-written choruses ever composed! The lyrical journey shines a light on the reality of the incarnation in a way that refreshes the soul each time you sing it.
9. O Little Town of Bethlehem
Written in 1867, 'O little town of Bethlehem' was inspired by Philadelphia pastor Phillips Brooks’ visit to Bethlehem. The first three verses take us through the events of the night Christ was born with the fourth and last verse culminating in our heart-felt response: “Cast out our sin and enter in / Be born in us today”. Often a favourite with children, it was in fact first sung by a group of Sunday School children and their teachers.
10. Once in Royal David's City
Perhaps less popular than it used to be, but 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. It ultimately reminds us of the humanity of Jesus and the tremendous mystery of God becoming man: “He was little, weak, and helpless / Tears and smiles, like us He knew”.
Keith and Kristyn Getty occupy a unique space in the world of music today as preeminent modern hymn writers. In re-inventing the traditional hymn form, they have created a catalogue of songs teaching Christian doctrine and crossing the genres of traditional, classical, folk and contemporary composition which are sung the world over.
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