Since it’s the Sunday before Christmas (I can’t believe it’s in 2 more days!) we’re going to spotlight the history of some of the more popular Christmas hymns and songs.
The song Joy to the World was written in 1719 by Isaac Watts (described as the Godfather of English Hymnody). The Christian minister Watts was a theologian and also a poet from a young age. The story tells that when he was 15 years old, he found the tradition of singing Old Testament psalms in modern English was “atrocious”, so a deacon challenged him to come up with something better.
He wrote his book, “Psalms of David Imitated” and was published in 1719. Joy to the World is Watts’ perspective of how David’s Psalms would ‘burst forth in their complete fulfillment’, and Joy to the World is the “imitation” of the last half of Psalm 98, describing the Psalm’s “historic deliverance into a song of rejoicing for the salvation of God that began when the Jesus came “to make his blessing flow far as the curse is found.”
The music score is from George Frederick Handel
Here’s my favorite version. I can just imagine us all singing this in a Heavenly Concert…
Charles Wesley originally wrote the poem Hark the Herald Angels Sing to be recited on Christmas Day. In it’s original form which appeared in his collection Hymns and Sacred Poems it read, “Hark how all the welkin rings,” using a rare term for heaven. It also had a few different pieces of music which it was sung to until finally 100 years after it was written, English musician William H. Cummings paired the carol to Mendelssohn’s cantata Fetgesang, which is the version we all know today.
I can’t help but love this version, it reminds me of so many fun and magical Christmas’s when I was little.
My favorite Christmas Hymn was commissioned by a parish priest in a small French town for his village’s Christmas Eve mass. Poet Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure read the account of the birth of Christ in the gospel of Luke and finished the poem O Holy Night while en route to Paris. He enlisted the help of his friend Adolphe Charles Adams to compose the music to the poem, and three weeks later, the song was sung in the village on Christmas Eve 1847 .
The song came to the U.S. via John Sullival Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War who published it in his magazine because he was moved by the line in the third verse, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease.”
The song had been long banned in France due to the fact that Cappeau was a socialist and Adolphe Adams was Jewish. But the song was still popular among the people, so on Christmas Eve in 1871, during fierce fighting between France and Germany of the Franco-Prussian War, a unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked into the battlefield, and started singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the song’s first line in French.
After singing all three verses, a German solider emerged and started singing, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” the beginning of a popular hymn by Martin Luther. (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” was written by Luther in 1534 as an interpretation of Luke 2:8–18)
Fighting stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day, and the song again became popular in France.
I love a few different versions of this. Martina McBride does an amazing job of it, as does Josh Grobin, but I think I have to stick with David Phelps for today…
And, for a special bonus re play, Daisy posted this a few weeks ago, my other favorite hymn… retelling the story behind I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day…
I hope everyone has a blessed Sunday!