Stories of Our Christmas Carols

  1. “HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING” (verses 1 & 2)

The earliest version of this carol was a poem written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Much of the text is an adaptation of Luke 2:14.  The original opening line was “Hark how all the welkin rings,” using a rare ter

m for heaven, followed by “Glory to the King of kings.”  Wesley included his own theological interpretation with the words “God and sinners reconciled.”  This hymn remains one of the most theologically rich carols we still sing. In the early versions, the song was sung to several different tunes. Today’s version is sung to a melody written by German composer Felix Mendelssohn.

  1. “O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM” (verses 1 & 4)

This carol tells the tale of the birth of Jesus, and was inspired by the writer’s moving Christmas Eve experience in the Holy Lands.  Phillips Brooks was an Episcopalian preacher, who publicly advocated against slavery during the Civil War.  In 1865, Brooks rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he participated in the Church of the Nativity’s five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration. Returning home, this experience proved so profound that he channeled it into the song sung in churches to this day. Three years after Brooks wrote the poem, the organist at his church, added the music.


The French roots of this carol can be found in the 1700s in “Les Anges dans nos Campagnes,” which means “the angels in the countryside.”  The French verses were coupled with a refrain taken from Luke 2:14 in the Latin version of the Bible: “Gloria, in excelsis Deo,” which means “Glory to God in the highest.”  The carol was translated to English by Bishop James Chadwick and was published in 1860.      It is most commonly sung to the hymn tune “Gloria” arranged by American organist, Edward Barnes.


This beloved carol dates back to 1853 when English hymn writer John Neale first wrote the lyrics. The song focuses on the journey of a kind man who set out in terrible weather on the post-Christmas holiday of Saint Stephen’s Day to provide aid to poor neighbors.  This “king” was a real man, Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, who ruled from 924 to 935, when he was assassinated by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel.  Unlike his brother, Wenceslaus was adored by his subjects. Because of his great acts of charity, Wenceslaus was declared a king, and was eventually made a saint.  St. Wenceslaus is now the patron saint to the people of Czech Republic. The song is set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol.


The “Sussex Carol” is a Christmas carol that is quite popular in England, and is sometimes referred to by its first line “On Christmas night all Christians sing”. Its words were first published in 1684 by Luke Wadding, a 17th-century Irish bishop. Both the text and the tune to which it is now sung were discovered by Cecil Sharp in Buckland, Gloucestershire, and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who heard it being sung by a Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex (hence “Sussex Carol”).  The carol is often sung as part of the King’s College’s “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.”


“The Friendly Beasts” is a traditional Christmas song about the gifts various animals give to Jesus at the Nativity. The song originated in 12th-century France and is set to the melody of a traditional Latin song.  The English words were written by Robert Davis in the 1920s. The song is also known as “The Gift of the Animals.” In it, each of the animals sings to the newborn Christ child, offering a gift to comfort him.

  • The donkey offers transportation to Bethlehem for Jesus’ mother.
  • The cow gives its manger as a place to rest.
  • The sheep provides wool for a warm coat on Christmas.
  • The dove and its mate coo the baby Jesus to sleep.

The final stanza summarizes that “all the beasts, by some good spell,” were pleased to offer a gift to Emmanuel—a magical event in which even the animals were engaged in the mystery of His birth.


The legend behind the carol “Silent Night” sounds like a Christmas miracle. The story goes that Father Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria, was determined to have music at his Christmas Eve service, even though the church organ was broken. So he wrote a poem and asked his friend Franz Gruber to compose music for it that would not demand an organ.

The true story is a litte less dramatic. In 1816, Father Mohr did write the poem “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” and he did ask Gruber to help him write guitar music for the poem, which the two performed on Christmas Eve of 1818.  More than 40 years later “Silent Night” was translated into English, and has since been translated into 142 languages.  “Silent Night” is one of the songs that English and German soldiers sang together during the Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I.


The words to this carol were adapted from a longer poem written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix, who sold insurance and wrote poetry.  William Dix wrote many other hymns, most notably “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” and “As With Gladness, Men of Old.”  The melody of this carol comes from the 16th century British melody “Greensleeves,” which was originally a ballad of a man pining for his lost love.


Everyone has probably seen a Christmas pageant where three young boys dress up as the three kings, complete with crowns and gifts, while the choir or congregation sang “We three kings.” This hymn may be the primary reason for this tradition and is a uniquely American contribution to Christmas season.   John Hopkins, Jr. wrote the hymn in 1857, based on the narrative of the journey of the magi to Bethlehem found in Matthew 2:1-12.  The imagery of the star is central to the Epiphany season and to the narrative. The refrain focuses on the star and invites us to join the magi in following its light—“guide us to thy perfect light.”


Il est né, le divin Enfant” (in English: He is born, the divine Child) is a traditional French carol, which was published for the first time in 1862.  The tradition of French Christmas carols is a lively one. You may know more about them than you realize. “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabelle!”, “Angels We Have Heard on High”, “Sing We Now of Christmas” and “O Holy Night” are four others that are among the most familiar. The refrain is one of exuberance. One gets the feel of a street band accompanied by dancers spreading the good news of the birth of the Christ child. The band includes oboe and bagpipes, instruments that definitely can be heard outside.


Until the 18th century, most songs sung in European church services were based on Psalms found in the Old Testament. Though Isaac Watts loved the Bible, he felt that these songs felt “unnatural” to sing in their modern-day English translations. After one Sunday service, 15-year-old Isaac complained about “the atrocious worship.” One of the deacons challenged him with, “Give us something better, young man,” so he went home and wrote his first hymn.  Isaac Watts became a prolific hymn writer and is credited with some 750 hymns. “Joy to the World” refers to the last half of Psalm 98.  In it, Watts transformed the old Jewish psalm 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.”  Music for “Joy to the World” was adapted from George Frederick Handel, and to some, it resembles his greatest work, Messiah.


Many African Christians find a connection between the naming of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22-38) and the meaning of names given to newborn children. This hymn is a baby-naming song for the infant Jesus.  Like a baby-naming ceremony in many African cultures, the stanzas of this hymn tell the meaning of Jesus’ name — “God ever with us.”  A later stanza places Jesus in our family— “Gift of the Father to human mother makes him our brother.”  The song was written in 1967 by Thomas Colvin, a Scottish minister and missionary in Africa. Colvin wrote Christian texts to existing African tunes; this song uses a Melawi melody.


The carol “Away in a Manger” was first published in the late 1800s and is widely sung throughout the English-speaking world.  Also known as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” a popular belief in the early 1900s held that Martin Luther composed this hymn for his children in the 16th century, although it does not appear in his works or in German church history. It is more likely that the carol was written by German Lutherans in Pennsylvania. The first two verses were published in the 1885 without an attribution to an author. The author of the third verse (“Be near me, Lord Jesus”) is also unknown. The two most-common musical settings were written by William Kirkpatrick (in 1895) and James Murray (in 1887).


This favorite Christmas anthem was written by our own Arlene Axelson and arranged by Merrill Miller. Its lovely melody and rich harmonies support the nostalgic lyrics, which beckon listeners to focus on the love of friends and family at Christmas-time: smiling faces, warm embraces. The orginal, sacred words reminisce about the Christmas long ago, but the song was later published with secular words to appeal to school choirs. In both versions, it ends with “I wish for you, this message too: A simple Christmas filled with love.”

Hillcrest United Methodist Church

9100 Russell Avenue S., Bloomington, MN  55431