Top 5 Christmas Hymns & A Christmas in Korea

Here’s how I came up with the ranking of the hymns. Primarily I used the website whose song search gives you the total number of times the same song has been recorded by different artists. So, I went through each Christmas hymn and noted how many versions of each Christmas hymn has been recorded. I also factored in something else – the inclusion of Christmas hymns in the top 100 streamed Christmas songs on Spotify.

I start with #4 below and move up to #1. Then I will end with #5.

#4 - What Child Is This?

(edited from Galaxy Music Notes webpage)

“What Child Is This?” is a famous and traditional Christmas carol crafted in 1865. The lyrics were composed by William Chatterton Dix, the son of a surgeon residing in Bristol, England. Dix spent most of his life as a businessman in Glasgow, Scotland, working at the managerial level of the Maritime Insurance Company.

Dix was [enthralled] by traditional English folk music;. And when he started writing the lyrics for “What Child Is This?,” he decided to utilize the melody of “Greensleeves” to create the carol. It is [easily] his most memorable and famous creation.

In 1865, William was 29 years old when he suffered from a near-fatal bout of sickness. He was afflicted with severe depression, and this experience changed him completely. While undergoing recovery, he experienced a spiritual awakening that inspired him to start crafting hymns. He became an avid reader of the Bible. Dix subsequently wrote the lyrics of “What Child Is This?,” and incorporated the tune of the celebrated English folk song, “Greensleeves.”

Greensleeves was already one of the most aesthetic and beloved melodies of the festive season at that time. Although it’s not a quintessential Christmas tune, its association with the festive season can be dated back to 1642. It was paired back then with Waits’ carol titled, “The Old Year Now Away is Fled.” Also, William Shakespeare refers to this popular tune twice in his famous play - “Merry Wives of Windsor.”

My favorite rendition of the carol comes from renowned American musician Martina McBride. McBride’s voice is simply gorgeous, and her arrangements and interpretations of songs are uniformly spot-on. Her 1998 holiday album White Christmas is a classic. Her version of What Child is This appears on this album.

#3 - O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Come, All Ye Faithful, like many of our Christmas carols, is Catholic in origin. It was born in France in the early 1740s. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding who composed it. This is true for both the lyrics and the tune.

As for the words, some have argued the carol comes from an English organist and composer named John Reading. Some believe it comes from an anonymous group of Cistercian monks. Some even claim that the classic carol was composed by the Portuguese king John IV. A large majority of modern scholars, however, claim the composer of both the words and the music to be an English hymnist, copyist, and teacher named John Francis Wade.

The earliest copies of the hymn, composed in Latin, bear the actual signature of John Francis Wade. Those texts come from a Catholic college in northern France, the College of Douai, where Wade worked.

Methodist hymnologist Fred Gealy notes: “Seven manuscripts containing the Latin hymn are known; they are dated 1743-61. All appear to have been written, signed, and dated by John Francis Wade, an Englishman who made his living by copying and selling plainchant [compositions] and other music.”

Research by Dom John Stéphan, author of The Adeste Fidelis: A Study of Its Origin and Development (1947), has determined that the first and original manuscript was dated in 1743, indicating that Wade composed both the Latin words and the music between 1740 and 1743.

The English language translation of the majority of the carol’s stanzas is the work of Frederick Oakeley. Born in 1802, Oakley was a translator of Latin hymns during the Oxford movement, a movement to catholicize the Anglican church.

We are going to hear a beautiful rendition of this carol by the group Poor Clare Sisters of Arundel. As the name suggests, the group is made up of nuns, part of the contemplative Franciscan tradition. Their recording of the Catholic carol is indeed contemplative in nature. It also simplifies the carol, narrowing it to the first verse. Interestingly, it intersperses the original Latin and the English translation.

This version of Come All, Ye Faithful is brand new, released just a couple weeks ago. It has quickly become my favorite rendition. So let us listen. You’re welcome to sing along if the Spirit leads.

# 3 - O Holy Night

An agnostic-Marxist poet, a nominal Catholic of Jewish descent composer, and a Transcendentalist-Unitarian pastor walk into a French café… Sounds like a joke waiting to happen. But instead, it is a beloved carol waiting to happen. Not just any carol; the most popular carol outside of Silent Night.

O Holy Night begins in Roquemaure, France in 1847 with a poet named Placide Cappeau and a request given to him by his parish priest. What was the request to the agnostic-socialist-leaning Cappeau? Write a poem for Christmas Mass that year in celebration of the restored church organ. Why the priest asked Cappeau is a question we have no answer for. Maybe he saw something in Cappeau that Cappeau did not see himself.

Anyway, Cappeau wrote a poem titled Cantique de Noel, or Praise Song of Christmas. The poem begins with the French words, Minuit! Chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle.

Or Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour.

The priest loved the poem despite Cappeau’s unnuanced theology.

Soon, the idea to put the poem to music developed. Cappeau contacted his friend Adolphe Adam, a musician and composer. While the evidence is not clear, Adam was at least of Jewish descent but seemed to loosely convert to Catholicism during his early years. Adam was a renowned composer, having composed the music for the still-performed ballet, Giselle.

Adam wrote what we now know as the tune to O Holy Night. Cappeau’s poem put to Adam’s music became a popular one to the French. We’d call it today a hit song, one that was played in church services regularly.

But as writer Ann Gabhart states, “When Placide Cappeau completely left the church to join a socialist movement and it was [believed] that Adolphe Adam was [of Jewish descent], the French Catholic church leaders decided ‘Cantique de Noel’ was unfit for church services… But even though the church no longer allowed the song in their services, the French people continued to [play] and sing it.”

So the song eventually made its way to America. Almost a decade later, John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian pastor with Transcendentalist leanings, ala Ralph Waldo Emerson, translated and revised Cappeau’s words into English. He added some theological nuance to the English lyrics, most notably removing Cappeau’s direct mention of God’s wrath in the French original. Dwight, an abolitionist, was especially moved by the poem’s third stanza. He more directly translated these words into English.

“Truly, he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother;
And in his name all oppression shall cease.”

Dwight retained Adam’s composition and in 1855 first published O Holy Night as we sing it today. Crystal Caviness of the United Methodist Church website writes, “[Dwight] published the updated version in his magazine, “Dwight’s Journal of Music,” which propelled the song to popularity in the United States and, particularly, in the North during the Civil War as abolitionists related to the anti-slavery sentiment.”

As for my new favorite rendition, it comes from the group Passion, a Christian worship band based in Atlanta. It features the singer-songwriter David Crowder. The 2021 recording includes a beautiful string quintet and a lovely arrangement. The result is an admirably understated piece, especially compared to so many renditions of O Holy Night that make an opera out of the song. The Christmas story’s humility and glory move together, just as humanity and divinity do in Jesus. Passion’s interpretation combines humility and glory in a wonderful and engrossing way.

#1 - Silent Night, Holy Night

Silent Night begins with a poem. One composed by Joseph Mohr in 1816.

Born in the city of Salzburg, Austria on December 1792, Joseph Mohr was a man of humble origins; his single mother earned a meager income spinning and knitting, and his father, a soldier, simply boarded with the family and deserted them as soon as the pregnancy was discovered. 

Mohr grew up in abject poverty and, having been born out of wedlock, was something of an outcast. He found a father figure in Johann Hiernle, a vicar and church choirmaster who recognized and encouraged the boy's musical aptitude. Hiernle saw to it that young Joseph received a proper education. The boy learned guitar, violin, and organ and he served simultaneously as a singer and violinist in the choirs of the University Church and at the Benedictine monastery church of St. Peter.

Following in his mentor’s footsteps, Mohr chose a religious life and in 1811 entered seminary in Salzburg. In August 1815, Mohr graduated and was ordained as a priest.

The first church he served was in the village of Mariapfarr, where his grandfather lived. It would be here Mohr wrote his famous poem.

In 1817, after a bout of illness, Mohr transferred to the village church in Oberndorf. There he befriended church organist Franz Xaver Gruber, who worked as a schoolteacher in neighboring Arnsdorf.

Gruber was born November 1787 in Hochberg, Austria. He also grew up in poverty, the son of a poor weaver. The expectation was that the son would follow in the family trade. Yet Franz had other plans. He discovered that his true interest was in music, and he cultivated his gifts by taking music lessons in secret from organist Georg Hartdobler at the parish church in Burghausen.

When his mentor died, Gruber replaced him as the organist in Burghausen.

In 1807, Gruber accepted a teaching post in Arnsdorf where he served also as organist and sexton. From 1816 on, Gruber filled-in occasionally at the church at St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf- yes, that’s right, St. Nikolaus Church. In his capacity as itinerant organist, Gruber would meet Mohr. A friendship commenced and would produce one of the greatest pieces of music we know.

The region in which Silent Night, Holy Night was conceived and first performed was down and out, ravaged by the 8-year-long Napoleonic Wars. Conflict and foreign occupation devastated the area both economically and emotionally. War-weary describes it well.

Another source of significant hardship and pessimism was the change in the local economy. For a long time, the core of the region’s economy was the salt-mine industry. The Napoleonic War saw the salt-mine industry falter, fade, and eventually disappear never to return. And with the introduction of trains, the river became less important for not only salt but for other manufactured goods.

All of these things – war, the departure of industry, and the introduction of technology – resulted in an economically depressed region, with Oberndorf on the river especially hit hard.

From these examples of tough times and dire straits – an illegitimate son, a poor weaver’s rebellious son, a down-and-out town – came a glimmer of light that still shines forth, a glimmer devoted to the Light that has always shone forth. It is a musical light beginning with the words Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht - Silent night! Holy night!

In December 1818, Father Mohr was busy planning for Christmas Eve services for his small church in the Oberndorf hills. He wanted a new song that got to the heart of the holy day. He had his poem written some two years ago in Mariapfarr, a poem still speaking to him. He just needed a tune to make the words sing.

A few days before Christmas Eve he got together with his friend Franz Guber in the sanctuary of that Oberndorf chapel. The organ was broken. They used a simple guitar, which Mohr preferred, to hash out what would become the most popular and greatest-selling carol of all time.

Gruber became the spiritual conduit for the tune – a lovely, simple lullaby that fit Mohr’s poem perfectly. Both the words and music point to the yearning for peace, a lasting peace, and a new beginning that endures.

On Christmas Eve of 1818, in the snow-draped chapel in Oberndorf, Mohr and Gruber, with just a guitar and two harmonized voices, first performed Silent Night, Holy Night.

Fast forward centuries to December 2000. Holly and I lived in South Korea that year. We were there teaching English and experiencing a whole new way of life. Now, there are many Christians in South Korea. However, it remains Buddhist-Confucian in culture. This was especially so in more rural places like Iksan, the town where we lived. There, the Buddhist-Confucian culture was still rather unadulterated. Folks in Iksan certainly celebrated Christmas but in a way more like we celebrate Valentine's Day in the U.S, which is to say, not so significantly spiritually.

It was for us the first (and only to this point) Christmas spent in a culture not Christian (and Christmas) centric. However, this Christmas in Korea was one of the most spiritually significant for me .

The story begins with a walk down daehagno, the college town area very close to our apartment. That Christmas night in the bustling neighborhood was not exactly silent. The shops were all open. There was no snow falling. No christening of brighter than usual streetlights. No enlightenment ignited by stars shooting above me. Only a sense that I was remembering something I once knew in my heart and not merely in my head.

From one of the many open shops “Silent Night” lilted. That it was Frank Sinatra’s version only propounded the homesickness that moved in me.

“All is calm, all is bright…
holy infant so tender, so mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace.”

Some years before, I parted ways with the Evangelical brand of Christianity I was given. It wasn’t an easy departure. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. It complicated my relationship with my parents, my siblings, my church friends right away. I was outcasted in a real sense. I was no longer the great young Christian hope of my church or my family, the future Billy Graham who’d do great things for the Lord.

It complicated my relationship to faith, too. Christianity seemed distant and lost to me. As distant as Korea was from America.

I felt cheated by the narrow-mindedness of the faith I once knew.

I felt isolated from God.

I felt Christmas to be increasingly empty.

It felt like the holiday was no longer meant for the adult me, but for the childhood me that no longer applied.

Like an old, artificial Christmas tree, I placed Christmas away in the cluttered basement of my mind.

My sense of isolation from the culture around me coincided with my spiritual sense of isolation that Christmas day.

Despite my best efforts, I could not learn the language fast enough. I could not understand the words spoken by those passing around me, or coming out of those shops. Nor could I find full inclusion in the culture I now lived within.

Yet I understood what Sinatra was singing. I understood the words. I understood the sentiment. I understood the spiritual truths being sung about. I understood the moment.

And the silence of that moment, the music of a Sinatra serenade, released something within me.

I cannot explain exactly what it was, only that it was. I sensed the Spirit of Christ and Christmas in that moment, and something changed within me.

As I walked the streets of a Korean town back to the home called Holly, I meditated on the good news for the first time in a long time. I meditated on the good news of divine humility and newness born to us in silent moments. I pondered the Christmas truth born again within me. And I started to sing to myself the words Sinatra just crooned about Christ. I sang the same words I’d later sing to my son Corey a few years later, a lullaby to serenade his drifting off to dream.

Then I got to that last verse, the verse Sinatra did not sing, but one I had not forgotten. One I could not forget. I sang through quiet, joyful tears as I neared home:

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth

# 5 - Joy to the World

Quickly, as we close, Isaac Watts, called by many the greatest hymn composer of all time, wrote the words to "Joy to the World" in 1719. Waats based most of the hymn’s words on a paraphrase of Psalm 98 which we just read. The stanzas we will hear and/or sing all come from Waats’ loose rewrite of Psalm 98.

The basis of the carol’s most popular musical setting comes from none other than George Frederic Handel’s 1741 masterpiece, Messiah. The tune we now sing is the result of pieced-together portions of that famous composition.

The piecer-together was influential Boston educator Lowell Mason. His musical arrangement of fragments from Messiah was first published in 1836 and was titled, Antioch. To this very day, the Antioch tune is what we sing Waats’ words to as we will hear now.

We will close with indie musician Sufjan Stevens’ 2006 version of the classic carol from his Songs for Christmas album.


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