Carols Through the Ages

Betsy Edmonds
Gail Arnall



December 31, 2017

The following notations on the various hymns that were sung during the service functioned as the Order of Worship for this Sunday.

O, Gladsome Night

Many believe this hymn is the oldest Christmas hymn we have.  The hymn was for the Lighting of Lamps.  The words were written anonymously in Greek as early as the 3rd Century C.,E.  Christians in the early church lived much closer to the events of nature and the progression of the seasons.  Sunrise from the east brought not only a new day but also the promise of hope for the coming Messiah.  Evening brought potential danger and the mystery of the dark.  So, any light that penetrated the darkness was a welcome sight.  We take light in the dark for granted, but this was not the case for early Christians.  In contrast to a world shrouded in darkness, Jesus Crist is the light of the world.

One source wrote that the tune came possibly from the 8th Century.  In 1899 the hymn was translated into English.  Let’s listen to the Eikona Trio.

Welcome: Greet Visitors

Many are the Lightbeams

Our first hymn we will sing dates back to Greece.  It is believed to have been written by Saint Cyprian of Carthage in 252 C.E.  It was translated by Anders Frostenson from Sweden in 1972 and first published in 1994.   

Savior of the Nations Come

This hymn was written by Ambrose of Milan, who is considered the Father of Latin hymnody for his introduction of metrical hymns into the Daily Office of the West in the last half of the 4th Century.  He is also said to have introduced the responsive singing in Milan and was the first in Italy to encourage general congregational singing.  Ambrose, who was consecrated bishop of Milan at age 34, belongs to the transition period when the classical meters were beginning to be laid aside and rhymed verse was preparing to take their place.

Passing of the Peace

The Wexford Carole

This beloved traditional Irish carol was originally collected by a folklorist in a town in Ireland’s County Wexford, thus the name.  The lyrics, originally written in English in the 12th Century, were added to the melody later.  


This happy 15th or 16th Century Latin carol is probably a parody of an earlier medieval song written in honor of St Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia, sailors and children to whom he traditionally brings gifts on his feast day, December 6th.  The parody may have been written for Holy Innocents’ Day, celebrated on December 28th.  The melody is similar to that of an earlier song found in a German manuscript from 1360.  The chorus reads Ideooo – which is Latin and translated means "Today."


The Portuguese Hymn (we know it as Adeste Fideles)

There is some disagreement about the author of this hymn.  Some say it dates back to the 13th Century.  But the most commonly named Portuguese author is King John IV of Portugal.  He is referred to as “the Musician King.”  He came to the throne in 1640 and was a patron of music and the arts, and was himself a composer.  It was at his Villa palace that two1640 manuscripts of this hymn were found.  Interestingly in 1649 he had a huge struggle to get instrumental music approved by the Vatican for use in the Catholic Church.    

The Huron Carol (also called 'Twas the Moon of Wintertime)

This is a Canadian Christmas hymn, Canada’s oldest Christmas song, written probably in 1642 by a Jesuit missionary among the Hurons in Canada.  The song’s original Huron title is translated as “Jesus, He is born.”  The melody is based on a traditional French folk song.  The well-known English lyric, written in 1926, uses imagery familiar in the early 20th Century in place of the traditional Nativity story.  Jesus is surrounded by hunters instead of shepherds and the Magi are portrayed as “chiefs from afar” who bring him “fox and beaver pelts” instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The English translation uses a traditional Algonquian name, Gitchi Manitou, for God.  The song remains a common Christmas hymn in Canadian churches and also in several American hymnals.  It is in our hymnal on page 151. 

Hark!   The Herald Angels Sing

This hymn was written by Charles Wesley – the greatest hymn writer of all time.  He wrote 8,989 – almost 9,000 hymns from about 1735 to 1788.  He produced fifty-six volumes of hymns in fifty-three years, predominantly hymns for use in Methodist meetings.  We know many of Charles Wesley’s hymns, like O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing; Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Jesus; Lover Of My Soul; Christ the Lord is Risen Today, and so many more.  And yet, he is often referred to as the “forgotten Wesley.”  You may know that it was his brother John who is considered the founder of Methodism.  Some believe that without the hymns of Charles, the Methodist movement may have gone nowhere.  One historian put it this way:  “The early Methodists were taught and led as much through Charles’s hymns as through sermons and John Wesley’s pamphlets.” (0I urge you to Google Charles Wesley when you get home to learn more about him." 

Angels from the Realms of Glory

This Christmas hymn was written by James Montgomery, who followed in the footsteps of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts.  In fact, he is the third most prolific British hymn writer.  It was first published on Christmas Eve in 1816.  Interestingly, for over 100 years this poem was sung to a variety of tunes.  Then in 1928 in the United States, it became the tune we know.  The hymn has a sense of urgency and excitement, magnified by the use of imperative verbs throughout, especially in the refrain:  “Come and worship…”  The themes of justice and mercy as well as the image of broken chains are appropriate in the context of Montgomery’s life.  His newspaper denounced the social evils of his day, especially the slave trade.  He was even jailed for his radical views.  He used the time in prison to write poetry.

Lord’s Supper

During the passing of the bread and wine, Kent and Chris will be playing Silent Night.  You may know the story.

Silent Night

The German words for the original six stanzas of the carol we know as "Silent Night" were written by Joseph Mohr in 1816, when he was a young priest assigned to a church in Austria.  Having written the words the night before the Christmas service, Mohr asked the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber to quickly come up with a tune that the church could sing that night since the organ was broken.  Gruber only had a few hours to come up with a melody which could be sung with a guitar.  However, by that evening, Gruber had managed to compose a musical setting for the poem.  It no longer mattered to Mohr and Gruber that their church organ was inoperable.  They now had a Christmas carol that could be sung without the organ.

Weeks later, well-known organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived in Oberndorf to fix the organ in St Nicholas church.  When Mauracher finished, he stepped back to let Gruber test the instrument.  When Gruber sat down, his fingers began playing the simple melody he had written for Mohr's Christmas poem.  Deeply impressed, Mauracher took copies of the music and words of "Silent Night" back to his own Alpine village, Kapfing.  There, two well-known families of singers — the Rainers and the Strassers — heard it.  Captivated by "Silent Night," both groups put the new song into their Christmas season repertoire.  
     The Strasser sisters spread the carol across northern Europe.  In 1834, they performed "Silent Night" for King Frederick William IV of Prussia, and he then ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas eve.
     Twenty years after "Silent Night" was written, the Rainers brought the song to the United States, singing it (in German) at the Alexander Hamilton Monument located outside New York City's Trinity Church.
     In 1863, nearly fifty years after being first sung in German, "Silent Night" was translated into English.  Today the words of "Silent Night" are sung in more than 300 different languages around the world.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

The history of this favorite hymn has its beginning in this country, not long after the Civil War, when an African-American church choir director and scholar, John Work, in Nashville, TN, realized that the rising generation of black southerners might best understand the importance of spirituality by learning the songs their ancestors sang during the days of slavery.   Work’s church choir, named the Fisk Jubilee Singers from the nearby college of the same name, carried the Negro spirituals to the world (literally) during an era when few African Americans were able to travel more than a few miles from their birthplace.  John Work passed his love of music and history to his two sons who saved a huge number of Negro folk songs from being lost or forgotten.  This hymn is one of those written by a slave.  It is unique in that of the hundreds of Negro spirituals the Work family saved from extinction, few had been written about Christmas.  John Work II and his brother Frederick rearranged the music into an anthem-like structure to suit choirs such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  In the 1880s, the song became a showpiece in the choir’s repertoire.  During the Great Depression, grandson, John Work III, reworked the song one more time, adding at last one new stanza.  The one we will sing today was published in 1940.

God’s Love Made Visible

Iola and David Brubeck, married for sixty-three years, wrote this and many other religious songs together.  Iola writes or chooses the texts for most of David Brubeck’s religious scores.  Brubeck was well known as an American jazz pianist and composer known for his unconventional meters, as well as songs like "In Your Own Sweet Way" and "The Duke." Brubeck didn't act on the idea of writing sacred music until 1965 when he wrote a short piece, "Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled," to comfort his brother whose son had died of a brain tumor at age 16.  Many other compositions followed.  Brubeck once explained why jazz syncs with religious music.  "Well, it would go back to the spirituals and the gospel singing that is so wonderful, so rhythmic and so great in certain churches, and you reach that audience if you have that gospel feeling." David Brubeck died in 2013.