The season of Christmas gives us many great musical treasures, some of which are in our wonderful St. Michael Hymnal. Number 691 for example, Of the Father’s Love Begotten, is the English version of poem written by a man by the name of Marcus A. C. Prudentius around the year 410 A.D. Imagine that! Whereas that ancient hymn was originally written in Latin, the tradition of vernacular Christmas songs began around the 12th century. One of the oldest hymns in English dates from this time and originated in the County of Wexford in Ireland, thus called the Wexford Carol. It is a proclamation of the birth of Christ that begins with the words,
“Good people all this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son.”
Still, that stunning proclamation is more of a solo or sequence than what we think of as a Christmas carol.
Carols were originally popular songs for dancing and drinking. We can associate the oldest of our known Christmas carols to medieval madrigals and 15th century “wassailers” who sang their music at feasts in mead halls filled with lords, knights, and ladies. Most of those old popular songs are lost to us, but some of them were religious, and some of those have been preserved. Still, it took a while for carols to make their way into the Mass. Most of the carols we think of are from the 19th century, as it was then that the tradition of the Nine Lessons and Carols began to be a part of the Christmas Eve tradition. This was a time when Protestants were rediscovering Christmas, so new carols were being composed for their services. All that having been said, there are some Christmas carols that, for various reasons, bear mentioning by name.
- O Come, All Ye Faithful – This is probably one of the most popular songs in our St. Michael Hymnal, #650. The powerful and joyful Adeste Fideles was originally written in Latin by John Francis Wade, an exiled English Catholic layman living in Douai. He had fled to France after the Jacobite uprising of 1745 had been put down. Wade lived abroad in exile with other English expatriates whose Catholic religion had made them fugitives from their native land. Adeste Fideles was published at St. Omer’s. It was translated into English by the Catholic priest, Fr. Frederick Oakeley. Born into the family of an English lord, Oakeley had been ordained a Protestant, but converted to Catholicism in 1845 and was a friend of Blessed John Henry Newman.
- Silent Night – Perhaps the most beloved of all Christmas carols, Stille Nacht comes to us from the beautiful land of Austria. A young and newly ordained Catholic priest, Fr. Joseph Mohr, wrote the lyrics to this beloved classic that was first performed in St. Nicholas parish in Oberndorf on Christmas Eve in 1818. Since then, it has been translated into about 140 languages. So popular was this carol that during the Christmas truce of 1914, the opposing soldiers of WWI could simultaneously sing it in German, French, and English from their frontline trenches on the battlefield.
- The Huron Carol – This is the oldest known Christmas carol of the Americas. While not familiar to many, this should be very important to American Catholics. For one, a saint, the Jesuit priest, Jean de Brébeuf, wrote it. Fr. Brébeuf wrote this Carol in the native language of the Huron in 1642 before the Iroquois martyred him. Some English translations of Fr. Brébeuf’s hymn use the Algonquian phrase, “Gitchi Manitou,” or Great Spirit, for God.
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – Felix Mendelssohn wrote the melody in 1840, but the text goes back to Charles Wesley, the personal secretary of General Oglethorpe who settled the colony of Georgia in 1733. You can find it in our hymnal, #558.
- I Wonder as I Wander – This carol is a Christian folk hymn that was written by the folklorist John Jacob Niles. He reportedly heard a fragment of this song performed in Murphy, North Carolina in 1933 (Murphy is about 55 miles north of Jasper). Niles had witnessed a poor girl by the name of Annie Morgan sing a song for a quarter, and he wrote down a few of her lines. Niles went home inspired by that hearing to compose this new folk hymn. It was originally published in a compilation in 1934 called the Songs of the Hill Folk, but it has subsequently been sung in the great halls around the world. It’s in our hymnal, #576.
There are so many great Christmas songs old and new, and most of them have interesting stories which can be a source of inspiration for us. As you listen to your Christmas music, you might want to look up the origins of some of your favorite carols and learn more about the history of them in this most joyful season of the year.