Sunday, January 01, 2006

'Best' Christmas Hymns

Now as Christmas settles down, I invite your comments on what you rate as the "best" Christmas hymn, or carol.

By "best," I mean more than just "favorite," although feel free to offer your favorite -- but tell us why: tell us why it's "better."

Here are my "best" Christmas hymns:

Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. It is well written, both for style and for theology. And it is rousing to sing, with lots of exclamation marks.

It moves from Biblical imagery and language to our world and our concerns -- a good "homiletic" method.

It does a good job making both Our Lord's humanity and divinity real: "offspring of the Virgin's womb," "pleased as man with men to dwell"* . . . yet also: "veil'd in flesh the Godhead see: hail th'Incarnate Deity."

(By comparison, Angels we have heard on high, which uses the same Biblical material, is -- in my opinion, weaker in substance, although certainly rousing to sing--but that, mainly, the "Gloria" refrain. I suppose the angels sang "sweetly"--but we know they were disturbing ("and they were struck with great fear," Luke 2:9). The "mountains in reply echo[ing] back their joyous strains" is a nice flourish, from Isaiah, I think.)

Another nominee I'd offer: Of the Father's Love Begotten -- right there, the title (and first line) contains implicit Trinitarian theology, as well as containing both ideas of "begotten"--eternally, before time, as well as in time, via Mary's fiat. This hymn goes on to smash heresies right and left to smithereens, like a joyful child armed with a toy mallet: "begotten, ere the world's began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he, of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore." Take that, Arius! Whack! Whack! Slam!

And that's just the first verse . . .

"When the Virgin, full of grace, [take that, deniers of the Immaculate Conception! Hah!]** by the Spirit blest conceiving, bore the Savior of our race." [Manages to be inclusive without vitiating second-Adam theology.]

"...First revealed his sacred face"--what a nice turn of phrase: does it mean the human face, or the divine? Or both?

Aesthetically, the hymn has the haunting, otherworldly beauty of all chant; and because it is chanted, it is easy to do without any musical accompaniment (and often better without). The tune is relatively simple, and thus easy for most to enter into.

The pity is that Gather has but four verses of this outstanding hymn -- the mostly Protestant "Cyber Hymnal" has nine verses, in both English and Latin! (This hymn, in full, would be very suitable for the offertory on Christmas, as you have both a long collection, then the procession with gifts, then, one hopes, the full treatment of incense.)

Well, I could go on and comment on other fine Christmas carols, but I offer these as two "best."

Please add your own nominees, but please do offer reasons why, if you can.

*Here's my diatribe against PC bowlderization of hymns...changing this to "us" is not only pusillanimous and pandering, it ruins both the poetry and the theology of Wesley's verse. Bleagghhh! Likewise, the following verse is ruined by this stupidity: "born to raise the sons of earth" becomes, "born to raise us from the earth" -- notice the change? It actually shifts from a creation-positive, Catholic idea, to a faintly Gnostic idea! Oh, but we mustn't allow "exclusive" language! Somebody show me the petition signatures asking for these changes, because the original verses were so "offensive"?)

** Of course, the Immaculate Conception was not formally defined in the 4th century, when this hymn originates; and the Latin original doesn't actually use "gratia plena"...comments from a better Latinist welcome...


Jacob said...

What do you think of 'O Come All Ye Faithful'? That one is certainly my favorite.

Mark Anthony said...

"Hark The Herald Angels Sing" has always been one of my favorites. For some reason, that song always makes me think of the color green. I like green, but how my psyche connected it to that hymn is a mystery.

I also like "I heard the Bells on Christmas Day." The lyric, "I heard the bells more strong and deep/God is not dead nor does he sleep/The wrong will fail, the right prevail/With peace on Earth, goodwill to men" gives me goosebumps (especially the Bing Crosby version).

And then, of course, there's "Grandma got run over by a reindeer." Hard to see how you missed that one, Father...

Gregaria said...

"Of the Father's Love Begotten" is also one of my favorite hymns.

Happy Feast of the Name of Jesus!

Anonymous said...

Silent Night is definitely my favorite. I love the phrase, "Fall on your knees!" What a powerful statement! It gives me goosebumps every time I think of it. (Like, "Mufasa!... say it again, Mufasa Mufasa Mufasa!" Can you tell my kids watch the Lion King way too much?)

I especially like it when a soloist sings it and hits the high octave on the second to the last "De-VINE!" I really belt it out singing along in the car!

But there are too many Celin Dion-esque versions on the radio these days.

I also heard a really funny, politically correct prady version of it. Oh night like any other night, when an nondescript ordinary infant was born...

Atiyah said...

My favourite recordings of Christmas Carols are from the Choir of Magdalen College Oxford.

As it says from the blurb from their recording of their ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’: “The choir has a particular association with Christmas carols, since it was Sir John Stainer together with a Magdalen colleague, Rev. HR Bramley, who published in 1871 one of the first ever collections of Christmas carols, 'Carols New and Old'. This volume's mixture of historically researched carols from medieval England onwards, with the addition of newly-composed pieces, provided a model for carol collections which has remained in common use ever since…”

Here is a facsimile of the first edition of ‘Carols New and Old’:

Here is a biographical sketch of the famous man:

I only have three requirements for a good Christmas Carol/Hymn. First that the Choir and/or congregation sing their hearts out. Second the arrangements allow the trebles soar above the rest of the Choir/Congregation. Thirdly that given a carol was a joyous dance that at least on one occasion the Priest/Minister should be observed tapping his foot under his vestments.

Here are my carols/Hymns in no particular order (I am sorry Fr. Fox I can’t choose just one).

Once in Royal David City
In dulci Jubilo
Angelus ad virginem
Hark the herald angles sing
I saw three ships.
The seven joys of Mary

Tim L said...

Mozart's "Exsultate, Jubilate" is wonderful during Christmas though it is not specifically a Christmas hymn. Our parish choir had it in their prelude to midnight Mass a few years ago and did a wonderful job with the lively, joyful motet. The final "Allelujah" seems to be the perfect response to the birth of our Savior.

Gregaria said...

I really like the Cambridge Singers under the direction of John Rutter. They've done several Christmas albums, but my favorite is "Christmas Night, Carols of the Nativity." It sounds like something along the same lines of the Choir of Magdalen College Oxford written up by atiyah.