While I’ve been writing a lot of reviews on various kinds of books, my first love of course is with hymns and church music. And so when the opportunity came up for me to review The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs I jumped at the chance.
As you probably know by reading my writing on the Classic Hymns portion of this site, I love to dig into the history of hymns. It’s far too common for us to sing certain hymns so much that it begins to become routine. Very often, especially when you look at those beloved hymns that have stood the test of time, you’ll find that understanding the background of the hymn very often helps you appreciate the hymns so much more and helps you get so much more out of singing it. And all this is especially true of Christmas hymns and songs.
As happens whenever you look into the background of history of anyone or anything, you’ll probably find some of the histories behind the hymns fascinating and uplifting, and others on the more mundane side. But I think all can help you develop a deeper knowledge and appreciation for them.
This book dives deep into the background of 21 hymns and songs:
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
O, Christmas Tree
The Holly and Ivy
I Saw Three Ships
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Good Christian Men, Rejoice
O Come, All Ye Faithful
While Shepherds Watched
O Holy Night
Ding dong! Merrily on High
Angels from the Realms of Glory
Hark, The Herald Angels Sing
Away in a Manger
I Wonder as I Wander
Good King Wenceslas
Here We Come a-Wassailing
The Twelve Days of Christmas
We Three Kings
What Child Is This
I’ll speak to the commentary around two of my favorite hymns, “O Holy Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”.
O Holy Night, as most of us know, is of French origin. Placide Cappeau was asked to write a poem for a Christmas pageant that was set up to raise money for the local church’s window fund. His lyrics were coupled with leading opera composer Adoplhe Adam’s music, and a hymn was born and first performed Christmas Eve 1847.
The version of the hymn most of us know was the English translation by John Sullivan Dwight. As someone whose tried (and failed) in the past to translate hymns from one language to another, it’s a nearly impossible task to translate word-for-word and end up with a singable version. Dwight did the wise thing and rewrote the hymn, keeping the basic meaning but adding his own edits and style.
What’s fascinating when you look at the original French and the English translation is how much the hymn was a reflection of its times. Phrases such as “the slave is our brother” carried extra meaning on the eve of the French and American Revolutions.
The hymn, in both French and English, went on to take on a life of its own. A popular story, which may or may not be apocryphal, is that on Christmas Eve 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war, one French soldier began to sing this hymn on the front lines in the darkness of the night. The Prussians, instead of firing at him, sang “Von Himmel Hoch” (a hymn written by by Martin Luther). And for that one night, there was peace.
On Christmas Eve 1906, the song became the first piece of music to be broadcast live on the radio, and remains one of the most beloved Christmas hymns today, as fresh today as the day it was written.
The story of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is equally fascinating. It provides the original lyrics (including a scan in his own handwriting) of Charles Wesley’s 9-stanza poem, first published in 1739. And it goes through the details of how Wesley’s original text was modified and what this did to the integrity of the hymn. The short answer is, in most cases it made the hymn much more singable, but at perhaps the expense of the deeper meanings of the original poem.
A good example of this is in the very first line. Wesley’s original lyrics were “Hark how all the welkin rings” which was changed to “Hark the herald angels sing”. We love the second version, mainly because we’ve fallen in love with it in our pulpits and I still get goosebumps when I hear Charlie Brown and his friends sing it every year. It’s interesting to know that the original word “welkin” was a real word (Shakespeare used it) that refers to “the sky, the firmament, the heavens”, and a much more apt description of what took place that night. Gant doesn’t suggest there’s anything wrong with the adapted translation, of course, but I appreciated the context of the original lyrics so that each time I sing it I can fully picture that scene in my head instead of the drawing of three angels with their hymnal drawn in the piano sheet music book I had growing up.
Gant also debunks certain false narratives about the hymn. For example, a common misconception is that Felix Mendelssohn disapproved of the lyrics to this hymn being coupled with his music. The truth is, Mendelssohn made this remark about an entirely different set of English lyrics and the coupling of Wesley’s lyrics to his music didn’t happen until years after his death. While we recognize Mendelssohn and Wesley in our hymnals, we never speak of a choirboy named William Hayman Cummings who brought them together.
The book is written in a rather “academic” style and that’s for good reason–the author is Andrew Gant who is a professor at Oxford University. He also happens to be a choirmaster, church musician, writer, and composer. In fact, in conjunction with this book he also published an accompaniment CD (sold separately).
As I read the book, a few things struck me. First, the depth of research is amazing, especially considering that many of these hymns were written hundreds of years ago. Gant does an excellent job of digging into minute details of the background of both hymn lyrics and tunes.
I love the fact that the full music and lyrics of each hymn is included, but also scanned images of original hymnal pages, typeset music for older and alternate variations of some of the hymns, and as I said, even scanned images of other historical artifacts.
If I had one gripe about the book, it’s a minor one. Sometimes the writing felt too academic and textbook-like when I would have preferred something a little more accessible. Granted, this is just personal preference and given that this book is likely going to be literally used as a textbook, it’s not something that I’d change. And I do appreciate that Gant did not sacrifice substance for style. I guess the onus falls on folks like me to take the meat of what Gant wrote and to turn it into a more casual, readable form (and as I expand the Classic Hymns section of the site, I will definitely be using his book as reference).