Christmas hymns and carols

27 November 2016

We take a look at the history of some popular Advent, Christmas and Epiphany hymns and carols:

Away in a manger     USA, 19th century, author unknown.
This popular Christmas hymn has been attributed to Martin Luther; but in the words of Fred D. Gealy ‘all that can be said confidently about the origin of this carol is that Martin Luther himself had nothing to do with it’... 

Adam lay y-bounden     English, ca. 1400, author unknown.
Stanza two is based on the topos of the ‘felix culpa’, the fortunate Fall. This was later to be the theme of the much grander Paradise Lost; but it is delightful, and very moving, to find it expressed in the Middle Ages with such economy and charm...

God rest you merry, gentlemen      Anonymous, 18th-century British.
As a ‘luck-visit song’ it was well known enough in 1843 for Charles Dickens to use it in A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge, hearing it sung at the keyhole of his office, ‘seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror’...

I wonder as I wander     John Jacob Niles (1892-1980).
According to Niles’s notebook, he had collected a fragment from Annie Morgan (nda) while spending some time in Murphy, North Carolina. ‘I heard singing coming from the other side of the town square’, he wrote. On investigating, he found Annie...

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining     John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893), from the French of Placide Cappeau (1808-1877).
The hymn is a most interesting example of a transformation of an original to reflect the views of the translator. It is a free translation, in many ways reflecting Dwight’s Unitarian beliefs...


More hymns and carols featured in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:

Angels, from the realms of glory

As with gladness men of old

Carol our Christmas

Ding! dong! merrily on high

Gabriel's Message

Good Christian men, rejoice

Good King Wenceslas looked out

Hark the glad sound! The Saviour comes

Hark! the herald angels sing

In the bleak mid-winter

It came upon the midnight clear

Joy to the world, the Lord is come

Love came down at Christmas

Now the heavens start to whisper

O come, all ye faithful

O come, O come Emmanuel

O little town of Bethlehem

O sleep now, holy baby

On the eve of Christmas

Once in royal David's city

See, amid the winter's snow

Silent Night! holy Night!

The holly and the ivy

We three kings of Orient are

While shepherds watched their flocks by night

Who is he, in yonder stall