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Words: Frances Jane (“Fanny”) Crosby (b. Mar. 24, 1820; d. Feb. 12, 1915)
Music: Odenwald, by Theodore Edson Perkins (b. July 21, 1831; d. _____, 1912)
Note: Among the more than eight thousand hymns she gave us, Fanny Crosby published this simple Christmas song in 1870. In some books you may see it credited to Frances Van Alstyne. That was her married name. In 1858, she married Alexander Van Alstyne–who was blind, as Fanny was.
Most of us are familiar with a number of Christmas carols. As the season approaches, they’re heard over the air waves, or sung by church congregations or carolers–even by those who don’t personally attach a religious significance to them. It’s part of a longstanding tradition. From the songs Angels We Have Heard on High, and Away in a Manger, to We Three Kings, and While Shepherds Watched, a couple of dozen of them are especially popular.
A “carol” is a song of joy and celebration, especially centred on the birth of Christ–at least, that’s according to the modern use of the word. But, many centuries ago a carol was something different. The Italian word, carola, referred to dancing in a circle, often to the accompaniment of singing (carolare). That accounts for the lively rhythm of some of the very early carols.
Participation in such musical “ring dances” goes all the way back to ancient Greece. But caroling closer to a more modern concept developed in Europe several centuries ago. Back then, carols were not just about Jesus’ birth. They celebrated the coming of spring, the gathering of the harvest, or other special events.
But gradually the carols focused more on the Saviour’s coming. And, as they were brought into the churches as a part of Christian worship, the music, though still joyful, reflected more of a sense of reverence. The lyrics also became more soundly biblical, and not as fanciful.
For instance, less desirable to many were carols such as I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In, from the seventeenth century, It describes Mary, Joseph, and the Baby arriving at Bethlehem in sailboats! But Bethlehem, of course, is an inland town with no port, and Jesus wasn’t brought there, He was born there.
Many of the ones we use today could also be described as Christmas hymns. And hymn historians generally consider Charles Wesley’s Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (published in 1739), and James Montgomery’s Angels from the Realms of Glory (from 1825), as the two finest carols in the English language.
The Puritans frowned on celebrations of all kinds as being worldly, and in the mid-seventeenth century Oliver Cromwell’s government tried to ban the singing of carols. It was only partially successful however, and with the coming of Queen Victoria’s long reign there was a renaissance of caroling. The Queen developed a fondness for Christmas carols, and she did a great deal to encourage people to gather for Christmas celebrations, and sing them.
Christmas is a time we set aside to remember the day when “the Word [Christ] became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). Whether we do so in a spoken testimony or in a song, it’s a momentous and history-altering event, worthy of our praise and worship. Mary rejoiced at the prospect of it. “Mary said: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour’” (Lk. 1:46-47). And Zacharias did also, saying, “The Dayspring [Dawning] from on high has visited us” (Lk. 1:68-69, 78).
Later, the angels celebrated His birth (Lk. 2:13-14), and the shepherds (Lk. 2:20), Simeon praised God for it (Lk. 2:28-30, as did Anna (Lk. 2:38). The wise men, also, some weeks or months afterwards, worshiped the Child, and gave Him gifts (Matt. 2:1, 9-11). Should we not celebrate the occasion too?
Fanny Crosby thought so. Here’s some of her song.
CH-1) Carol, sweetly carol, a Saviour born today;
Bear the joyful tidings, oh, bear them far away:
Carol, sweetly carol, till earth’s remotest bound
Shall hear the mighty chorus, and echo back the sound.
Carol, sweetly carol,
Carol, sweetly today;
Bear the joyful tidings,
Oh, bear them far away.
CH-2) Carol, sweetly carol, as when the angel throng
O’er the vales of Judah awoke the heavenly song:
Carol, sweetly carol, goodwill, and peace, and love,
Glory in the highest to God who reigns above.
1) What Christmas traditions do you look forward to that are special to your family or friends?
2) How does your church put a special emphasis on “the reason for the season”?