Favorite Hymn for Christmas Season
  • As many of us are in the middle or have recently finished picking music for Christmas, I thought it would be interesting to have a discussion about our favorite Christmas hymns and why.

    My favorite is Of the Father's Love Begotten. I love the fact that the text goes deeper into the theological meaning of Christmas, and the Incarnation of the Savior. It reminds me of how Bishop Barron once said that Christ had to enter into and become fully human to save humanity from within. Yes, we are celebrating the birth of a child, but we need to remember what this Child came to do. I think people tend to forget this reality of the Incarnation amid all the other preparations for Christmas. By choosing Of the Father's Love Begotten, I hope that the people at Christmas Mass, will be reminded of what Christmas actually means and why it is so important to celebrate this feast.
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,289
    I like See Amid the Winter's Snow, In Dulci Iubilo, and Hark the Herald Sing, all for a combination of theological, musical, and sentimental reasons.
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • I will enthusiastically echo Nathan on 'Of the Father's Heart Begotten'. This hymn, a cento of a much, much longer poem by Marcus Aurelius Prudentius, expresses more than any other Christmas hymn the realities of the Incarnation and its unfathomable theological ramifications. Too, it may be the only Christmas hymn that focuses on the fact that there was a Father involved, that our Lord did, indeed, have a Father, the Father of all fathers, and that Jesus himself was indeed from of everlasting. There is no greater Christmas hymn than this one, which Nathan has championed so nicely.

    Other favourites of mine are -
    'In the Bleak Midwinter' - evocative and wonderful to contemplate, though it is pure Victorian mythology.

    'O Come, All Ye Faithful' - Christmas just isn't Christmas without it, though its strongest theological stanza is the second one - 'God of God...'

    'See Amidst the Winter's Snow' - like Kathy, I am much moved by this one, though it, too, is more pure Victorian mythology.

    'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' - another one which more or less defines Christmas. It is very much more theologically strong than many Christmas hymns.

    There are, though, so many treasured ones, mediaeval, Victorian, German, French, etc., that would form an endless list of 'favourites'.
  • Don9of11Don9of11
    Posts: 434
    I particularly like "Sleep Holy Babe" for Christmas Eve. It was very popular in my parish when I sang in the choir many years ago. The poetic imagery of the hymn gives several allusions to Catholic teachings and scripture. We see Mary holding the babe, the God of the universe close to her as any mother would "Upon Thy Mother's breast, the Great Lord of earth and sky" (Psalm 146:6, Rev.14:7, Gen.1:10) We are reminded of the Annunciation and the Word made flesh "Before the incarnate King of Kings" (Luke 1:26-38) and drawing each of us into the joy of that Holy night, "While I with Mary gaze, In joy upon that face awhile" (Rev. 22:4) and the foreshadowing of Good Friday "Ah, take Thy brief repose; Too quickly will thy slumber break, And Thou to lengthened pains awake, that death alone shall close." Each person who reflects on the verses may find something different or nothing at all. I prefer the arrangement from the 1918 St. Basil Hymnal.

  • Thanks for that, Don.
    I hadn't known of 'Sleep Holy Babe' and shall look it up.
    As you have described it it sounds definitive of Christmas.
    There are quite a few less well known hymns and carols that have greater depth and are far more rooted in scripture and theology than the more well known ones, which tend to a saccharine sentimentality, if not outright mawkishness.
    Thanked by 1Don9of11
  • Chrism
    Posts: 754
    'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' - another one which more or less defines Christmas. It is very much more theologically strong than many Christmas hymns.

    But only (so far) in the version with "man" and "men".
  • Angels We Have Heard on High
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • I would agree with Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. It would probably be my second favorite from the standpoint of a theologically based text. This kind of goes into my chief complaint about most hymns used at Christmas: the texts are more sentimental than they are actually about God. For example, consider Silent Night. I used to love that one when I was a child. Now that I'm older, it's just another lullaby. Same thing for Away in a Manger. I don't really like doing them at mass for this reason.

    O Come All Ye Faithful isn't bad either. It is definitely better than many other popular Christmas songs. Plus, I would be afraid to leave the choir loft after mass if I didn't program it.

    The one I really cannot stand is Mary Did You Know. I think I would lose it if I heard this one at mass. I realize that it is more of a secular than a religious song, but the premise of the song is completely off. The angel Gabriel explains all of this to Mary when he speaks what we now call the Magnificat. Of course she knew. This song isn't just missing the point, it has the point completely backwards.
  • I cannot pick favourites but these are all enchanting, though not all "hymns" per se:

    Blessed Be that Maid Marie is gorgeous, and macaronic! https://youtu.be/_UL2sLE8uks

    This is the truth sent from above - the Herefordshire Carol. https://youtu.be/5M_8vjqWYmM

    Once in Royal David's City - can't go wrong with a lone treble from King's College on the opening verse... https://youtu.be/TT3cfXd3Shk

    "Past 3 O'Clock" which has the line "Cheese from the dairy bring they for Mary / And not for money, butter or honey". Quite charming...

    In Dulci Jubilo with the Latin-German I quite love. Especially this Praetorius polyphonified arrangement. https://youtu.be/Ou1O27w-bcI

    Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem arranged by Samuel Scheidt, an adaptation of Puer Natus - not many recordings out there but it's one of my favourites especially with that wonderful bouncing echo in the Alleluia and epic double-choir sound. https://youtu.be/j6Of30XBxSU
  • Drake
    Posts: 131
    I particularly like Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming and Angels We Have Heard on High. Also O Magnum Mysterium (Victoria) although I supposed that's a motet, not a hymn.
  • Drake, if you like O Magnum, you can also use the Lauridsen (overdone in my opinion, but beautiful nonetheless), or you could search my own setting available on this forum.
    Thanked by 1Drake
  • Seconding O How a Rose, or as we sing, Flos de radice Jesse.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,209
    For metrical carols, so many to chose from, but to limit myself to something not yet mentioned (and avoiding the temptation to yuck another's yums, as it were): I Wonder As I Wander. (A capella or very sparingly accompanied.)

    In a very different vein: this setting of Hodie Christus Natus Est by William Byrd, almost manic in its eruptions of ecstatic text-painting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8uWc3-3imc
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 9,203
    A Child Is Born In Bethlehem, arr. Bach

    my arrangement from the 80s attached.
  • Also this rendition of "In Dulci" with full period orchestral accompaniment is UTTERLY GLORIOUS! https://youtu.be/Wny02aEqb8A
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • Beautiful, m.r. taylor!
    the Praetorius has to be one of the most exultant and ecstatic expression of Christmas joy that ever has been written - it has something that not even Bach gave us in his Christmas Oratorio.
    The Praetorius in dulci also can be heard on one of Paul McCreesh's CDs.
    I often wonder, though, about the painstaking and admirable scholarship of those who are so (justifiably) pleased at their employment of period instruments while it never enters their minds to use 'period voices' - namely boys and male altos.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen m_r_taylor
  • You may enjoy this version, then. The In Dulci is at the very end but everything else is just overflowing with loveliness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RO2uD20ZP8
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,289
    I often wonder, though, about the painstaking and admirable scholarship of those who are so (justifiably) pleased at their employment of period instruments while it never enters their minds to use 'period voices' - namely boys.


    Jackson, I had an almost opposite response. To me the best part of that recording was the golden voice of the soprano soloist.
    Thanked by 1m_r_taylor
  • davido
    Posts: 418
    O Jesulein Süss
  • Kathy -
    I wholeheartedly agree with you about that soloist.
    I do not at all mean to demean the beautiful voices of women.
    They are in a class by themselves and are an exquisite musical instrument like unto no other. There is literature in which they excel, and their performances in later music is 'period' appropriate. That is not to say that they shouldn't ever perform earlier music, but that their voices in that early music is not as appropriate as that of boys. And, try as they might to 'sing like boys' to please their choirmasters, careful listening will reveal that they just can't.
    Unfortunately, boys voices are not in demand these days and are (very sad to say) found only at a certain church on fifth avenue, at (I think) St John's Cathedral (Episcopal) in Denver, and in English cathedrals and collegiate chapels - not to mention numbers of knabenchoren in Germany and Austria

    This doesn't say anything about the boys, but about a society and culture that has lost discarded something of immense value - and has become indifferent to the role of music in the spiritual and moral lives of young men and boys.
    Like the female soprano, the boy treble is a distinct instrument with its own distinctive timbre and is most fitting for 'period performances' of sacred music - though much modern music also forms a large part the repertories of most of the choirs of men and boys.

    Not everybody cares that much for boys' voices, though. A notable historic figure, one Erasmus of Rotterdam, was wont to remark snidely about the fact that 'we have money to train boys to squeal'. Poor Erasmus!
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,289
    I'm a big fan of boys' choirs, and for that matter girls' choirs. But I was blown away by that soprano!
  • Another gem -
    'Behold, the Great Creator Makes / Himself a House of Clay'
    Paired with This Endris Nyght, C.M. - as found at no. 20 in The English Hymnal , 1906,
    and Hymns A&M, amongst others.

    This is another one which is theologically rich, rich in imagery, and absent the mawkish sentimentality of many.

    Penned by Thomas Pestel, a chaplain to Charles I, it is rarely encountered this side of the pond.
    Too bad!
  • “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” has grown on me tremendously over the years for pretty much the same reasons that have been cited here.

    I’ve come to love “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” when I heard it at Mass a few years ago. The cantor sang the verses while the congregation came in on “Hail, the everlasting morn...” The whole piece is beautiful.

    Another strong contender in my eyes is “Good Christian Fri Men, Rejoice”. I love the final acclamations in the last two verses: “Christ was born for this” and “Christ was born to save.”
  • MJO, thanks for sharing Behold the Great Creator Makes. I've never heard that one before.

    I also have to agree with those who have mentioned Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming. Its an absolutely beautiful piece of music combined with a wonderful text. I think it can also work for the last week of Advent in addition to Christmas.
  • oldhymnsoldhymns
    Posts: 159
    My favorite Christmas hymn is "With Glory Lit, the Midnight Air Revealed,” by Professor Henry Dielman of Mt. St. Mary’s, Emmitsburg, Maryland. Next in order would be "Sleep Holy Babe" and "See Amid the Winter's Snow," two British hymns from the Victorian age. There are several melodies for these two hymns both in American and British hymnals.
    Thanked by 2Don9of11 CHGiffen
  • Corde natus ex parentis - Corde='Heart'.
    'Of the Father's Heart Begotten'.
    'Heart' is the more apt translation here, though 'love', while certainly not too much off, is still off.
    I think that the former is more prevalent in Britain while the latter seems more common in the US.
    And, after all, 'love' can boast approbation of The Hymnal 1940..
    There is, admittedly, something 'heart warming' about that word 'love', but 'heart' and 'love' are not exactly synonyms.
    Corde natus ex parentis.

    Incidentally, one of the finest, and easiest, anthems for Christmas is David Willcocks's arrangement of this as found in Oxford's Carols for Choirs.
    It is especially appropriate as an anthem at the offertory.
  • There are many great hymns for Christmas. Some of my favorites are:
    "Venez Divin Messie" (O come, Divine Messiah), though it is perhaps best suited for Advent.
    "Adeste fideles".
    "Il est né le divin enfant".
    "Good christian men, rejoice".
    "Noël nouvelet".
    "Gaudete, Christus est natus".
  • Carol
    Posts: 660
    I love "O Come Divine Messiah!" It is such a beautiful bright tune with which I only became acquainted in the past decade or so.
  • I am partial to Il est ne le divin enfant.

    Whenever I program the noels of d'Aquin and others I have the choir or a soloist sing a stanza or so of that noel before playing it. It is always good to give context to the organ versions for people who may not know or understand the provenance of them.
  • I don't understand: what is the proper context of "Il est né le divin enfant"?
    I forgot to mention "Les anges dans nos campagnes".
  • 'Angels We Have Heard on High', though somewhat overdone, particularly when hymns or carols of greater substance go begging. is a pleasant recounting of the shepherds' experience. Too, the refrain is pure delight. When programming this carol, which is a story and a dialogue, I always have the first stanza sung by the men (shepherds), stanza 2 by women (towns folk?), stanza 3 by the men (shepherds), and stanza four by all. All may join on the refrains.

    Once when giving a lecture on chant a certain person asked 'why so many notes on one word?'. My immediate response was to begin singing the refrain from 'Angels We Have Heard...'. Everyone spontaneoously chimed in. Question answered.

    Another favourite of mine is 'Here Betwixt Ass and Oxen Mild', paired with Geveart in the 1940 - a XIIIth century French carol translated by Canon Winfred Douglas.
  • I am partial to Vom himmel hoch and Max Reger's cantata on the melody containing all fifteen (!) verses, a meditative (not explosive) but exquisite work.
  • MJO, that is the perfect answer to the question. It reminds me of when I was probably about 12 years old and I was finally able to sing the entire phrase on one breath. Every Christmas I haf tried, but I was a couple notes short. I was so proud of myself the year I finally got it.
  • I'm particularly partial to I saw three ships, but would never use it at Mass.
  • There are so many that are rarely heard over here. Beside 'I Saw Three Ships' there is another charming one, 'King Jesus Hath a Garden', stanzas of which illuminate the various flowers in Jesus's garden and their mystical significance. Probably not for mass, at least not in a major slot - though I wouldn't hesitate to use it as one of a number of communion carols by the choir - ditto with Chris's favourite, 'I Saw Three Ships'.
    Both of these appear in Oxford's Carols for Choirs and The Oxford Book of Carols, the latter of which is a particularly rich source of historic carols which are not normally heard amongst the 'standards'.
    Thanked by 2tomjaw CHGiffen
  • 'Here Betwixt Ass and Oxen Mild' (Or "Entre le bœuf et l'âne gris") is indeed very beautiful.

    I am quite surprised by the number and quality of the French 'Noels'. This is perhaps because for a long time, the singing of hymns in the vernacular was prohibited in Catholic churches, except at Christmas before Midnight Mass.
    Among English hymns, "Once in Royal David's City" is one I discovered rather recently. A very lovely hymn.
  • Jehan -
    If you listen to Christmas Lessons and Carols from King's College on youtube or on a CD, the first thing that you will surely hear (after Brahms's Es ist ein Ros'... as an organ voluntary) is 'Once in Royal David's City'. It is sung in candle light procession and always the first stanza is sung by a boy soloist (who is chosen right before the procession begins!). With the last stanza is always heard David Willcocks's exquisite descant.

    This carol has one of the most interestingly constructed sentences in all of hymnody - the syntax is beautifully made -

    Not in that poor lowly stable
    With the oxen standing by
    We shall see him; but in heaven,
    Set at God's right hand on high,
    When like stars his children crowned
    All in white shall wait around.


    It is interesting that such language as this, penned in the XIXth century by C.F. Alexander (she was influenced by the Oxford Movement, and also gave us 'All Things Bright and Beautiful', et al.), was written especially for children!
    Who today would compose such exquisite language with children in mind?
    Something has gone terribly wrong.

    (I must admit that I hope that there is more to do in heaven than 'wait around'.
    I suspect that the Beatific Vision, dazzling beyond human comprehension, will have much more in store for us than waiting around.)
  • Something has definitely gone wrong: many composers seem to have thought children were too stupid to appreciate good hymnody.
    There is a French version of this hymn ('Toute nuit revit dans le silence'), though it is more a new hymn based on the same melody than a real translation.
  • Another discovery is this French carol called : "C'est le jour de la Noël que Jésus est né" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKmV947FxSU ). It is quite strange a carol: while it celebrates the Nativity of Our Lord, it does hint at the Passion which He will suffer for our sake. Quite unexpected for a Christmas carol, but very fitting.

    Here is my translation of the lyrics:

    It is on Christmas day that Jesus was born (bis)
    He was born into a corner, upon the straw,
    He was born into a corner, upon the hay.

    Saint Joseph with his hat made him a cradle (bis)
    He put to bed that sweetest babe into his swaddles,
    He put to bed that sweetest babe upon his knees.

    The red ox and the grey ass watched over the little one (bis)
    They most sweetly blew upon his face,
    They most sweetly blew upon the child.

    And, at fifteen of age, when he will have grown (bis)
    He shall learn the job of the place,
    He shall learn the job of a carpenter.

    And for the first time, a cross he shall make (bis)
    Which will soon lead him unto torment,
    Which will soon lead him unto death.
  • tomjaw
    Posts: 2,016
    It is quite strange a carol: while it celebrates the Nativity of Our Lord, it does hint at the Passion which He will suffer for our sake. Quite unexpected for a Christmas carol, but very fitting.

    Not strange at all, The Oxford book of Carols has plenty...
    'God's dear Son'
    'All in the morning'
    'Yeoman's Carol'
    'Sussex Carol'
    'The First Nowell' (vs. 8)
    'Greensleeves'
    'Sans day Carol'
    'The holly and the Ivy'
    'The sinners redemption' (All you that are to mirth inclined)
    'Down in yon forest'
    'The decree'
    'Cherry tree carol'
    'The Saviour's work'
    'My dancing day'
    'Gounod's Bethlehem' (Dans cette étable)

    and I have only gone through the first half of the book!
  • There are also many great ones in the Polish tradition:

    Bóg Się Rodzi

    Jezus Malusieńki

    Mizerna Cicha, Stajenka Licha

    Lulajże Jezuniu

    Among others.
  • Not strange at all, The Oxford book of Carols has plenty...
    'God's dear Son'
    'All in the morning'
    'Yeoman's Carol'
    'Sussex Carol'
    'The First Nowell' (vs. 8)
    'Greensleeves'
    'Sans day Carol'
    'The holly and the Ivy'
    'The sinners redemption' (All you that are to mirth inclined)
    'Down in yon forest'
    'The decree'
    'Cherry tree carol'
    'The Saviour's work'
    'My dancing day'
    'Gounod's Bethlehem' (Dans cette étable)

    and I have only gone through the first half of the book!


    Thank you for this precision. I must confess my near-complete ignorance when it comes to English Christmas hymnody (apart from those I mentionned).
  • davido
    Posts: 418
    Don’t you think “wait around” might imply the active sense of waiting as in serving, and around implies around the throne of God? In such a sense, waiting upon God could imply any activity that is of interest to God, particularly singing his praises!
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,289
    Angels We Have Heard On High is unusually fun for altos, who usually sing a string of Ds.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,566
    While I do like "Angels we have heard on high" very much, I was greatly disappointed several years ago, before moving to Wisconsin, to have it replace the Gloria at Mass on Christmas Eve. While I'm glad to sing it whilst out caroling, I no longer can appreciate it being sung at Mass.
    Thanked by 2tomjaw CCooze
  • ...seem to have thought that children were too stupid...
    Indeed, they apparently do so think.
    The double agony of this is that these children will grow up musically and literarily 'stupid'; and being so, having been thought (and made) musically stupid when they were children, will grow up to do the same job on the next generation - and so it goes. (Most people do, after all, like to make their children like unto themselves, do they not?)
    I guess that's how we got to where we are.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,566
    Largely unknown in the Catholic Church, except for those in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, is the marvelous Christmas hymn Boh predvichnyi narodylsia. The Wikipedia article gives a good description, together with a translation of the text.

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  • Chrism
    Posts: 754
    Can't even begin to pick a favorite. Some unmentioned hymns that deserve mention, however: In the Latin section, I've lately been reminded of In natali Domino, which has that fantastic chorus ending in "Virgo semper intacta". And in the Italian, Tu scendi. And in the French, O Dieu de clémence, but perhaps that's because I can't get enough Noël Suisse.

  • I know almost nothing about the Polish repertory of carols mentioned above by Clerget. Years ago I sang and taught a few Polish carols (in translation) and thought they had a distinctive charm. It would be nice if Clerget could put up a few of them here. Every nationality's carols have quite a distinct character, the French being, to me, the most absolutely charming - but they all express the Christmas message with their own distinctive emphases and ethos. That includes 'mediaeval carols' - all of which can hardly be lumped together stylistically, formally, or in their emotional character.

    Then there is Britten's masterful and stimulating 'Ceremony of Carols'!
    And, don't forget Vaughan Williams's 'Fantasia on Christmas Carols', which begins with his arrangement of the haunting 'This is the Truth Sent From Above'.
  • ViolaViola
    Posts: 377
    It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
    (especially the lines: O hush your noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing)
    Thanked by 1mmeladirectress