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The Hymns and Carols
Advent Hymns | Christmas Hymns | Carols for Christmastide
The first hymns in honor of the Nativity were written in the fifth century, soon after Christmas was fully established as one of the great annual feasts. These Latin hymns were solemn, dwelling exclusively on the supernatural aspects of Christmas.
One of the earliest Latin hymns was Jesus refulsit omnium (Jesus, light of all the nations), by Saint Hilary of Poitiers (368). The words in Latin are below:
Jesus refulsit omnium
Pius redemptor gentium
Totum genus fidelium
Laudes celebret dramatum
Quem stella natum fulgida
Monstrat micans per authera
Magosque duxit praevia
Ipsius ad cunabula
Illi cadentes parvulum
Pannis adorant obsitum
Verum fatentur ut Deum
Munus ferendo mysticum.
(Click picture at right for more information on this Gregorian chant page)
English Translation below by Kevin Hawthorne, PhD, reprinted with his permissionJesus, devoted redeemer of all nations, has shone forth,
Let the whole family of the faithful celebrate the stories
The shining star, gleaming in the heavens, makes him known at his birth and, going before, has led the Magi to his cradle
Falling down, they adore the tiny baby hidden in rags,
as they bear witness to the true God by bringing a mystical gift
Other well-known Latin hymns include Veni redemptor gentium (Come,Redeemer of Nations), by Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (d. 397); Corde natus ex parentis (Of the Father's love begotten), by Prudentius (405), a layman, governmental official of the Roman Empire, and one of the greatest Latin Christian poets; and Agnoscat omne saeculum (Let every age and nation know), by Venantius Fortunatus (602), Bishop of Poitiers.
Later, many of the great nativity hymns were incorporated into the Divine Office of monastic prayer, and are still used at Christmastime in the daily prayer of the breviary. (An page from a 17th Century Office book is shown here.)
The birthplace of the true Christmas carol was Italy. In the 13th century, Saint Francis of Assisi was the first to introduce the joyous carol spirit, which soon spread all over Europe. Saint Francis wrote a beautiful Christmas hymn in Latin (Psalmus in Nativitate), but there is no evidence that he composed carols in Italian. From Italy the carol quickly spread to Spain, France, and Germany, where many carols were written under the inspiration of the 14th century Dominican mystics John Eckhardt, John Taler and Blessed Henry Suso.
The singing of hymns and carols can be a way for families and neighbors to reflect on the wonder and joy of Advent and Christmas. Below, we have included the words to some of the most popular carols. While the first verses are doubtless familiar to all, many singing groups fade out on the lyrics in the later verses. For this reason, we include the words of all verses here.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
A paraphrase of the "O Antiphons" (see Christmas Novena and "O Antiphons" pages), this beautiful hymn was translated in the 19th century by John Mason Neale, who translated many Latin hymns into English verse. (The Hebrew name Emmanuel means "God with us".)
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Refrain: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O Come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things mightily
To us the path of knowledge show
And teach us in her ways to go.
O Come, O Come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times did give the law
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.
O Come Thou Rod of Jesse's stem,
From every foe deliver them
That trust in thy power to save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
O Come Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
That we no more have cause to sigh.
O Come Thou Dayspring from on High
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadow put to flight.
O Come, Desire of Nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid every strife and quarrel cease,
And fill the world with heaven's peace.
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
This very beautiful Advent hymn was written in the 18th century bythe English hymn-writer, Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
Among other popular songs for Advent are Sleepers, Wake! [Wachet Auf], a German hymn written by Philip Nicolai in 1599 and adapted by J. S. Bach.; also The Cherry Tree Carol, and English traditional carol that tells the story of how a cherry tree revealed to Joseph the nature of Mary's child; Hear the Herald Voice Resounding; Bedew Us, Heaven, From Above; Behold a Virgin Bearing Him; The Coming of Our God; Behold a Rose of Judah; and musical settings of the Magnificat and Ave Maria.
Two of the most popular hymns for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are Franz Gruber's Silent Night, Holy Night, and the Latin hymn, O Come all Ye Faithful.
The story of this favorite carol is that on Christmas Eve, 1818, the organ of Saint Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Bavaria, was in need of repair. With no way to repair it before the midnight Mass, the priest of the church and the organist composed this beautiful hymn in just hours. It was sung in three-part arrangement with the accompaniment of a guitar.
Both English and German words are given here.
O Come All Ye Faithful
The source of this Latin hymn is uncertain, but it probably originated in the early 18th century in France. It is still often sung in Latin, so we give two verses here in both Latin and English.
Carols for Christmastide
Good King Wenceslas and the Twelve Days of Christmas are examples of carols for Christmastide that are not sung in Church services, but carry strong Christmas messages and have interesting historic origins.
Good King Wenceslas
This carol tells the story of the sainted Catholic king, Wenceslas, who ruled Bohemia in the 10th century. While it does not address the story of the Nativity, it is a hymn about Christian charity. It takes the form of a dialogue between the king and his page, and tells about their extraordinary efforts to give food to a poor family. It is usually sung at Christmastime because the story it relates took place on December 26, the feast of Saint Stephen.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
This very interesting carol originated as a Hebrew hymn, which begins, "In those twelve days ..." The hymn was originally arranged as a dialogue between cantor and choir. Each of the verses was repeated like the nursery rhyme, "This is the house that Jack built." In the Middle Ages, the song was rewritten in Latin with Christian images. The final verse and its English translation follows:Dic mihi quid duodecim? Duodecim apostele; Undecim stellae A Joesphon visae; Decem mandate Dei; Novem angelorum chori; Octo beatitudines; Septem sacramenta; Sex hydriae positae In Cana Galileae; Quinque libri Moyses; Quartuor evangelistae; Tres patriarchae; Duo testamenta; Unus est Deus, Qui regnat in Coelis. Tell me, what are the twelve things? Twelve apostles; Eleven stars seen by Joseph; Ten Commandments of God; Nine choirs of angels; Eight beatitudes; Seven sacraments; Six water jars in Cana Galilee; Five Books of Moses; Four Evangelists; Three Patriarchs; Two Testaments; One God who reigns in Heaven.
By 1645, an English version of the Latin hymn had appeared, and by the 18th Century, that had, in turn, become the Christmas carol we know today. (The English Carol, by Erik Routley, pp. 75-76, 237.)
One author describes this traditional English carol as a catechetical mnemonic device that Catholics used to teach their children the truths of the faith during the years that the Catholic faith was suppressed in England. The numerical symbolism, which follows closely on the Latin version, goes like this:
Partridge -- The One True God;
Two turtle doves -- Old and New Testaments;
Three French hens -- Three Persons of the Trinity (or the Three Patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.)
Four colley birds (colley means black) -- the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John;
Five gold rings -- the first five books of the Bible, believed to be written by Moses, called the Pentateuch;
Six geese -- six jars of water, turned to wine by Jesus at the wedding at Cana;
Seven swans -- seven Sacraments;
Eight maids a-milking -- eight Beatitudes;
Nine ladies dancing -- nine Choirs (or ranks) of Angels;
Ten lords a-leaping -- Ten Commandments;
Eleven pipers -- eleven faithful disciples (not including Judas), or the eleven stars seen in the Old Testament account of Joseph's dream;
Twelve drummers -- twelve Apostles, or the twelve tribes of Israel.
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