It’s Christmas Eve, and you find, that after all your planning and preparations, there are still three things you need for tomorrow—things that demand a trip to the store on top of all the busyness you were expecting anyway.
With a sigh, you set out, perhaps with several children in tow. You reach the store, and start pushing the shopping cart through the aisles, looking for those three things that were the last (and probably the hardest) items on your list. You try to keep the eighteen-month-old from grabbing brightly coloured objects as you pass them, or the first grader from being left behind gazing at some Christmassy marvel. You find the first thing, with some relief, the second with a feeling of mounting pleasure that maybe your whole day won’t be spent rushing around, and as you reach for something that might be the third, a well-known Christmas hymn starts floating out across the store, telling with stirring words and beautiful music the old account of the manger so long ago.
Do you hear it? Maybe. Do you heed it? Perhaps, if to heed it is to feel a certain warmth and satisfaction in the familiar words. But do you stop, at that moment, in that crowded store aisle, to think of the great legacy of which that simple strain is merely an icon? Not likely. For it is far too rarely that we remember what a wonderful collection of good and great hymns we have fallen heir to. It is far too seldom that we consider our Christmas legacy.
Christmas: The Golden Season of Good and Great Hymns
Christmas offers some special advantages when it comes to promoting and preserving good and great literature—particularly hymns and poems. The hymns we learn at Christmas become invested with a halo of sentiment and memory which makes us come back to these hymns year after year. Thus, when we choose to embrace good and great Christmas hymns, we have a better chance of retaining them in future years.
The results of this phenomenon on the history of church music at Christmastime, means that today we reap the work of past generations. The hymns commonly sung in average churches at Christmastime today, gravitate towards good and great hymns far more than at any other time of year. This is because a greater percentage of the population has sentimental reasons for singing the “traditional” Christmas hymns, than they would for singing traditional hymns all year round. And it so happens, that there are some really outstanding “good and great” Christmas hymns which have long been established as the prevailing standards.
Good and Great Lyrics
Those of us in the English-speaking world, are heirs to an incredibly rich legacy in hymn lyrics. We see an excellent cameo of this legacy in our wealth of magnificent Christmas hymns like the following:
Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory, to the newborn King!”
– Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
It is hardly necessary to comment on the power, amounting to genius, which is conveyed by those lines. It is arguably the greatest masterpiece of one of the greatest English hymn-writers of all time—and it is sung in thousands of churches around the world each Christmas.
And even where the authors are less known, or unknown, for other contributions to English hymnody, we seem to find their best centred around this great holiday in the Christian calendar:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
– Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)
These examples are not little-known, obscure hymns dug out of musty hymnals in decaying churches. These are pieces of music you will hear even in malls and toy-stores being played on secular radio channels—something that only happens at Christmas.
Good and Great Music
But it isn’t only the lyrics of our Christmas classics which are good and great. We also find incredibly well-written music in our Christmas hymns, including names like:
- Felix Mendelssohn (Hark the Herald Angels Sing)
- George F. Handel (Joy to the World and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks)
- William J. Kirkpatrick (Away in a Manger)
- Arthur Sullivan (It Came Upon the Midnight Clear)
Famous classical composers, well-known hymn tune contributors, and even a musician known chiefly for his musicals! All these, and so many more, have added to the collection of Christmas hymns we love and sing today.
Don’t Waste the Legacy of Christmas Hymns!
We have an opportunity placed into our hands of either perpetuating the legacy of Christmas hymns, or allowing them gradually to slip into the past. We have the chance to appreciate and love these hymns, and admire not only their own beauty, but the grand, high truths they express so fittingly.
When we find ourselves in the store aisle on Christmas Eve, and we hear the first notes of a majestic, old hymn peal out across the building, let’s stop and listen. Let’s encourage our children to listen. Let’s tell them—if we know ourselves—about the men and women who wrote it, and others. Let’s show them, by our own example, that we value the heritage of Christmas hymns that has been passed down to us, and that we want to keep alive the love of Christmas and of Christ by singing, hearing and loving the hymns that tell of it.
Let’s make sure that when we have left this earth, and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are telling their own kids about Christmas, the hymns which we knew and loved are the ones they know and love then. Many of them have lasted two hundred or three hundred years already, let’s make sure they last another hundred. Let’s make sure we don’t waste our legacy of Christmas hymns.
If you want to learn more about this heritage of Christmas hymns, check out our “Christmas Hymns Through the Ages” post, along with its downloadable PDF of Christmas Hymns by date.
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- Word of the Week Lesson #36 – UPHOLD
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