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Bible Alive is a Catholic scripture magazine which draws its strength, inspiration and direction from the liturgical cycle. Latest edition out now.

O Come All Ye Faithful

O Come All Ye Faithful

The sanctity, joy and community spirit of Christmas is no more felt than when we come together to sing carols. Hazel Sillver looks at the wonderful tradition of carol singing and the stories behind some of our favourite tunes.

With (hopefully) all the shopping and preparation done for the big day, Christians up and down the country huddle into churches on Christmas Eve. Outside the stars shine and inside the glow of candlelight sets a magical scene. It is now that we remember what Christmas is all about. We hear the Gospel tales of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary, the journey to Bethlehem and Christ’s birth in the stable. But most importantly, we sing!

Christmas carols are traditional, but there is a good reason this custom continues. It is something that we can all do together, but also words of worship are often more powerful sung than they are spoken. When the lines ‘Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King,’ resound through the church, it is a joyous declaration of faith and a reminder of what lies at the heart of the festivities: the birth of Christ.

O Come All Ye FaithfulWhat’s more, singing carols makes us feel good. ‘This seasonal music is fantastic,’ enthuses Aled Jones in his book Favourite Christmas Carols (£16.99, Preface). ‘It uplifts the soul, it makes you feel happy… Hearing these songs of Christmas that are all about the birth of Jesus makes you feel glad to be alive.’

So where does this wonderful tradition hail from? According to composer Andrew Gant, who has studied their history, they are ‘a hotchpotch’, melded fragments of old folk songs, monastic chant, poetry, scripture, light-hearted rhyme and high-end classical composition. Over the centuries, their words and melodies have changed and the composers of many are unknown. This only serves to make our lovely carols all the more beguiling.

O Come All Ye FaithfulIn his new book Christmas Carols: From Village Green to Church Choir (£9.99, Profile), Gant charts their movement from folk songs sung in the fields, each with a melody unique to the local area, through to people in towns and cities, singing (or ‘caterwauling’) carols from door to door. ‘Christmas carols are, perhaps, the nearest thing we still have to a folk tradition,’ writes Gant, ‘- an oral tradition. We know them because we know them. We never really learnt them, they’ve just always been there. This gives the tradition a particularly fluid quality, able to absorb influences from all over the place, but never quite settling into a finished format.’

Indeed our dear carols take many forms – there is the racing, breathless Twelve Days of Christmas that nobody can keep up with or remember the words to, especially after a few glasses of mulled wine. We can’t help but love the very camp likes of Ding Dong Merrily on High and Deck the Halls: ‘Fa la la la laa la la la laaa!’ There are the joyous rousing verses of O Come All Ye Faithful, the easy melodies of Away in a Manger and Little Donkey, which children love, and the lesser-known hymns, such as The Angel Gabriel. But the holiest of carols are perhaps the softer ones, which speak of the birth of Christ, and which can be sung gently and with reverence. When the boy soloist cuts through the quiet air of King’s College Chapel Cambridge, with his opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City, the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end; then all the mystery and magic of Christmas is before us: ‘Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.’

Now, let’s look at three of our most beautiful carols in more detail…

O Little Town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.

So moved was the American priest Phillips Brooks, when he visited Bethlehem and the field outside the city in which the angel appeared to the shepherds, that he wrote a song about it. Spending Christmas Eve 1865 at the site of Jesus’ birth, allowed him to convey the magic of that holy place seen at night: ‘In thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light…’ This gentle carol is best sung softly and traditionally we all let our voices drop to a whisper for the line: ‘How silently, how silently’; so it is ironic that Brooks was a bulky 6’6” man who gave thunderous booming sermons! The melody of O Little Town belongs to an old English folk song called ‘The Ploughboy’s Dream’ that was sung to the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams by a farm labourer in 1903. The tune and the melody bring to life that starlit Bethlehem of old, where in a stable Christ is born, as: ‘angels keep their watch of wondering love.’

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

O come, O come, Emmanuel!
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Is there any carol more holy than this? Both its words and melody have a deeply devout and comforting quality that makes this different to all the other Christmas tunes. When sung by Enya on her album And Winter Came, it is hauntingly beautiful. Unsurprisingly, this is probably our oldest carol. Based on the ancient Advent antiphons, seven prayers that each call Christ by a different name, O come, O come, Emmanuel dates back to at least the 8th century. The O Antiphons were sung in Latin in monasteries, one verse for each of the last seven days of Advent. In the 1850s, the clergyman John Mason Neale found a 12th century Latin chant based on these antiphons, called Veni, veni, Emmanuel, and translated it into the hymn we sing today. When its enigmatic melody floods the cathedrals and churches at Christmas, we feel with great magnitude, the last line: calling Christ to come into our midst, ‘In cloud, and majesty, and awe.’

Silent Night

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild.

Silent Night is consistently voted the UK’s favourite carol. As we sing its lovely lines: ‘Silent night, holy night. Son of God, Love’s pure light’, in hushed tones, that wondrous eve in Bethlehem seems to come alive. Surprisingly, this very peaceful carol wasn’t always so gentle! The original melody was an upbeat sprightly tune, composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber for his friend the priest Joseph Mohr. Whilst working at a pilgrimage church high in the Austrian Alps, surrounded by the stillness of starlit mountains, Mohr had written the poem Stille Nacht. All these years later, we can hear the peace of those mountains in his verses. Sung in Irish Gaelic by Enya on her album And Winter Came, the carol’s lullaby-like quality is magnified. When we hum Silent Night, we are singing to the baby Jesus, lulling him to sleep, and at the same time, we feel the great call, deep within, for ourselves and one another, to know the holy calm of God: to ‘Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.’

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