Last October, we asked Anglican Journal readers what their favourite Christmas carol is and why. All our readers’ responses about what song makes their hearts sing are below:
Words by Joseph Mohr (1816); music by Franz Gruber (1818)
I remember as a small child my German grandmother holding me in her arms and singing this carol ever so softly in German. She would sing it whenever we went to visit her and stayed the night whether it was Christmas time or not.
Where I attend Christmas Eve service now, Silent Night is sung at the closing of the Eucharist. As the lights dim and candles are lit, I am brought back to my grandmother’s arms where I felt peace, gentleness and quiet.
Canon Beth Marie Murphy
Diocese of Saskatoon
I remember it as the carol that the troops in World War I sang as they declared a Christmas Eve cease fire across the trenches and joined in a heavenly chorus to show that human nature at it’s best desires peace. Every time I hear it, I pray for peace in all the troubled spots of the earth.The carol was also favourite of my mother-in-law, a German immigrant to Canada in 1950. My husband sings it with tears in his eyes every time, remembering her and her strong faith and love. She died in 2005 at the age of 100 plus. The sentiments in the carol are universal, as is our love of God.
St. John the Divine, Squamish, B.C.
When I was young my older sister returned home for Christmas; I was quite excited and talked endlessly. My Mom and her wanted to talk and tried to do so while doing the dishes but I had something to say about everything they were trying to discuss. With much wisdom, my Mom asked me to sing my favourite Christmas carol as softly as I could. She figured my doing this would act as background music, keep me preoccupied, and then they could still chat. I sang Silent Night, and sang it so beautifully, she said, that they forgot to chat and just listened. It was a silent night for them and a memory I will always cherish with a little smile.
St. Mary’s Anglican church, Russell, Ont.
When my granddaughter, Amy, was eight years old she stood up in front of her class
and parents and sweetly sang Silent Night a capella. I was so proud of her; the memory lingers still after 21 years. There was not a dry eye in the room.
Beaver Bank, N.S.
It began in 1816 as a carol in Germany, when the organ in the church broke down and it was created for accompaniment by guitar. Its simultaneous singing by the English and German troops during the Christmas truce of 1914, its translation into over 300 languages, its harmonies, its simple, heart touching rendering of the Nativity story and its instant recognition around the world all contribute to its being one of the most popular carols of all times, and my favourite Christmas carol.
In 1967, our first year of teaching was at an Old Colony Mennonite Community, 75 miles north of Fort St. John, BC. In those days, you could have a Christmas pageant, complete with scripture and carols in the school and we did! To the surprise and joyful tears of our German speaking parents, the pageant ended with Silent Night, alternately sung with Stille Nacht, bridging cultures. As the community ventured out into the deep silent snowy night, all were filled with the peace, love and birth of Jesus while the aurora borealis danced in the heavens!
St. Peter’s Campbell River, BC
My favourite is Silent Night because you can sign the verse of John 3:16 to the same tune.
Parish of Kingston, N.B.
O HOLY NIGHT
Words by by Placide Cappeau (1847); composed by Adolphe Adam (1847)When we were posted in West Germany with the Canadian Armed Forces, my mother bought a Christmas album by the famous tenor Mario Lanza. She risked running afoul of father by spending a most of her housekeeping money on her purchase but it was worth every penny! My favourite of his carols was O Holy Night. As the music swells (and the windows rattle), the chorus majestically sings, Chains we shall break for the slave is our brother, as a reminder of the Church’s role in abolitionism. I was so happy to find this CD and I am still moved by this fine tenor who died at the tragic age of 38 years old.
Fr. David Peterson
St. John the Baptist
Cobble Hill, BC.
Good King Wenceslas
by John Mason Neale (1853) The Christmas I was eight, I heard the carol on the radio and told my mother that it was my favourite. She looked shocked, and said, “That was my Mother’s favourite carol, too!” Abandoned by her father, my mother and grandmother (who died long before I was born), lived in great hardship and poverty in Northern England, and there was little Christmas cheer. Mother described how, if ever my grandmother heard the sound of the Salvation Army band playing Good King Wenceslas at the street corner, she’d wrap herself in an old shawl and go outside to stand in the cold and listen. Whenever I hear Good King Wenceslas, I always see my grandmother wrapped in her shawl, listening, and mother’s joyful amazement at discovering this mystical musical connection between her daughter and her Mother. And, I always give to the Salvation Army.
In the Bleak Midwinter
words by Christina Rosetti (1872); music by Gustav Holst (1906)
Whether the carol’s appeal is the poetry of Christina Rosetti or the harmonies of Gustav Holst, I’m not certain. My mother (Lilian) and I loved singing in the choir at St. John’s, York Mills when I was growing up. Whenever we sang pieces that were significant to either one of us, we would give each other a knowing look. This one always radiated a smile from her. Mom now resides in a nursing home, gradually succumbing to the bleakness of Alzheimer’s. However, music continues to reach and inspire her. When the carol asks the question, “What can I give Him,?”my Mom’s reply would most certainly be, “What I can I give Him – give my heart.” I believe that Jesus is holding my Mom’s heart close to His, now and always.
Susan (Timms) O’Riordan.
Port Perry Ont.
This carol is rarely sung in our congregations, but often performed by choirs such as King’s College at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols. The words, originally a poem by Christina Rossetti, and the haunting melody by Gustav Holst, draw me into the mystery and the holiness of Christmas. The last verse, probably the best known, offers me a response, out of the poverty of being human, to the love of our Incarnate God.
Jo Ann Golat
Langley, B. C.
The Huron Carol
by Jean de Brebeuf (1643) ‘Twas in the moon of wintertime” and my class had to choose a carol to sing in the upcoming school Christmas concert. We all lived in a small community in northern Ontario far from big cities and big highways but surrounded by bush and now heaps of very white snow. All the summer birds had indeed fled but a dash of blue betrayed the blue jays, and the chickadees still chirped in the heavy spruce bows.
The words of that carol, written four hundred years ago by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary, seemed very much in tune with the world we lived in. The children were familiar with hunters and skins of the many animals hunted locally. Father de Brebeuf had written those words in an effort to bring home to the Hurons, in words they would understand, the beautiful story of the first Christmas. What wondrous and familiar images those words called up for us. We were last on the programme and we sang the Huron Christmas Carol to the accompaniment of a single little drum – “pom, ta, ta ta ” Concert over, we went out into that still cold silent night , snow glittering in the car lights and images of angel choirs and rabbit skins still in our heads and hearts.
St. Columba Church
St. Catharines, Ont.
I have sung this carol as a solo in the past and have stated in the preamble that I find the North American setting and imagery very appealing.
As a youngster growing up in the Anglican Church in Fernie B.C. I was part of the Nativity play the Sunday School put on every Christmas. Instead of the usual settling of Bethlehem, it was decided by those in charge to base the birth of Christ around the story in The Huron Carol. We made native costumes out of flour sacks and fringes, headband with feathers, a tee pee for the stable and a rabbit skin replaced the manger on which to lie the baby Jesus. It was a wonderful evening. Singing and acting out the Carol made Jesus seem alive for me as a ten-year-old.
Paulette Smith (Girou)
St Helen’s, Surrey, B.C.
I’ve worked as a teacher for nine years of my 13-year career with Inuit and First Nations students. This carol reminds me of the wonderful people I’ve worked with – their struggles and their triumphs. I’m going through the postulancy discernment process in the diocese of Calgary. It was in a native community that I felt the call to ordination again. The Huron Carol is also one of the few quintessential Canadian carols
It reminds me of the fact that we are living in a land that was inhabited by people that were literally forced to accept our ways and beliefs, and as such, cause me to be forever thankful that we are finally beginning to live as Canadians and not as individual ethnicities, but most of all, as children of God.
Mary Did You Know?
Words and music by Mark Lowry (1984) As parents, we all pray that our babies will grow to become the epitome of love and everything good in the world. I can imagine Mary watching all this come to pass as her precious son grows, and I can feel her pride and amazement as she shares in the greatest miracle of all.
Deer Lake, Nfld.
What a wonderful message it holds. The Virgin Mary gave birth to a son who would someday rule the world. He was the Messiah, our Lord and Saviour. He was Mary`s Lord and Saviour, too. When she kissed her little boy she was kissing the face of God!
When I was a child, Christmas carols permeated our whole culture – Sunday School and school – so it is difficult to select a traditional favourite, as they were all part of the story of Christ’s birth. In recent years, the culture that supported this has gone, and we have observed that children do not know these beloved songs, but do know a multitude of secular songs of this season, which are not always positive. A couple of years ago one very gifted younger woman in our congregation sang, Mary Did You Know?, which brought tears of joy to a multi-generational setting… A timeless story with song for a new generation and now my favourite!
Campbell River, BC
Once in a Royal David’s City
Words by Cecil Alexander (1848); Music by Henry Gauntlett (1849) It tells of Jesus’ humanity as well as his divinity, and reminds me of Christmas services when I was growing up in the 1970s and a member of my church choir. It is also easy to sing.
Heather Rose Russell
St. Thomas’ Church
St. John’s, Nfld.
Joy to the World
words by Isaac Watts (1719) When I was a little girl, I can remember standing between my mother and grandmother at the Christmas Eve service, as all the community stood, the organ’s tones filled the church, and everyone sang this carol. It says it all – Joy to the World, the Lord is come, Let earth receive the King, let every heart prepare him room.Everyone knows it, and everyone loves to sing it. When the joined voices of family, friends, choir and organ join and reverberate back to me, I know “the wonders, of his love.”
St. Martin’s Anglican Church
Fort St. John, B.C.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
by Phillips Brooks (1868); music by Lewis Redner (1868)
Hearing this hymn written in 1868 by Philllips Brooks (who briefly served as bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Massachusetts) reminds me of how far we have fallen with teachings by contemporary Anglican leaders. It will be our prayer that legions of Angels will sing at full volume, and hush these teachings, all through the coming year…
I admire its simple, but eminently descriptive language. It is not surprising that its composer, Phillips Brooks, was regarded as the greatest American preacher of his era. Some carols are sung with overwhelming gusto, but this carol’s English tune, Forest Green, encourages a more sensitive kind of praise, perhaps more appropriate for the celebration of the birth of a tiny child, lying in a manger.
Rev. Randal Johnston
All my Heart this Night Rejoices
words by Paul Gerhardt (1653); music by Johann Georg Ebeling (1666); translated in English by Catherine Winkworth (1861)
When I walk to my Church near midnight for the Christmas Eve service, I feel a strong sense of expectancy in the air. When this carol is sung, it is for me the culmination of that feeling.
North Vancouver, B.C.
Star of the East (Stern uber Betheh’m)
by Alfred Hans Zoller, 1883; translated in English by George Cooper, 1890
This is an old one that’s not heard much anymore, but to me it has a very encouraging message that “Wise men still seek Him.”
Moose Jaw, Sask.
O Come All Ye Faithful, (Adeste Fidelis)
words by John Wade; music by John Reading (1700s); translated in English by Rev. Frederick Oakley (1841)
My Christmas Eve service would be incomplete without singing it as the processional.
It sets the tone for me of what that profound night is all about. The words speak of the central message of the incarnation – that being that we most profoundly experience God present in the community of the faithful, which gathers to celebrate and rejoice. God can be made known to us, but we have a responsibility ourselves to receive that gift of Emmanuel. And in order to do so, we need to go to Bethlehem ourselves; and journey with the shepherds; and sing with the angels; we need to behold him and adore him who is God of God, Light of Light, Christ the Lord.
Incumbent, St. Mary’s Anglican Church,
Richmond Hill, Ont.
My dad was a church organist and my mother a soloist all her life. One Christmas Eve at the late service ( I think it began at 11 or 11:30) Mom and I happened to paired for the processional. As the organ struck the opening chords, Mom leaned across to me and said, “It should be O come all ye faithless, the faithful are already here.” And with that we were off down the aisle trying very hard not to laugh out loud. My secular favourite is Chestnuts roasting on an open fire by Nat King Cole. It evokes memories of standing around an open fire roasting marshmallows – a poor substitute for Chestnuts, I know but there was our family doing something different by the lake.
The Virgin’s Slumber Song, words by Edward Teschemacher; music by Max Reger
Its intricate, softly appealing melody, with its several unexpected changes of key, is charming; and the words invoke tender motherhood combined with Mary’s awe at the importance of this helpless babe whose status as the Son of God she could little understand.
Mary’s Boy Child
words and music by Jester Hairston, 1956The music and lyrics are beautiful, to my ear. The carol summarizes the birth and in simple terms makes a point. Let all who have ears listen.
St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Birch Cove
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
words by Charles Wesley (1739); music by Felix Mendelssohn (1840)
It embodies the message of Christmas, and what the birth of Christ actually means. It starts out with angels excitedly announcing the birth of a king, and that God and sinners will be reconciled at last. That’s what Christmas is all about: God reaching out to the world through his son. The song really captures the excitement felt by everyone, all over the world, at this amazing news. It tells us to “rise, join [in celebrating] the triumph!”
Between the ages of 11 and 16, I attended school in England. Every Christmas, the schools in Bournemouth sent representatives to a mass choir to take part in a Christmas concert at the Winter Gardens. I had the privilege of being chosen for this concert on several occasions. Hark!Tthe Herald Angels Sing was always the finale of that concert. Now when I hear or sing this carol on Christmas Eve, I remember the resounding voices around me at that event.
St. Michael’s Church, East Mountain, Hamilton
There is such an air of triumph and excitement in this hymn that it sends shivers down my back whenever it is sung. This carol combines the grand proclamation of the reconciliation of God and humans. It is the triumph foretold in Jesus’ birth, his glorious kingship and his humble humanity, the virgin birth and the call to nations. It evokes every wondrous image we have of Christ triumphant.
Away in a manger
first published in a Lutheran Sunday school; author unknown (1885); composers, James R. Murray (1887) and William J. Kirkpatrick (1895)
It is one of my earliest memories of specific hymns or songs that my mother would sing to me at bedtime. And so, the emotional link is inextricable on an annual basis. Thank you for the question because we just laid mom to rest this summer in Kinistino, Saskatchewan.
Rev. Mark C. Moote
St. John the Divine and St. Saviour’s
Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming
translated from German to English by Theodore Baker, 1894
Advent and Christmas are a time of longing and hope made real and tender for me
especially in the music of the season. It was originally published 1588 in German as a Catholic hymn to the mother of God, the mystical rose referred to in the Song of Solomon. A century later, it was incorporated into Protestant worship, and the focus became Jesus, the root of Jesse, foretold by Isaiah. Before midnight services became popular after World War I, Anglicans went to church on Christmas Day – the Queen still does and has never gone on Christmas Eve. Carols were sung at home not in church. My grandmother used to lament the passing of the old traditional Christmas hymns, which were pushed all by all the fa-la-las. So, every Christmas, I sit at the piano and play Nannan’s favourite Christmas hymn: Christians, awake, salute the happy morn, Whereupon the Saviour of the world was born.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
words by Edmund Sears (1849); music by Richard Willis (1859)It was1942, during the darkest hours of the war, our family was walking home from the Christmas Eve service. It was a cold brisk evening with a little snow drifting to the ground, truly a Canadian Christmas Eve. The last carol of the service was “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and the words kept going through my mind, Oh hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.
Artwork by Jeff Szuc. Photographs by Michael Hudson. Responses compiled and edited by Marites N. Sison, staff writer.