Christmas songs #13: O come, all ye faithful

What a great song this one is. And yet, I think it is probably almost impossible to understand for today’s singers. It’s full of old-timey words and theological categories. Probably no one today sings more than the first and last verse, except in church. But it is a rich study for those who want to know God better.

Who exactly was born in Bethlehem? A great teacher? A spiritual leader? A philosopher? Well, the early Christians weren’t thrown to the lions because they believed in a different philosopher. They were persecuted because they insisted that Jesus was God and Caesar wasn’t. As Christianity was becoming legal in the early 300’s, people relaxed a little bit and there were teachers who taught that Jesus was merely “divine,” not God in the flesh. In response, the Nicene council reaffirmed the original faith of Christians, that Jesus was God in the flesh.

This song seems to be based on the Christmas story and the Nicene Creed.  You could look up all the hard words! I’ve pasted the Nicene Creed down below the lyrics.

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)


O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels;

O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

God of God, Light of Light,
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created;


Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest;


See how the shepherds, summoned to His cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither bend our joyful footsteps;


Lo! star led chieftains, Magi, Christ adoring,
Offer Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
We to the Christ Child bring our hearts’ oblations.


Child, for us sinners poor and in the manger,
We would embrace Thee, with love and awe;
Who would not love Thee, loving us so dearly?


Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.



I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Christmas songs #12: Once in royal David’s city

Here’s another song that every English carol singer knows, but maybe not so many Americans. It is used as the opening song every year in the traditional Cambridge service “Nine Lessons and Carols” which you can hear live on the Internet every Christmas Eve at 9am Dallas time ( ). Invariably the first verse is sung by a single boy.

The song was written for a book of children’s hymns. Each hymn was to illustrate a separate part of the Apostle’s Creed for children. This one was meant to expound the sentence, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.”

The author, Cecil Frances Alexander (that’s a female), carefully instructs us to look at Jesus not just as a sweet baby but as the Lord God of all things. He is perfectly human - he was little, weak and helpless, he shared all of our troubles, but he is perfectly divine at the same time, and he never ceases to be either one of those things forever. It’s good stuff. Christmas songs are the last chance some of us have, to hear the actual teachings of the Bible.

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

Lyrics (
Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

He came down to earth from Heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

And, through all His wondrous childhood,
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love,
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in Heav’n above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.

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;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.

Christmas songs #11: O little town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks, who wrote this song, had actually been in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve night. His meditation on the meaning of Christmas has to be one of the most thoughtful ones that we still sing.

And Brooks captures both the world-history part of Christmas and the Gospel part of Christmas too. It’s not enough to just be impressed, as I’m sure we all are, with the amazing story of God’s coming into the world, and how it changed everything. Brooks knows that the other part of that story is that not all of us actually want Jesus to be king and lord or even savior. So he focuses in on the people who actually receive the gift, namely the needy, the miserable, the meek, the ones who become like little children in their faith. Jesus actually said that those are the only ones he came to call. The “righteous” turned away from him.

As Jesus said to Nicodemus early in the gospel of John, “You must be born again.” So Phillips Brooks tells Jesus,

“Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.”

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

Lyrics (

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

Christmas Songs #10: O Holy Night

Today’s song has an interesting history. According to one of my Christmas carol books, it was written by a nominal Catholic in France, known for his poetry more than his church attendance, and he got his Jewish friend to set it to music. Then it was translated into English by a musician in the Northern USA who was partially attracted by what appeared to be its antislavery message. It became popular in the North before the South, naturally. Despite these disadvantages, it captures some of the flavor of Biblical history by emphasizing the world-changing event of the birth of a Savior. How could all history not be different after God came into his world!

On the other hand, the message of the Gospel is cloudy in this song. Like It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, it seems in this song that the Gospel is seen as not much more than a new, refurbished Law, telling us to love one another. Tomorrow’s song will be more clear on that point.

This song was the first piece of music ever transmitted over radio, on Christmas Eve, 1906.

I couldn’t find any recordings on Rhapsody where someone sang all the original verses, so let’s hear the incomparable Bing Crosby sing a couple of them anyway!

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

Lyrics (

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here came the wise men from Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our Friend!
He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy Name!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

Christmas Songs #9: The Coventry Carol

Here is a song I’ll bet you haven’t heard, unless you are a hard core Christmas carols fan. This one is probably more popular in England than America. The song is sung by a mother who is afraid for her boy child because she’s heard that Herod has sent out to kill all the babies. She is trying to lull him to sleep so that he won’t be found by the soldiers.

You remember how the wise men, when they were led to Palestine by the star, went straight to King Herod and asked where the baby was who had been born as King of the Jews. Not the smartest thing to ask the current king, probably. Herod asked his Bible scholars where the Messiah would be born, and they assured him that it could only be in Bethlehem, on the basis of Micah 5.2. He told the wise men to report back to him when they found the baby. They found Jesus, but when God warned them, they went home without seeing Herod.

Herod had already asked them when the star had first appeared to them. He took action by killing all the male children two years old and under, anywhere near Bethlehem. This is totally consistent with Herod’s personality. For instance, he had his wife and three of his own children killed for various reasons.

So our song is a sad lament for those male children who fell victim to Herod. He was only the first of many rulers who have seen the Son of God as a threat and a competitor.

The history of the song is interesting too. It was written for a play during the 1500’s, and is one of the earliest examples of English songs for which both the words and the music are both known. Usually we only know the words, but these words are set to their original music.


Refrain Lullay lulla, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we do sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Christmas Songs #8: We three kings

For poetry, just about nothing beats We Three Kings. Now you’re going to say I’m inconsistent, because I’m going to heap praises on this song, even though a lot of it is not found in the Bible.

The Bible doesn’t say the wise men were “kings.” The Bible doesn’t say there were even three of them. (There were three gifts.) All of that stuff was invented in the Middle Ages.

But, I plead “not guilty” to being inconsistent, because at least this non-Biblical song uses the folklore to clearly tell the story of the Bible.

The structure is wonderful. The first verse introduces the three wise men, the next three verses are spoken by each of the wise men respectively, and the last verse is sung by all. The core of the meaning is the three gifts:

GOLD - to represent that Jesus Christ the man was born as the rightful King of Israel and also of all mankind
FRANKINCENSE - i.e. Incense, to burn, representing that Jesus Christ is also God
MYRRH - the burial spice of the Israelites (see John 19.39), to represent that he came to die on the cross.

The last verse doesn’t leave him in the tomb, but celebrates his resurrection, while repeating the meaning of the three gifts (King and God and Sacrifice). This song really tells the message of the Gospel: Jesus Christ, both God and Man, dying as a sacrifice, and rising again from the grave. The Jesus of the Bible is the Jesus of this song.

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

Lyrics (

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.


Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.


Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.


Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.


Christmas songs #7: It came upon the midnight clear

Today we have something completely different. I hesitated whether to put this song in the list, but in the end, we’re being educational, right?

I’ve stressed how so many of the old Christmas songs are almost like little Bible lessons, full of good theology, and often their meditations on Bible themes are more mature than many of us are even trained for. This song goes in another direction entirely. This song says a lot more about 19th century Victorian liberalism than it does about the Gospel.

What you have here is a song from 1849, written by a Unitarian minister, Edmund Sears. As you read his song, you find lots of angels, a generic message of peace and love, and a lot of social commentary on the 2000 years of history since Christ’s coming. Finally in the last verse he throws all caution out the door and proclaims that a golden age of peace is coming which will finally fulfill the message of “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” that the shepherds heard on that Christmas night.

I would say that the message of this song fits better with the modern American Christmas than it does with the Biblical story. Rather than a message of forgiveness and salvation and pardon for rebel sinners, Edmund Sears’ Christmas is more about reconciliation between man and man. (A perfect companion to this song would be Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I love that story, by the way.)

But if there is any message in Christmas, it is not that mankind needs to get on God’s bandwagon, it is that God is taking the initiative and telling us that war, death, poverty and cancer are not really the final realities, they are just symptoms; and that our relationship with God needs fixing first, before we start dreaming of golden ages of peace.

It still is a pretty song, isn’t it? :)

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

Lyrics (

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.

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.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Christmas Songs #6: Angels we have heard on high

This next song is from France, as are many of the great Christmas songs. Each verse ends with one of the only Latin phrases that I can remember, “GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO!” It sounds almost as good in English; it means “GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST!” This is part of the praises the angels sang to the shepherds, recorded in Luke 2.14. Who can say what it sounded like to hear angels saying this, but I’ll take this song as a good substitute!

The original French version had 8 verses, and the editor of the New Oxford Book of Carols gives a translation of all of them:

[Shepherds] The angels have sung the celestial hymn on our plains, and the echo of our mountains repeats this melodious song: Glory to God in the highest!
[Women of Bethlehem] Shepherds, what do you celebrate? Why all these songs? What victor, what conquest, inspires these triumphant cries? Glory to God in the highest!
[Shepherds] They announce the birth of the Savior of Israel; and, full of gratitude, they sing on this solemn day: Glory to God in the highest!
[Women] Let us seek the fortunate village which has seen him born beneath its roofs! Let us offer to him the loving homage of both our hearts and our voices! Glory …
[All] In the deep humility in which you appear to our eyes, to praise you, God of all the world, we repeat this joyful song: Glory …
[Shepherds] Already, from the mouth of the angel, from the hymns of the cherubim, men know the praises which are sung in the courts of heaven. Glory …
[Women] Shepherds, forsake your haunts: join with these concerts, and let your sweet bagpipes make melodies resound! Glory …
[All] Obedient to their example, O Lord, we shall come henceforth into the midst of your temple, to sing with them your blessings. Glory to God in the highest!

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

Lyrics (

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?


Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.


See Him in a manger laid,
Whom the choirs of angels praise;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our hearts in love we raise.


Christmas Songs #5: The first noel

The First Noel is a great song. Maybe not so good as poetry, but this is one of the really old Christmas texts, more of a folk song than a composed song. No one knows who wrote it, but it comes from either England or France, where “noel” means Christmas.

It has some strange things in its story. In this song, both the shepherds AND the wise men see the star. In the Bible, the shepherds see the angels, but the wise men follow a star (probably months later). This suggests that the words may date back to a time when the Bible was not available in the language of the people, so instead of reading the stories, they relied on what they heard at church, and maybe got a little mixed up at times about what they heard. (I don’t know anybody today like that!)

I love the last verse, which points out that Jesus Christ is also the Creator God. He
“made Heaven and Earth of nought”
but now that he is a man, he
“with his blood mankind has bought.”
This refers to our Lord going to the Cross and dying for sinners. If there is anything that is taken out of the modern American Christmas, it is any recognition that Christ the Lord was born to die. The angel told Joseph, “You shall call his name JESUS, because he will save his people from their SINS.”

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

Lyrics (

The First Noel, the Angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the East beyond them far
And to the earth it gave great light
And so it continued both day and night.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

And by the light of that same star
Three Wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

This star drew nigh to the northwest
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest
And there it did both Pause and stay
Right o’er the place where Jesus lay.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Then entered in those Wise men three
Full reverently upon their knee
And offered there in His presence
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made Heaven and earth of nought
And with his blood mankind has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Christmas songs #4: Hark, the herald angels sing

Another song about the angels is Hark, the herald angels sing which is another one by Charles Wesley. This is one of my top two personal favorites, the other one being Joy to the world.

This song, like most of the great Christmas songs, has more theology in it than the average American absorbs in a whole year. Wesley brings most of the great themes of Christianity into his song:

  • The original sin of Adam
  • Jesus Christ as the second Adam who reverses the sin of the first Adam
  • The fact that Jesus was God in human form
  • Personal belief in Christ
  • Resurrection of the body
  • The kingship of Christ over the whole universe

I don’t even know all of the verses in the lyrics below, but when you take them all together, it is so packed with references to the Bible and theology that you could probably expound this song for a year and not run out of things to think about.

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

Lyrics (

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”


Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

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 with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.


Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.


Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.


Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.