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Catholic Activity: Familiar Hymns and Carols



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After the Reformation most of the old hymns and carols were no longer sung, and consequently forgotten in many countries, until their revival in the nineteenth century.

Christmas carols in general were discouraged by the Calvinists, who substituted metrical psalms in their place. Carol singing was altogether suppressed by the Puritans, for instance. Following the restoration of Christmas in England, however, there were numerous festive songs in praise of the Feast, but very few religious carols. One of the few, however, that has become a favorite among English-speaking nations is the ballad, "While shepherds watched their flocks by night," written by Nahum Tate (1715). Its familiar music was taken from the "Christmas melody" of Handel''s opera Siroe, and arranged in the present setting by Richard Storrs Willis, in 1850.

Even as late as 1823, an English collector of Christmas lore, William Hone (1842), wrote in his Ancient Mysteries that carols were considered as "something past," and had no place in the nineteenth century. The Methodist revival in the eighteenth century, however, had inspired a number of modern hymns, first used only in Methodist churches, but gradually welcomed among all English-speaking people. The best-known of these is "Hark, the herald angels sing," written by Charles Wesley. The music was adapted from Mendelssohn''s Festgesang (written in 1840) by William H. Cummings, organist at Waltham Abbey, England, in 1885.

Another popular English "carol" of the last century is the song "Good King Wenceslaus." This is not a Christmas carol in the strict sense, but rather the poetic story of a famous miracle ascribed in medieval legend to St. Wenceslaus, Martyr, Duke of Bohemia (935). The miracle, according to the poem, occurred "on the day of Stephen" (December twenty-sixth), and thus became one of the English Christmas carols. The tune was originally a sixteenth century spring canticle and the words were written by John M. Neale (1866).

The carol "Joy to the world! The Lord is come," came from the pen of an English poet, Isaac Watts (1748). Lowell Mason (1872) of Medfield, Massachusetts, composed the music from tunes found in Handel''s Messiah. This carol first appeared in print in 1839 and has become one of America''s favorites.

The Lutherans in Germany wrote new hymns for their own use. Among these are some of the best modern carols, such as Martin Luther''s delightful song, Vom Himmel hoch da komm'' ich her (From heaven above I come to you), which he wrote in 1535. Bach composed a harmonization for it in his Christmas Oratorio.

Another carol ascribed to Martin Luther, and widely used in America, is the beautiful "Away in a manger." It is usually called "Luther''s cradle hymn," though the words and music were not written by him. It might very well have been inspired, however, by the second part of the first stanza of Luther''s hymn Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar, which starts with the line, "Ein Kindlein zart, das liegt dort in der Krippen" (Away there in the manger a little Infant lies). The familiar English text is of American origin, very likely written in one of the settlements of German Lutherans in Pennsylvania. The poem appeared in print in Philadelphia, 1885. Since then, forty-one settings have been written for this carol; the most popular ones are the tunes composed by James R. Murray (who, erroneously, ascribed the authorship of the poem to Luther) in 1887, and by William James Kirkpatrick (1921).

Within the past two centuries a number of excellent carols have been written in Germany, many being adopted as popular church hymns. Some have become favorite songs in other countries. The best-known of these are:

  • O du fröhliche . . .(O, thou joyful Christmas time), a popular carol, written by Johann Falk in 1816. The tune was taken from an old Sicilian Madonna-hymn in Latin, O Sanctissima.
  • O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree), an early nineteenth century carol, is familiar in this country as the tune to which the words of Maryland, My Maryland are set.
  • Ihr Kinderlein, kommet (O come, all ye children), written by Christoph von Schmid (1854) and sung to a tune composed by Johann A. P. Schulz (1800), has become the favorite children''s carol in Germany and is now frequently heard in churches in this country.

The first American carol was written by the famous missionary of the Huron Indians, saint and martyr, John de Brebeuf, S.J. (1649), who labored among the Hurons from 1626 until he was captured and slowly tortured to death by the savage Iroquois who brutally attacked and destroyed the Huron mission in 1649 and 1650.

Father Brebeuf wrote in the Huron language the Christmas hymn Jesous Ahatonnia (Jesus is born), which he adapted from a sixteenth century French folk song. This hymn was preserved by the Hurons who escaped the devastating attacks of the Iroquois and were later settled by their missionaries in a reservation at Loretto, near Quebec. There Father Étienne de Villeneuve recorded the words of the hymn; they were found among his papers after his death (1794) and later published with a French translation.

In recent years Brebeuf''s hymn has been re-introduced into the treasury of American Christmas carols. J. E. Middleton, of Toronto, wrote a free English translation to fit the ancient French melody. The music was arranged by Edith Lovell Thomas, music director at the church in Radburn, New Jersey. Here is the second stanza of Brebeuf''s hymn in the original Huron language and the English translation. (The Hurons have no M. Whenever it occurred in foreign words, the missionaries substituted for it the French diphthong ou, as in the name of the Blessed Virgin, which was written "Ouarie" and pronounced "Warie" as in the first word of the third line in the following Huron text.)

Aloki ekwatatennonten shekwachiendaen
Iontonk ontatiande ndio sen tsatonnharonnion
Ouarie onnawakueton ndio sen tsatonnharonnion
Iesous ahatonnia!

O, harken to the angels'' word,
Do not decline
To heed the message which you heard:
The Child Divine,
As they proclaim, has come this morn
Of Mary pure. Let us adore.
Jesus is born.

A great number of beautiful American carols were introduced in the last century, inspired not only by the Methodist revival but also as a result of the widespread renascence of Christmas customs. These American carols are quite different from the average English Christmas songs during the past centuries because they reflect a religious spirit, while most early English carols praise only the external pleasures of feasting, reveling, and general good will, without direct reference to the Nativity of Christ.

"It came upon the midnight clear" was written by Edmund H. Sears (1876), a Unitarian minister of Weston, Massachusetts, and set to music by Richard S. Willis (1900), a journalist and editor in Detroit (in his youth, a personal friend of Mendelssohn).

One of the most beloved of American carols is the famous "O little town of Bethlehem" written by Phillips Brooks (1893), well-known former rector of Trinity church (Episcopal) in Boston, and later Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts. He visited the Holy Land, and the impression made on him by the Christ Child''s birthplace inspired him to write this poem three years after his return to Holy Trinity church in Philadelphia, in 1865, where he was then stationed. Louis H. Redner (1908), the organist there and teacher in the church school, wrote the tune. It was first sung by the children of Holy Trinity Sunday school, on Christmas 1868.

"We three kings of Orient are" was written and set to music in 1857, by John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1891), an Episcopalian minister. It was published in 1883 and has been popular with children ever since.

Another famous American carol is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow''s poem entitled "Christmas Bells" ("I heard the bells on Christmas Day"). He wrote it for Christmas 1863, and the poem reflects the horrors of the Civil War which had afflicted his own family, his son, a lieutenant in the army, having been seriously wounded.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong

And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!"

The tune used for Longfellow''s poem is called "Waltham" and was composed by the English organist, John Baptist Calkin (1905).

Other familiar carols in this country include: "Angels we have heard on high," most probably a translation of an old French or Flemish antiphon-hymn of the sixteenth century. (An antiphon-hymn is a free poetic translation, in the vernacular, of one or more antiphon verses in liturgical texts, like the Divine Office of the breviary, or the texts used in the Mass and at Vespers.) This particular hymn was probably inspired by the antiphons of the Lauds in the Divine Office of Christmas day. The present version of the English text was written by Earl Marlatt, Dean of the School of Theology at Boston University, in 1937; the arrangement for the "Gloria" was made by Edward Shippen Barnes, in 1937.

A startling example of nineteenth century American folk-music from the Kentucky mountains, is the song, "Christ was born in Bethlehem, and Mary was his niece." Another popular one, "The snow lay on the ground," is of uncertain origin. The melody was taken from an old Italian pifferari (pipers'') melody. One of the favorites among many Negro contributions to American Christmas music is "Rise up, shepherd, an'' foller."

The well-known Christmas song "O Holy Night" is of French origin. Adolphe Charles Adam (1856), Professor at the Paris Conservatory of Music, wrote the tune to a poem (Cantique de Noël) of M. Cappeau de Roquemaure. The English translation was made by John Sullivan Dwight (1893).

Despite the devoted research of musical scholars the origin of the beloved Christmas hymn Adeste Fideles (O Come, All Ye Faithful) is still shrouded in mystery. The original Latin poem is sometimes ascribed to St. Bonaventure (1274), a Franciscan priest, later Archbishop and Cardinal. However, the original manuscripts, containing text and tune, date from the eighteenth century and are signed by John Francis Wade (1786), a music dealer of the English Catholic colony at Douay, France. Marcus Antonius de Fonseca (Portogallo), chapel-master to the king of Portugal (1830), has also been mentioned as composer of the music. This tune is reported to have been sung at the Portuguese embassy chapel in London, at the end of the eighteenth century. Dr. Frederick Oakely (1880), an Anglican minister and later Catholic priest, wrote the English version of the text in 1841.

More recent contributions include Gesu Bambino, words by Frederick Marten and music by Pietro Yon (1943), organist and choir-master of St. Patrick''s Cathedral in New York; it is contrapuntal, in the pastoral manner, against the Adeste Fideles melody. Another favorite is "The world''s desire" by G. K. Chesterton.

In Austria — especially its Alpine provinces — many parishes had, and some still retain, their local poets who continue to add new songs to the old treasury. In little towns and on the farms of the Alpine sections, men and women of "singing families," and the rural choirs are continually improvising words and music like minstrels of old. These simple folk have a native instinct for music and poetry. Many of them play instruments (violin, flute, zither, guitar), and improvise Christmas songs as they gather round the hearth. Any student of Christmas lore will find in Austria and Bavaria a rich treasury of popular carols, ancient and modern, hidden away in little country places. Most of them as yet are unknown to the world in general, though the famous Trapp singers have brought many of them to this country and they are now included in many Christmas programs here.

One such familiar Austrian carol, written by a parish priest in the small town of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, in 1818, is the familiar Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night). It had been hidden among the manuscripts of the church choir for some time, until it was found by a music-lover who brought it to the Rainers, a family of singers, in the Tyrol (Zillertal). They began to sing it at their concerts and it gradually became widely used in Austria and Germany. On their American concert tour (1839-1843) they brought the new carol with them and sang it before large audiences.27 Within a few years it conquered the hearts of the nation. Not only in America but all over the world "Silent Night" has become the most beloved of all carols, a truly international Christmas anthem.

Here is the story of its origin: On Christmas eve, 1818, the parish priest of Oberndorf, Joseph Mohr, was notified that repairs of the church organ (which had broken down a few days before) could not be finished in time for midnight Mass. This was a great disappointment to the priest and his flock, since the music for the High Mass which the choir had prepared could not be sung. To lessen the disappointment, Father Mohr decided to surprise his people with a new Christmas song. He went to work immediately and wrote three stanzas of a carol, the first stanza of which was inspired by the sight of a baby whose ailing mother he had visited earlier in the day. Having finished the text, he brought it to his friend, Franz Gruber, teacher and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf. Gruber composed the tune within a few hours. At midnight Mass, the hushed congregation in the little church heard the first performance of Stille Nacht.

Today a modest monument in Oberndorf perpetuates the memory of the men who gave us "Silent Night": the priest-poet, Joseph Mohr (1848), and the composer, Franz Gruber (1863).

Stille Nacht was first performed to the accompaniment of a guitar. The composer later wrote an orchestration for strings, French horn, and organ. Father Mohr called it Weihnachtslied (Christmas song). It was first published at Leipzig, in 1834. The commonly used English translation appeared in a Methodist hymnal in Boston, in 1871, and had been compiled from various preceding translations. (The name of the compiler is unknown.)

In Latin countries, especially in rural sections of Spain and South America, many towns have their traditional Christmas carols which have now become part of American Christmas lore in certain sections of the country. These are carols of childlike simplicity, often humorous in parts, but always devout and tender. The local carol of the town Ocumare de la Costa (Venezuela), a jewel of popular Christmas music, is a good illustration (El Niño Jesús ha nacido ya):

The little child Jesus is already here,
The Kings and the shepherds adore without fear.
There is much to behold for the wise and the fool:
Saint Joseph, the Virgin; the ox and the mule.
Let us adore the little child
With pleasure and happy cheer;
Let us adore as the Magi do
As the Magi adore Him here.28

The first mention of Christmas caroling in America is recorded by Father Bartholomew Vimont, S.J., in his report on the state of the Huron mission, dated Quebec, October 1, 1645. In it he described the zeal and devotion which the Christian Hurons displayed in celebrating Christmas. Speaking of the Indians at Mackinac (now Mackinaw, Michigan), one of the most remote missions of New France, he says: "The savages have a particular devotion for the night that was enlightened by the birth of the Son of God. There was not one who refused to fast on the day that preceded it. They built a small chapel of cedar and fir branches in honor of the manger of the infant Jesus. They wished to perform some penance for better receiving Him into their hearts on that holy day, and even those who were at a distance of two days'' journey met at a given place to sing hymns in honor of the new-born Child. . . . Neither the inconvenience of the snow nor the severity of the cold could stifle the ardor of their devotion."29

This ancient custom of singing carols in public was revived in America at the beginning of this century. In Boston, the first organized Christmas eve caroling took place on the streets of Beacon Hill in 1908 and continues to this day, many families holding open house. In St. Louis it was started in 1909 by groups of young people who sang their carols before every house with a lighted candle in its windows. Organized groups of carol-singers may now be found in thousands of American cities and towns.

In French Canada, the caroling is performed either a few days before Christmas or on New Year''s eve, by young men and women dressed in old-style country costumes (La guignolée), who go from house to house, singing and collecting gifts of food and clothes for the poor of the town.

In Hungary, in Poland, and other Slavic countries singers go from house to house carrying a huge star, lighted inside. After their carols are sung, some of the groups enact scenes from the Nativity, the visit of the Magi, the court of King Herod, etc.; this custom is called Kolednicy in Polish, Bethlehem in Hungarian. National groups in this country have done much to preserve some of these customs during the holiday season. Again, it would fill a small volume to include all of them.


27. See The Trapp Family Singers, Souvenir Book Publishing Co., New York, 1948, p. 4; also the article on the Rainer Singers by Hans Nathan, in the Musical Quarterly, G. Schirmer, New York, January, 1946.

28. The author translated this carol from the Spanish version as published in Edasi magazine, Caracas (Venezuela), 1949, with permission of the publishers.

29. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, ed. by R. G. Thwaites, Cleveland, 1896-1901. Vol. XXVII (1898), p. 210.

Activity Source: Christmas Book, The by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1952