It’s time for Christmas music! Technically, of course, if you’re traditional about these things, it’s time for Advent music. Advent is the beautiful four-week season that precedes Christmas, a time of waiting in darkness for the light of Christ to dawn. During this tumultuous year of 2020, the season of Advent, and all that comes with it, has much to say to worshippers (read an essay I wrote on Advent and the hymns and carols particular to that season here).
Today we must admit that Advent and Christmas are often somewhat jumbled in our minds. In this year of unique trials and tribulations especially, many of us may feel, alongside Mame, that we “need a little Christmas, right this very minute.”
The trouble with Christmas fare on the radio, and with many commercial Christmas albums, is that they often repeat the same stable of songs, leaving out dozens of musical gems that have much to offer — musically, lyrically, emotionally, and theologically. To help inject some fresh wonder into your holiday season, here is a list of lesser-known hymns and carols that pertain to both Christmas and Advent.
The playlist takes a tour through the many moods and categories of the nativity celebration, from the eerie and haunting to the danceable and to the pastoral. There are songs for deep silence and songs for great joy, but all are songs that aren’t heard often enough in this holy winter season — a broad array of songs that go beyond the holly-jolly spirit to the holy core of the Christian season.
Ponder Nothing Earthly-Minded
The first category is filled with eerie songs — Christmas music with a dark and profound undertone, the kind that can cause a chill to run down your spine even as you pause in wonder. More meditative hymns than jolly carols, these will appeal if you love the spare and stately nature of songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’
There is, as we know from Ecclesiastes, a time for everything. Many songs in this season of the year call for singing, for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, but this Advent hymn echoes the call to worship in Habakkuk 2:20, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him.”
The opening verse makes no bones about calling the singer to a posture of worship for a holy God:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in his Hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.
The verses go on to meditate on Christ the “King of Kings, yet born of Mary…Lord of Lords, in human vesture, in the body and the blood.” As the hymn swells into its concluding verses, it calls up visions of an angelic army:
Rank on rank the host of heaven spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of Light descendeth from the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.
Its final line closes with the cherubim and seraphim in a rapturous call of alleluia.
The text is a version of the 5th century “Cherubic Hymn,” an offertory prayer used in the Greek Liturgy of St. James. Some sources have suggested it may date back to 275 AD, if not earlier. The Hymns and Carols of Christmas, an excellent online resource for church music fans, recounts that early Christian churches sang arrangements of it in Syriac before it was translated into Greek.
In most modern churches, the hymn is set to a 17th-century French folk tune called “Picardy,” using an English text translated out of the Greek in 1846. Early twentieth-century church musician Ralph Vaughn Williams is responsible for the now-common arrangements seen in the English Hymnal, which produce a majestic result.
‘Gabriel’s Message’ | ‘The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came’ | Basque Carol
Frequently called by its first line, or known simply as the “Basque Carol,” “Gabriel’s Message” is, like many good Christmas and Advent songs, based on an anonymous 13th or 14th century Latin text, Angelus ad Virginem. It describes in vivid color the moment of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary that she would bear the Christ, the Son of God.
Sharing in the theme of haunting beauty, it includes one of the most evocative descriptions of an angel in hymnody:
The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame.
No baby cherub is this angel, but a heavenly messenger worthy of inspiring fear and trembling. Throughout, the song also magnifies the role of Mary with a refrain at the end of every verse.
As the second verse reads:
For known a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady — Gloria!
The song’s refrain echoes the King James Bible quite closely, in which Gabriel tells Mary she has “found favor with God.” Elizabeth also exclaims to her cousin, “Blessed art thou among women!” As the biblical text takes the time to magnify Mary’s part in the Christmas miracle, so too should we.
The carol also captures a lovely, condensed version of the Magnificat at its end:
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
‘My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.’
Most highly favored lady — Gloria!
Composed as a choral anthem or carol, this cold, sparkling tune can also be easily sung as a simple, unharmonized melody. One of the most modern offerings on this list, it was composed in 1927 by the eccentric Anglo-Welsh composer Peter Warlock, who set to music a text written by his friend, poet Bruce Blunt.
For such an elegant hymn, however, it has slightly undignified origins. Warlock and Blunt once suggested they’d penned it to finance what they called an “immortal carouse” — that is, a round of overzealous partying on Christmas Eve. They submitted the resulting work to The Daily Telegraph’s annual Christmas carol contest, which they won.
The song’s British origins make it more common in the Anglican Church, but it deserves a place on this side of the pond — or frankly, on every side of any pond. The hymn sets a pastoral nativity scene with a grand sweep and a long view of both its earthly and heavenly consequences. In the first verse, Mary’s voice looks ahead to the full purpose of her son’s life:
When He is King, we will give him the King’s gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes, said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.
The second verse speaks of the songs of a shepherd while the baby lies sleeping. In the middle of this tranquil night scene, it intones the truth that Mary does not yet understand about her son’s coming reign:
When He is King, they will clothe Him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.
A Call to Dance
The second category is what I’ll call medieval dances — uptempo, delicate, sprightly carols for a joyous Christmastide. There are so very many of these to choose from, and they deserve more play than they often get.
‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’
The words of this merry carol don’t readily identify it as an Advent hymn. Absent are references to camels and angels. It sounds like a jaunty medieval love song — largely because, in a sense, it is.
The carol is sung throughout from the first-person perspective of the infant Jesus, who begins by looking forward to his Incarnation, which will eventually deliver to him his “true love,” the church. The imagery of the church as the beloved bride of Christ, and the end of history as a joyful wedding feast, has endured since the writing of the Christian scriptures, becoming especially popular during much of the middle ages.
In this tune, the Christ-child sings with joy:
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love!
The present tune appears to date to the 19th century, but the text is older — possibly much older. The first published edition of the carol, with text and music, appears in an 1833 collection of “Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern,” but it may well date to medieval times. According to “The Hymns and Carols of Christmas,” “Dancing Day” has “close parallels with a number of 15th-century carols in which the infant foretells his future to his mother.
The line “to see the legend of my play” suggests it may have originally been part of a medieval mystery play, in the same way as the Coventry Carol was, but perhaps, in this case, part of one of the three-day religious plays performed in the Cornish language in the 14th and 15th century.
Whenever it originated, it’s great fun to sing. The metaphor for the Christ and the church as a union of marital love is striking to modern ears, and the snappy tune conveys the great joy of this holy wedding dance. It also allows one to merrily trill a line about the baby Jesus lying in a manger “betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,” which I have always found to be distinctly charming.
We’re relatively used to Christmas hymns appearing wholly or partially in Latin, but this one is particularly winsome in its original French. “Noël Nouvelet” translates to new Christmas, more or less. “Noël” is based on the Latin natus, meaning “born,” so in a way, the entire title and first line of this hymn are a double play on themes of newness and birth. Technically speaking, it was intended as a New Year’s carol, for use during the 12 liturgical days of Christmas.
This one falls solidly into the realm of early music carols. The tune is usually credited as traditional French, and versions of it date back to the 15th century. Many versions and variations exist, often inconsistent with one another, in the manner of a vernacular song. It appears in a large collection of French carols in 1721, and English translations or partial translations appear as early as the 17th century.
The version featured in the playlist is in French, but the usual English rendering of the first verse is as follows:
Noël nouvelet, sing we a new Noël;
Thank we now our God, and of His goodness tell;
Sing we Noël to greet the new born King;
Noël nouvelet, a new Noël we sing!
The tune is also used for the Easter hymn “Welcome, Happy Morning” and some listeners find it has sonic similarities to the increasingly popular Spanish Christmas carol “Riu, Riu Chiu,” as well.
‘Personet, Hodie’ | ‘On This Day Earth Shall Ring’
This hymn appears in both Latin and English versions, and both are thoroughly delightful to sing. The usual text and words used today come from the Piae Cantiones, a medieval song treasury assembled in Scandinavia in 1582.
A deeper dive reveals the Latin text to date sometime from the 12th century, and the German tune from about the 14th century — possibly the year 1360. It has been beloved by many generations of Christians but appears on far too few holiday albums in our era.
In either language, this energetic carol makes use of repeated words and syllables, bouncing through a rousing refrain at the end of every verse. It is also often used at Epiphany, the liturgical season coming immediately after Christmas, during which the church traditionally commemorates the arrival of the three wise men from the East and other events intervening between the birth of Jesus and the start of his ministry:
On this day earth shall ring
with the song children sing
to the Lord, Christ our King,
born on earth to save us;
him the Father gave us.
Id-e-o gloria in excelsis Deo!
The Latin ideo used in the English translation means “therefore,” making the refrain “Therefore, glory to God in the highest.” Unreservedly joyous, the second verse proclaims:
His the doom, ours the mirth;
when he came down to earth […]
Id-e-o gloria in excelsis Deo!
Shepherds in Flow’ry Fields
The third category assembles a selection of beautiful carols that evoke classic peaceful images of Christmas — that is, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. These songs make much of weather and atmosphere, evoking powerful imagery of the natural world just as the Lord came down to take on fleshly form. Melodic and gentle, they may appeal to listeners who favor classics like “Away in a Manger” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’
This beautiful carol is similar in theme to “Angels We Have Heard on High” and can be sung to the same tune, but whereas that one is recorded and sung all the time, this one is criminally underutilized. It also features some lovely unique verses, framed by a repeated call to worship.
The first verse sets the scene and introduces the chorus:
Angels from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o’er all the earth,
Ye who sang creation’s story,
Now proclaim the Messiah’s birth;
Come and worship,
Worship Christ, the new-born King.
The words were penned by James Montgomery in 1816. It can be sung to a variety of melodies, but suits best the tune “Regent Square,” by one Henry Thomas Smart — elegant in its simplicity — although so sadly rare among decent recordings that I have had to include an instrumental version.
Once again, the later verses of the hymn bid the singer or the hearer come into a new appreciation of Christmas and its profound meaning, as they bid:
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar,
Seek the great Desire of Nations;
Ye have seen his natal star.
‘In the Bleak Midwinter’
If you’re looking for a rich, stoic hymn, then this one with a distinctly un-jolly title delivers. It isn’t actually bleak — it just presumes the traditional (if historically inaccurate) midwinter setting for Christ’s birth. In this manner, it echoes common themes of the Advent season, as light and hope break into a season of waiting and darkness.
As a complete composition, “In the Bleak Midwinter” owes its existence to two famous names and one man who came to almost regret it as his one-hit-wonder.
The text is by English poet Christina Rossetti. It was first published under the simple title “A Christmas Carol” in Scribner’s Monthly in January 1872, and it first appeared in book form in her 1875 poetry collection “Goblin Market, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems.” The poem first appeared in “The English Hymnal” in 1906, set to a tune by classical composer Gustav Holst.
Harold Darke, an English organist and composer, is responsible for arranging the most common choral version of the tune in 1911. Beloved in its native country, it is a staple of King’s College Choir’s famous annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is broadcast throughout the world each Christmas Eve.
In 2008, a British poll named “In the Bleak Midwinter” the best Christmas carol. Darke came to both love and regret his setting of the piece, feeling many musicians forgot entirely about the rest of his many choral compositions.
It is altogether tranquil, poignant, and lovely. The first verse sets the scene:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
The second verse enriches the narrative, subtly blending the majesty and humility of the Incarnation:
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
‘Whence is that Goodly Fragrance’
We’ll travel back to France again for this next tune. The English version is a simple translation of a 17th-century French traditional carol “Quelle est Cette Odeur Agreable.” It’s typically set to a tune first composed by John Gay, for his 1778 Beggars Opera.
Charming in either language, the text poetically compares Christ to a beautiful fragrance, bringing beauty and enchanting the senses with a joy not of this earth. The first verse in English reads:
Whence is the goodly fragrance flowing,
Stealing our senses all away,
never the like did come a-blowing,
Shepherds, in flow’ry fields of May;
Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing,
Stealing our senses all away?
The second verse borrows a more familiar Advent image, asking:
What is that light so brilliant, breaking
Here in the night across our eyes?”
The third verse answers the rhetorical questions. Naturally, both the light and the fragrance are found “in manger lying.”
New Songs for an Old Season
I hope this small selection of lesser-known hymns and carols may brighten your season. May they bring joy and awe, solace and peace, contemplation and wonder. May they also encourage you to seek beyond the beaten path, across the centuries, all the way through the wide and wonderful world that is Christmas music.