Almost everyone loves to hear and sing Christmas carols and songs. They stir up such wonderful images and memories. But did you know that many were written in the deep? But God was working—often in miraculous ways—to use them for His glory!
We used one of Karen’s treasured books, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins, for the information in this podcast.
Angels from the Realms of Glory
One of the best-loved Christmas hymns was written by Irish revolutionary James Montgomery. His missionary parents were killed on the field when he was only 7. He pursued his love of writing, even after constant rejection for his poems.
One editor on the Sheffield Register, a newspaper that focused on Ireland’s independence from English rule, took to Montgomery’s poems and made Montgomery’s dream of being paid to write a reality! In a few years, Montgomery took over the paper when the British ran the owner out of town. Montgomery ended up in prison twice for his editorials against England’s rule, but still he kept on with his fiery written war for Irish independence.
Then, one December, something changed in Montgomery. For years he’d been searching the Bible to understand why his parents would go to die on the mission field. Apparently, he found part of his answer. He wrote a poem in December of 1816 called, “Nativity.” Rather than the divisive tone of his previous writing, this poem focused on Angels proclaiming the birth of a Savior who was for all people, regardless of nationality, position, wealth, or any of the things that divided so many.
There are two bits of irony here. Both show how God works his wonders in our dark places. The first irony comes in the form an Englishman, Henry Smart.
Smart, whose father was a music publisher, was as passionate as Montgomery, but his battle was with the Church of England. He fought to bring joyous music to worship in place of the traditional chants. He’d put together new songbooks with harmonies in them, and when the people heard these beautiful harmonies, they insisted the church use the songbooks. Amazingly, the church did so.
Though Henry Smart was going blind, he heard Montgomery’s poem, “Nativity,” some 20 years after it was first published. He was so inspired that he put it to music and gave it a new title: Angels from the Realms of Glory. So an Englishman took an Irish revolutionary’s poem, put it to music, and that joyous hymn proclaiming the birth of a Savior for ALL peoples became a favorite in hundreds of English churches!
The second irony is that Montgomery himself had undergone a transformation. In trying to understand why his parents were willing to put their lives at risk for people they didn’t know, all to bring them God’s truth, he found his anger dissipating, and ended up letting go of being an active revolutionary. Instead, he returned to the Moravian church and, like his parents, became a missionary! He continued to write poems, which Smart continued to put to music, and between the two of them they led a more gentle rebellion, bringing joyous music into the worship life of the English church.
Below are the words to “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” You can listen on YouTube here.
Angels from the realms of glory
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation’s story
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth.
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.
Shepherds, in the field abiding,
Watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing;
Yonder shines the infant light:
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen His natal star.
Saints, before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear;
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear.
Though an Infant now we view Him,
He shall fill His Father’s throne,
Gather all the nations to Him;
Every knee shall then bow down:
All creation, join in praising
God, the Father, Spirit, Son,
Evermore your voices raising
To th’eternal Three in One.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
You’re probably wondering how this “secular” song fits in with what we’re talking about. Well, this song isn’t about a guy’s gifts to a girl. It was actually written as a secret way for Catholics, who were forbidden to practice their religion in England, to teach their children about the tenants of their faith and to mark the time between Christ’s birth and the Epiphany. (The Epiphany was when the wise men came to honor the baby Jesus.) Here’s the breakdown:
A partridge in a pear tree. The partridge represents Christ, because a mother partridge will give her life to protect her chicks, as Christ gave His to save us. The tree represents the cross. So the first gift represents God’s gift of salvation to us through Christ.
Two turtle doves. These stand for the Old and New Testaments. Also, doves were symbols of peace.
Three French hens. In the 16th century, French hens were a luxury. So these three hens represent the lavish gifts brought to baby Jesus by the three kings. When Catholic children sang this verse they didn’t picture hens, but gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Four calling birds. These represent the authors of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Five golden rings. A symbol of the five Old Testament books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, known as the law of Moses. Some people call it the Pentateuch. They were to remind the singer of man’s fall due to sin and the truth that a Savior would come to restore us to our Father.
Six geese a’laying. Think about it. God made the world in six days! An added bonus? Eggs are a symbol of new life.
Seven swans a’swimming. These represent the seven gifts of the Spirit: prophesy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, and mercy! Catholic children were taught that when you walked with God, the gifts of the Spirit moved in your life as easily and gracefully as swans on water.
Eight maids a’milking. When the song was written, no job in society was lower than that of working with cattle or in a barn. So these maids represented the common man who Christ came to serve and save. His salvation isn’t reserved only for the wealthy, but is offered as a free gift to all. Also, the eight refers to the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-10.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Nine ladies dancing. These are the nine fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Ten lords a’leaping. The 10 Commandments, of course! Back then, lords were supposed to be just and honorable and the law of their land.
Eleven pipers piping. These are the 11 disciples. Yes, there were 12, but because Catholics taught that Judas didn’t embrace Christ and His true message, they only counted 11.
Twelve drummers drumming. This represents the Apostles’ Creed, the confession of the Catholic church which contains a dozen different elements. Here’s what the Apostles’ Creed says:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Good Christian Men, Rejoice
This uplifting Christmas hymn came from the sufferings of two men. They were persecuted for their convictions, endured personal hardships, suffered lingering illnesses, and died in relative obscurity, never accepted by the church they so loved. Now that’s a deep place.
Heinrich Suso lived in the Dark Age, the son of a nobleman. He never needed to know the suffering of the lower classes, but he left his life of wealth and comfort to serve as a Dominican priest. He wrote a book––yes, another suffering writer!––called The Little Book of Truth, in which he justified making the gospel, and its hope and encouragement, accessible to common people. He was tried for heresy. But that didn’t stop him.
A year later he wrote A Little Book of Eternal Wisdom. It differed from other religious books of the time in that it, too, was written for the common man. Afraid Suso’s radical thinking might bring about a revolution, the pope sentenced Heinrich to death. He escaped to Switzerland, making his humiliation complete as he chose the worse punishment possible for a man of noble birth: exile.
Even in this new country, though, he suffered persecution and slander. None of which stopped him from preaching about the happiness he found in following God. One night Suso had a dream in which he saw angels singing and dancing. He joined in with them, and when he woke he penned the lyrics of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”
It was a song as revolutionary as all his other writing, because it exhorted Christians to a joyous expression of God’s love. Most other religions music of the day was somber and written in formal language. But the German people loved the song and took it to heart.
It would take more than 150 years for the song to make its way into print. Even so, it inspired many, including Martin Luther, to compose more hymns and songs in the language of the common man. Even the Catholic church would eventually realize Suso was right in wanting to reach the common man with the gospel, and in 1831, the pope canonized him.
The second man, James Mason Neele, was a Church of England priest, a hymn writer, and a scholar who counted “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” among his works. He was inspired by Suso’s writings and song. In a world where there was so much sadness and despair, Neele wanted everyone to know the exuberant joy of salvation through Christ.
But he, too, was considered a radical by the church of the mid-1800s. Like Suso, he was exiled, and he was stoned, beaten, and ridiculed by the leadership of his own denomination. Also like Suso, none of that stopped him. He began an order of women, the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, to feed the poor, take care of orphans, and minister to prostitutes. He and the sisters in the order all received death threats for their ministry, which reached and helped thousands.
In 1853 Neele translated Suso’s Christmas hymn into English, and it was actually published! It took the Church of England, and the common man, by storm. By 1900, it had become one of England’s and America’s most popular hymns.
Below are the words to the hymn. You can listen to a lively version of the hymn here.
1. Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart, and soul, and voice;
Give ye heed to what we say:
Jesus Christ was born to-day:
Ox and ass before Him bow,
And He is in the manger now.
Christ is born today! Christ is born today.
2. Good Christian men, rejoice,
With heart, and soul, and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He hath ope’d the heav’nly door,
And man is blessed evermore.
Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!
3. Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart, and soul, and voice;
Now ye need not fear the grave:
Jesus Christ was born to save!
Calls you one, and calls you all,
To gain His everlasting hall:
Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save!
Merry Christmas to you all, and may God bless you today with His peace and love!
We want to hear from you!
What is your favorite Christmas hymn or song?
Thanks so much to all our patrons who support this podcast on Patreon! We’re grateful to you!
Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast Production Services for their fabulous editing!