What is the most popular Christmas song in America? Billboard magazine’s list of the top ten Christmas songs of 2012 is probably our best source. This is not based on opinion, but is based on airplay on the radio, sales, and online streaming. Here is the list (Source: http://wgna.com/the-most-popular-christmas-songs-of-2012/):
10. Last Christmas- Wham!
9. Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)- Trans-Siberian Orchestra
8. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year- Andy Williams
7. White Christmas- Bing Crosby
6. Jingle Bell Rock- Bobby Helms
5. A Holly Jolly Christmas- Burl Ives
4. Feliz Navidad- Jose Feliciano
3. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)- Nat King Cole
2. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree- Brenda Lee
1. All I Want For Christmas Is You- Mariah Carey
Did you notice who is completely missing from the top ten? Jesus! Christ is not only not in the top 10 songs, he’s not even mentioned in the rest of the top 20.
In a world that sings about Christmas without Christ, God is calling the church of Jesus Christ back to the tradition of Christmas carols.
I. The history of Christmas carols
While many Americans sing about Santa, chestnuts and a white Christmas, Christians all over the world have sung about the birth of Jesus Christ for centuries. As early as the fourth century, Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, wrote a hymn for Christmas to teach that God truly became a man, in response to heretics who denied Jesus’ incarnation.
Singing Christmas carols was popularized by St. Francis of Assisi during the Middle Ages in Europe, and was also encouraged by the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther. As early as the 15th century, groups of singers would go from house to house in England and sing Christmas carols. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, chaplain from Shropshire, who lists twenty five “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of “wassailers,” who went from house to house and enjoyed “wassail,” ale, or apple cider, and other desserts given to them at each home. Thus we get the line, “here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green,” and since the homes often fed the carolers, we also get the line, “bring out the figgy pudding, we won’t go until we get some.” It was only later that carols begun to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas.
Two of the oldest Christmas carols still sung today are “O Come, all ye faithful,” which was originally written in the 13th century, and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” which was first composed in the 14th century.
Perhaps the three most popular Christmas carols in English are “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” The first two were sung in the American colonies even before the United States was a nation, but the third one came from Austria.
“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. It is based on Psalm 98, and its tune comes from one of the songs in Handel’s Messiah. Originally this song was intended to refer to Jesus’ Second Coming, but it has come to be associated mostly with His first coming at Christmas.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was written by the great Methodist founder Charles Wesley in 1739, and the words were revised by the great evangelist of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield. A hundred years later, the classical composer Felix Mendelssohn composed the tune that is popular today when people sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
“Silent Night” was originally written in German and first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, at St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria. The organist, Franz Gruber, discovered that the organ wasn’t working at the church. The priest, Joseph Mohr, had composed the words in German to “Silent Night” two years before. So he shared it with Gruber, who composed the tune to be sung by guitar. When Karl Mauracher came to repair the organ, he heard the story of how the song was composed in an emergency and sung without the organ, and Mauracher spread the song everywhere that he went. The song came to America by German-speaking congregations. Originally the words were “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” The English words we sing today were translated by John Freeman Young. “Silent Night” has been translated into 140 languages. (Sources: Wikipedia and Companion to Baptist Hymnal by William Reynolds.)
I wish we had time to talk about many other popular Christmas carols like “O Holy Night,” including some newer songs like “Mary Did You Know?” Many families bake a birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus on Christmas morning, which is a wonderful way to teach the true meaning of Christmas to children. Which brings us back to the original story itself, because the first Christmas carols are found in the Bible itself.
II. The songs of the first Christmas
Really, singing Christmas carols goes all the way back to the first Christmas, because Luke’s Gospel records four different songs as he gives the Christmas story. Let’s look at the lessons we get from these original Christmas carols.
A Mary’s song says that Christ came to love the forgotten (Luke 1:46-55)
When Mary was told that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she broke out into a song of praise, found in Luke 1:46-55. It is often called “The Magnificat” because she began, “My soul magnifies the Lord…”
The song emphasizes how God has remembered the forgotten and lifts up the lowly. In verse 48-49 she sings with amazement that God chose her, a simple girl from Nazareth: “He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” And notice what she sings in verse 52: “He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.”
Mary’s song reminds us that in Christ, God remembers the forgotten. Mary was a poor girl, and Jesus was born in a feeding trough. The song should remind us to stop and give a donation to the Salvation Army when we go shopping, to help Toys for Tots, and share with Operation Christmas Child and Backpacks for Appalachia. The Christmas child shoe boxes and backpacks are a wonderful way to share Jesus with the poor at Christmas.
B. Zechariah’s song says that Christ came to save us (Luke 1:67-79)
Not only was Jesus’ birth a miracle, but the birth of John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, was also a miracle, because his parents were way too old to be having children. Yet an angel appeared to Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would have a child in her old age. When John the Baptist was born to them, Zechariah broke out into a song of praise. It is found in Luke 1:67-79.
Zechariah’s song emphasizes that Christ came to save us. Luke 1:68-69 says, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David.” In the Bible, a horn was a symbol of strength. The Messiah was to come from the family line of King David. So Zechariah was singing about the same thing his son would prophesy when John the Baptist saw Jesus, and John proclaimed, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Zechariah’s song reminds us that Christ came to save us from sin.
C. The angel’s song says that Christ came to give us peace (Luke 2:13-14)
When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, he was suddenly surrounded by a great angel choir that sang the best-known of the songs that first Christmas. We read it in Luke 2:13-14. It is called “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” because it begins with the words, “Glory to God in the highest.”
The angel’s song spoke about Christ, the Prince of Peace, coming to bring us peace. Most of us know this song from the King James Version, which says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, Good will towards men.” Many of us react to that like the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during the Civil War. He wrote,
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.”
The good news is that the most reliable ancient manuscripts do not say what the KJV says. That is why the HCSB translates it, “peace on earth to people He favors!” You see, Jesus’ coming is not a general guarantee that everybody will have peace. The more accurate translation does not say peace to all men, but peace to people He favors. That is, peace is available to those who receive God’s grace, or favor, through faith in Christ. As Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” On Christmas Eve, 1914, during World War I, the British, French and German armies laid down their arms and visited with one another in peace, and they all sang “Silent Night” in their own languages, as they all knew the song. The message about the Prince of Peace made all the difference, even in the midst of war.
Have you found the peace of Christ? The angel’s song reminds us that Christ came to give us peace, a peace we receive by faith in Him.
D. Simeon’s song says that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it (Luke 2:29-32)
There is one more Christmas song in Luke’s Gospel. Officially, it was after Christmas, since it happened a few days later. A lot of people get the post-Christmas blues after Christmas is over. They get kind of sad, taking down the Christmas tree and putting away the decorations. And we rarely sing Christmas carols after Christmas Day. But Simeon did.
A few days after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to dedicate Him to the Lord in the temple. There they met a prophet named Simeon, who had been waiting all of his life for the Messiah to come and save His people. Luke 2:26 says it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. When he saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, Simeon took Him in his arms and sang the fourth Christmas carol. In that song, Simeon reminded us that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it. We read the song in Luke 2:29-32.
Simeon sang, “For my eyes have seen Your salvation. You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples—a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Your people Israel.”
Simeon knew that the salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ was prepared for “all peoples,” both Gentiles and Jews, and he wanted everybody to know that the baby Jesus that he was holding in his arms was the Savior.
Simeon’s song reminds us, to keep Christmas all year long, keep on sharing the good news.
Christmas carols that celebrate Jesus may not be in the top 20, but people still recognize the songs and enjoy hearing them this season of the year, which is all the more reason for us to play carols in our homes and cars and places we work. It’s a simple way to share the good news.
And how we need to renew the tradition of going Christmas caroling! I have a suspicion that if Zechariah and Simeon and Mary were with us today, they would be going door-to-door caroling, with some shepherds right behind them and angels overhead.
Years ago, a small group of carolers went door-to-door in a wealthy neighborhood of Beverly Hills, California. They rang a doorbell, and the man of the house answered, all in a hurry. He said, “Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but I really don’t have time for this. The house is a mess and we’re trying to get out the door to go shopping. Come by some other day.” As he shut the door, Bing Crosby and his family said, “Okay,” and left.
God sent His Son at Christmas. Don’t be so busy you miss the song.
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