10 Christmas Hymns Every Church Should Sing This Season

Marie Osborne

Marie Osborne
Published: Dec 01, 2022
10 Christmas Hymns Every Church Should Sing This Season

Likening His arrival to a “new and glorious morn,” we are most definitely inspired to fall on our knees in worship.

The Sundays leading up to Christmas are some of my favorite worship services of the year. The songs we sing at church are reminders of the reason for the season—the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ. In particular, hymns provide us with theologically rich lyrics with historical significance. Hymns tie the body of Christ to one another across generations and denominations. Hymns also become nostalgic parts of the holiday season. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without singing some of these old standards. 

If you are planning a worship service this month, here are ten hymns that every church should sing this season, and a little history behind each one:

1. Angels We Have Heard on High

The earliest known printed version of “Angels We Have Heard On High” was in an 1842 French songbook. Though the source of the song is unknown, it is believed to have originated in 18th-century France. Many of us grew up singing the lyrics:

“Angels we have heard on high

Sweetly singing o'er the plains

And the mountains in reply

Echoing their joyous strains”

The image it evokes is of the angels appearing at Christ’s birth, reminding us that the heavens announced his arrival and worshiped Him while he was but a baby in a manger.

2. Away in a Manger

The words of this popular Christmas song are often attributed to Martin Luther. However, a distinguished researcher at the Library of Congress determined that is not the case. Regardless of its origin, this hymn has become a beloved staple of the Christmas season, with its pastoral description of Christ’s birth and His nearness to us even now. 

“Be near me, Lord Jesus

I ask You to stay

Close by me forever

And love me I pray

Bless all the dear children

In Your tender care

And fit us for heaven

To live with You there”

3. Go, Tell It On the Mountain

Originating as an African-American spiritual created sometime in the early 1800s, the refrain of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” had never been published until John Wesley Work, Jr. got ahold of it. He wrote the lyrics for the stanzas, combined them with the original African-American refrain, and published the piece in 1907. In doing so, he brought honor and recognition to the spiritual lives of enslaved people and how the birth of Christ put a song in their hearts, even in their darkest hour. It adds great depth and power to the hymn knowing these words were sung in celebration and praise of our Lord, even amid great personal oppression.

“Go, tell it on the mountain

Over the hills and everywhere

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born”

4. God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooge drives away a caroller who arrives singing this very hymn. It happened to have been the most popular song of the mid-1800s. Though the author is unknown, the first confirmed published version of the carol was in 1833. Regardless of the author, this hymn is a must-sing every year because of its attention to our deliverance from the enemy brought about by the birth of Jesus.

“God rest ye merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

Remember Christ our Savior

Was born on Christmas Day

To save us all from Satan's pow'r

When we were gone astray

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy

Oh tidings of comfort and joy”

5. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

The lyrics to this hymn were originally written by Charles Wesley and published in 1739. However, his friend, evangelist George Whitefield, adjusted the words in 1753 to what we now know and recognize.

“Hark! The herald angels sing

Glory to the new-born king”

The tune we sing was not paired with Wesley and Whitefield’s words for almost 100 years. Felix Mendelssohn, the famous composer, wrote the tune in 1840 for the Gutenberg Festival, a German celebration of the invention of printing. Ironically, Mendelssohn thought words could be added but that his melody “will never do to sacred words.” After his death, his composition was indeed tied to the sacred words of the hymn we know and love.

6. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” was one of the first Christmas hymns written and composed by two Americans, though they did not collaborate on the song. The author of the lyrics was Edmund Sears. He published “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” as a poem in 1849. 

“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 heav’n’s all-gracious King.”

The world in solemn stillness lay

To hear the angels sing.”

Richard Storrs Willis was the composer of the turn, He published a song called “Study No. 23” in 1850. How “Study No.23” was united with Sears’ poem, no one knows. In fact, Willis wrote a letter himself stating, “On my return from Europe in [1876], I found that it [the tune] had been incorporated into various church collections apparently to Edmund Sears’ text.” How strange to think that the tune and the words were conceived separately when it is hard for us to imagine the two apart. The beautiful lyrics that tell the story of Christ’s birth in such poetic fashion are a wonderful reminder of the true beauty of His birth and life.

7. Joy to the World 

A prolific hymn writer named Isaac Watts published the lyrics for "Joy to the World" in 1719. He found great inspiration in the Psalms of David, particularly in Psalm 150 and 98. Over 100 years later, in 1836, an American hymn composer named Lowell Mason published Watts’ words with the now-famous tune. We owe Lowell Mason a debt of gratitude for uniting two in this beloved song. The lyrics and tune combined inspire a joyous celebration of the Lord’s coming, which is why it should be an annual staple in church worship services.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come

Let Earth receive her King

Let every heart prepare Him room

And Heaven and nature sing

And Heaven and nature sing

And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing”

8. O Come All Ye Faithful

The origin of this well-known Christmas carol remains a mystery. The earliest known manuscript of the tune is dated around 1740. Frederick Oakley, who worked at Margaret Chapel in England, translated the song from Latin to English, and it was published in 1852. Whoever originally wrote the tune and text, we now have the benefit of the English translation, which calls us to worship in adoration in the repeated refrain:

"O come, let us adore Him

O come, let us adore Him

O come, let us adore Him

Christ the Lord"

9. O Holy Night

Placide Cappeau, a French wine merchant and poet, wrote the lyrics to celebrate the upcoming restoration of his church’s organ. A local singer asked a well-known composer, Adolphe Adam, to compose the music for it. It has been a rousing success since the first performance of the song in 1847. Cappeau’s lyrics remind us of the sinful state of our world and the many years spent waiting for Christ’s birth. Likening His arrival to a “new and glorious morn,” we are most definitely inspired to fall on our knees in worship.

"O Holy night

The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees

O hear the angels' voices

O night divine

O night when Christ was born"

10. Silent Night

A German priest named Joseph Mohr penned the words to "Silent Night" in 1816. Two years later, he approached church organist Franz Gruber to write a tune to be played on guitar that would accompany the poem. Mohr’s beautiful and gentle descriptions of Christ’s birth and the glory that streams from heaven and the face of the newborn Lord are awe-inspiring depictions of how the radiance of heaven came to dwell with us on earth.

"Silent night, holy night!

Son of God love's pure light.

Radiant beams from Thy holy face

With dawn of redeeming grace,

Jesus Lord, at Thy birth

Jesus Lord, at Thy birth"

These hymns were written in a wide variety of countries and historical periods by people coming from all different backgrounds and circumstances. What an incredible picture of the body of Christ, united in worship through words written about the Word Himself. Whether or not you sing these at home, every church should sing these Christmas hymns this season in celebration of the grace, love, unity, and peace that brought so much "Joy to the World" on that "Silent [Holy] Night."

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/RamilF

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