After listing my favorite Christmas songs and cds a couple of days ago, I realized that I have few traditional Christmas carols on the list. I like a lot of the traditional songs, but I have few good recordings of the old hymns and my favorite carols. So, as I was scanning through my iTunes looking for good songs to list, those traditional songs didn’t immediately come to mind. I always enjoy singing the doctrinally sound Christmas songs in church or in my devotional times, but I don’t have any recordings–or no great recordings–of some of these songs!
I admit that I’m a little bit picky about what makes a great recording of a hymn or Christmas carol. I have one recording of the King’s College Choir singing many of the old songs, but the tempo of the songs is extremely slow, the arrangements seem to be straight from the hymnbook, and the accompaniment is just organ; I’m sure the carol sing was lovely as a live concert in an ancient cathedral, but it didn’t carry over well as a recording.
Even on recordings by Christian artists, recent recordings usually have new songs with a few of the mood-setting carols thrown in.
Doctrinally sound carols are hard to find. Over the past few days, I’ve been reading a lot of the lyrics of traditional carols and have concluded that many Christmas songs are mood music rather than meditations on accurate doctrine. While many carols describe the night Christ was born, they often don’t clearly explain why He came.
Doctrinally Packed Hymns (with a focus on the Incarnation, Salvation, and the Second Coming):
I love each of these hymns because they are so full of doctrine. I enjoy singing about the names for Christ, the prophecies about Him, and the truth of the incarnation, salvation, and the second coming.
- “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel“–This is my favorite Christmas hymn.
- “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”
- “Hark! the Herald Angel Sings“–I’ve come to appreciate this song more this year, and it’s now a close second as favorite hymn.
- “Joy to the World!”
- “We Three Kings of Orient Are”–This song doesn’t quite fit with Watts and Wesley, but I like the explanation of the gifts of the magi. Many times we only sing the first verse, which causes us to miss the full meaning of the song.
Songs that mention salvation or the meaning of the incarnation:
These songs generally tell the nativity story with a few mentions of truth about Christ’s life, death, resurrection or the promises of salvation.
- “Angels We Have Heard on High”–This is one of my favorites from this category, because I enjoy the moving parts on “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
- “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night“
- “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”–I love the lines “God is not dead; nor doth He sleep” and “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”
- “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”
- “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”–speaks of the promise of the second coming in the last two stanzas
- “The Sussex Carol”
- “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
- “Angels, from the Realms of Glory”–I’ve only ever seen the first four verses printed, but the last few are great and expound on doctrine much more than the first four.
Carols that tell the Nativity story:
As one friend commented after our carol sing at church, many of these songs are soporific. Indeed, several traditional carols are children’s carols or lullabies. Now, lest I be misunderstood, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these songs; they tell the story of the night Christ was born, which is great. I think there is certainly a place for these songs in our Christmas celebrations, and I’d like to expound on that more later. But for the purpose of this classification system, they don’t offer much deeper reflection on what Christ did for us by coming to earth, living a sinless life, offering Himself as a sacrificial atonement for our sins, rising again to break the power of death and sin, and living eternally and promising to return for us and give eternal life, if we believe in Him.
- “The First Noel”–I’ve never seen the last verse that’s listed on this site, probably because of the conflict with Protestant doctrine.
- “Away in a Manger”–the third verse of this song has always bothered me. And, well, for that matter, the line in the second stanza about Jesus not crying seems to present a misunderstanding of His humanity.
- “Silent Night”–If we sang the last verses listed on this site (but we usually only sing the first three), the song would be much improved, in my opinion.
- “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
These lists are not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative of the types of Christmas carols we have. I couldn’t possibly place all of the Christmas songs in one of these sets (mostly because of time constraints–it took me several hours to read all these lyrics and think through the songs). I found two websites particularly helpful, and they both list many Christmas hymns and songs that are new to me, but are familiar in other countries or religious traditions: The Lutheran Folk Christmas links to the Lutheran hymnal, and A Treasury of Christmas Carols lists a ton of Christmas songs with helpful notes and comparisons between publications.