Christmas is the preeminent musical holiday. As the conductor remarked at a Cleveland Orchestra Christmas concert I attended some years ago, more music has been written for Christmas than any other holiday. And a variety of other songs have become associated with Christmas, sometimes by quite circuitous routes. The story of how some of the greatest Christmas carols came to be is told well in a new book, Andrew Gant’s The Carols of Christmas. As Gant notes in his introduction, “Christmas carols are, perhaps, the nearest things we still have to a folk tradition—an oral tradition. We know them because we know them. We never really learned them, they’ve just always been there . . . . These tunes, gathered together like outcasts from all over the world, have taken on what Philip Larkin calls ‘the whiff of bands and organ-pipes and myrrh’ and taken their place around our festive table where children listen, ready to carry them on to the next generation and beyond.”
Three of the songs discussed by Gant are associated with the great John Mason Neale, the Anglican clergyman who translated numerous old Christian texts, from both the West and the East, into English. The preeminent Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” was translated by Neale, and “Good King Wenceslas” is his own composition. Neale was so prolific that “he has a whopping thirty-nine entries in the New English Hymnal, more than any other author, thirteen ahead of his nearest rival, Charles Wesley.”
The third carol associated with Neale is In dulci jubilo, translated by Neale as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” In dulci jubilo is associated with the German monk and mystic Henry Suso dancing with the angels, the inspiration for John Rutter’s charming “Brother Heinrich’s Christmas.” According to Gant, the tune first appears in a German manuscript in 1400, and is found in a collection of Lutheran hymns as early as 1533. It then “retained its place at the very heart of Lutheran music-making,” with “harmonizations and elaborations by, among many others, Johann Walter, Hieronymus, and Michael Praetorius and Dietrich Buxtehude. J.S. Bach, for whom the chorale was the hemoglobin in his musical and theological bloodstream, used it a number of times.”
It is hard to think of any song whose title is less in keeping with the spirt of the age than “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” After all, we are told regularly that Christian men are not good, and the thought of their rejoicing is now seen as anathema. (All the more reason, of course, to sing Neale’s words, especially when your hymnal bowdlerizes them to “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice”). And the subject of Neale’s third verse is particularly alien to modern sensibilities:
Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice
Now ye need not fear the grave: Peace! Peace! 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!
And here, for your Christmas enjoyment, is the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, singing Neale’s words in an arrangement by Philip Ledger. Merry Christmas to all the friends of Chronicles!
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.