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#53: The Holly and the Ivy

holly-ivyFirst published in 1861 by Joshua Sylvester in A Garland of Christmas Carols, the lyrics to “The Holly and the Ivy” are centuries old. The symbols predate Christianity and were likely altered to represent the symbols of Jesus, Mary, and His blood, crown of thorns, and crucifixion. The adapted meaning of the holly and ivy are a little unclear, but they have symbolic origins in druidic and Roman rituals and mythology, and some have suggested the holly represents the masculine aspect of Jesus, and the ivy the feminine aspect.

Lyrics

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

The holly and the ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

#52: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

jesus-hug“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in the early 1700s, as part of the final movement of the Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben cantata (“Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life”).

The original German lyrics differ quite a bit from the traditional English lyrics, and strongly focus on a more personal connection with Christ. A literal translation is as follows:

Well for me that I have Jesus,
O how strong I hold to Him
That He might refresh my heart
When so sick and sad am I.
Jesus have I, He who loves me,
He who takes me as His own!
Ah, therefore I don’t leave Jesus,
Lest I should break my heart.

The original lyrics were written in 1661 by Mar­tin Ja­nus. The vocal melody was actually written by Jo­hann Schop around 1664, but didn’t become popular until 1723, when Bach added it to the original 1716 cantata.

Lyrics

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light.

Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,
With the fire of life impassioned,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.

Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown.

#51: Good King Wenceslas

WenceslasThe Wenceslas of the song “Good King Wenceslas” wasn’t a king, but actually the Duke of Bohemia who lived in the 10th century. He was reputable as a good, kind, honest, and morally upright man. The carol is about Wenceslas and his page going out giving alms to a poor peasant in bitter cold weather on the Feast of Stephen, the second day of Christmas (December 26). Wenceslas was perhaps too good, because he was betrayed and murdered by his envious younger brother in 935. He immediately achieved sainthood status, and within a few decades, four biographies of him were in circulation.

The song is based on a 13th century springtime carol sung in Latin, “Tempus adest floridum,” or “It is time for flowering.” In 1853, John Mason Neale selected Wenceslas as the subject for a children’s song to illustrate Christian generosity.

Recorded live @ McKay-Dee Hospital Lobby, December 22, 2013
Equipment used: Blue Snowball Mic

Lyrics

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel.
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me.
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page.
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

#50: When Christmas Comes to Town

The 2004 film The Polar Express is based on the 1985 children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. It is a story of a young boy who no longer believes in Christmas. A train going to the North Pole appears outside his house, and he boards it at the request of the conductor. He experiences an adventure with other children, and ultimately meets Santa Claus and becomes a true believer. The song “When Christmas Comes to Town” is sung by a boy and a girl on the Polar Express. The boy is disheartened because he hasn’t experienced Christmas, while the girl reassures him with depictions of the joyous parts of the holiday. The song for The Polar Express soundtrack was sung by Matthew Hall and Meagan Moore.

Recorded live @ McKay-Dee Hospital Lobby, December 22, 2013
Equipment used: Blue Snowball Mic

Lyrics

I’m wishing on a star
And trying to believe,
That even though it’s far
He’ll find me Christmas Eve.

I guess that Santa’s busy
‘Cause he’s never come around.
I think of him
When Christmas comes to town.

The best time of the year,
When everyone comes home.
With all this Christmas cheer
It’s hard to be alone.

Putting up the Christmas tree
With friends who come around.
It’s so much fun
When Christmas comes to town.

Presents for the children
Wrapped in red and green.
All the things I’ve heard about
But never really seen.
No one will be sleeping on
The night of Christmas Eve,
Hoping Santa’s on his way.

When Santa’s sleigh bells ring,
I listen all around.
The herald angels sing,
I never hear a sound.

When all the dreams of children
Once lost will all be found,
That’s all I want
When Christmas comes to town.
That’s all I want
When Christmas comes to town.

#49: Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” originates from the Polish carol “W zlobie lezy” (“He Lies in the Cradle”). In 1908, the carol was published in a book of Polish carols. 13 years later, Edith Margaret Reed wrote English-language lyrics for the song, and came up with the title “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.” The carol reflects on the baby Jesus lying in the manger, the animals watching nearby, and the rejoicing shepherds on the hillside hearing the story from the angels.

Lyrics

Infant holy,
Infant lowly,
For His bed a cattle stall;
Oxen lowing,
Little knowing
Christ the Babe is Lord of all.
Swift are winging
Angels singing,
Nowells ringing,
Tidings bringing,
Christ the Babe is Lord of all.

Flocks were sleeping,
Shepherds keeping
Vigil till the morning new,;
Saw the glory,
Heard the story,
Tidings of a Gospel true.
Thus rejoicing,
Free from sorrow,
Praises voicing,
Greet the morrow,
Christ the Babe was born for you!

#48: The First Noel

It’s difficult to know just how old “The First Noel” is. The song (at least the words) is thought to be of Cornish origin, and may date back as early as the 13th or 14th century. During this time, miracle plays and mystery plays — dramatic productions of Catholic saints and biblical stories — were popular in Europe. “The First Noel” may have its origins in some form as early as this time, though it may also be a variation on “The First O Well,” a very old church gallery hymn. It was first published with words in 1823, as part of William Sandys’ Carols Ancient and Modern.

The arrangement here also incorporates a variation of “Prayer from the North,” a tin whistle melody by Solnamoo Song.

Lyrics

The First Noel, the Angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the East beyond them far
And to the earth it gave great light
And so it continued both day and night.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

And by the light of that same star
Three Wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

This star drew nigh to the northwest
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest
And there it did both Pause and stay
Right o’er the place where Jesus lay.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Then entered in those Wise men three
Full reverently upon their knee
And offered there in His presence
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made Heaven and earth of nought
And with his blood mankind has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

#47: O Christmas Tree

The practice of decorating Christmas trees seems to have originated during the Middle Ages in Germany, when people would hang fruit, nuts, sweets, and paper flowers all over the tree for children to enjoy.  A legend was also born around this time that on the night Jesus was born, every tree in every forest all across the world bore their most delicious fruit.

The song “O Tannenbaum,” known as “O Christmas Tree” in English, is an old German folk song. Although the original German lyrics written by organist Ernst Anschütz in 1824 had nothing to do with the decorated Christmas trees (tannenbaum simply means “fir tree”), Anschütz himself later added more Christmas-themed lyrics. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the song came to be known as a Christmas carol.

Lyrics

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Thy leaves are so unchanging;
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Thy leaves are so unchanging;
Not only green when summer’s here,
But also when ’tis cold and drear.
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Thy leaves are so unchanging!

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me;
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me;
How often has the Christmas tree
Afforded me the greatest glee!
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me.

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly!
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly!
From base to summit, gay and bright,
There’s only splendor for the sight.
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly!

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!
Thou bidst us true and faithful be,
And trust in God unchangingly.
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!

#46: Carol of the Bells

Legend says that at the stroke of midnight on the evening when Jesus was born every bell on the earth began ringing joyously together. It is said there was never a sound quite like it. The song “Carol of the Bells” probably comes from that legend.

Traditionally, the song starts out soft and gets progressively louder as each voice adds tintinnabulation and then the song softly fades away. The tune for the song was written by Mykola Dmytrovich and was based on an old Ukrainian melody. The words that are used today were written by American composer Peter J. Wihousky, who grew up singing in Russian-American choirs. It was first performed in the Ukraine on the night of January 13, 1916, which on the Julian calendar is considered New Year’s Eve. In the United States the song was first performed on October 5, 1921 at Carnegie Hall.

Lyrics

Hark! how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say,
“Throw cares away.”
Christmas is here
Bringing good cheer
To young and old
Meek and the bold

Ding, dong, ding, dong
That is their song
With joyful ring
All caroling
One seems to hear
Words of good cheer
From ev’rywhere
Filling the air

Oh how they pound,
Raising the sound,
O’er hill and dale,
Telling their tale,
Gaily they ring
While people sing
Songs of good cheer
Christmas is here
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas

On, on they send
On without end
Their joyful tone
To ev’ry home

Ding, dong, ding, dong.

#45: As With Gladness Men of Old

“As With Gladness Men of Old” was written by William Chatterton Dix. He wrote it on the day of the Epiphany in 1858, while sick in bed. During this time, he read the story of the wise men in the Bible and pondered how he could give the story meaning in his own life. For a living, Dix managed a maritime insurance company in Glasgow, Scotland, but his passion was in poetry and writing song lyrics. He thought about the Magi’s long journey to see the Christ child. Dix knew well about the dangers of travel in his own time, and knew that such a trip for the Magi would be fraught with peril. But instead of focusing on the journey, he focused on the destination, and the joy of giving gifts. The hymn was first published in Dix’s Hymns of Love and Joy in 1861. It was set to music by Conrad Kocher, another man intimately familiar with travel, and who had established the School of Sacred Music in Struttgart, Germany in 1821.

Lyrics

As with gladness, men of old
Did the guiding star behold
As with joy they hailed its light
Leading onward, beaming bright
So, most glorious Lord, may we
Evermore be led to Thee.

As with joyful steps they sped
To that lowly manger bed
There to bend the knee before
Him Whom Heaven and earth adore;
So may we with willing feet
Ever seek Thy mercy seat.

As they offered gifts most rare
At that manger rude and bare;
So may we with holy joy,
Pure and free from sin’s alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to Thee, our heavenly King.

Holy Jesus, every day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And, when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.

In the heavenly country bright,
Need they no created light;
Thou its Light, its Joy, its Crown,
Thou its Sun which goes not down;
There forever may we sing
Alleluias to our King!

#44: Joseph’s Lullaby

“Joseph’s Lullaby” is a song by the Christian rock band MercyMe that gives us a glimpse of how Joseph may have viewed the birth of his new son. The touching lyrics foreshadow the eventual ministry and atonement of the Savior, but gently reminds us that Joseph was also simply a father who loved his newborn child. The song was written in 2005, and reached #33 in the U.S. Billboard charts, and #1 in the Christian music charts.

My deepest thanks to Coulter Neale for providing the guitar and vocals for this arrangement.

Lyrics

Go to sleep, my Son.
This manger for your bed.
You have a long road before You.
Rest Your little head.

Can You feel the weight of Your glory?
Do You understand the price?
Does the Father guard Your heart for now
So You can sleep tonight?

Go to sleep, my Son.
Go and chase Your dreams.
This world can wait for one more moment.
Go and sleep in peace.

I believe the glory of Heaven
Is lying in my arms tonight.
Lord, I ask that He for just this moment
Simply be my child.

Go to sleep, my Son.
Baby, close Your eyes.
Soon enough You’ll save the day.
But for now, dear Child of mine,
Oh my Jesus, sleep tight.

#43: There’s a Song in the Air

“There’s a Song in the Air” is both a Christmas carol and Methodist hymn. The lyrics were written by Josiah G. Holland, a very popular poet and novelist in the post-Civil War era and late 19th century. The words paint a picture of the different elements of the Nativity, and recognize Jesus as King.

The song has been covered often. The original tune was composed by Karl P. Harrington in 1905. The rendition played here, however, is a medley of the original tune plus a couple other more modern variations by Gloria Merritt and John G. Elliott.

Lyrics

There’s a song in the air
There’s a star in the sky
There’s a mother’s deep prayer
And a Baby’s low cry
And the star rains its fire
While the beautiful sing
For the manger of Bethlehem
Cradles a King

There’s a tumult of joy
O’er the wonderful birth
For the Virgin’s sweet boy
Is the Lord of the earth.
Aye! the star rains its fire
While the beautiful sing
For the manger of Bethlehem
Cradles a King

In the light of that star
Lie the ages impearled
And that song from afar
Has swept over the world
Every hearth is aflame
And beautiful sing
In the homes of the nations
That Jesus is King

We rejoice in the light
And we echo the song
That comes down through the night
From the heavenly throng
Aye! we shout to the
Lovely evangel they bring
And we greet in His cradle
Our Savior and King

#42: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

It was a time of intense sorrow and despair in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s life. His wife had tragically died in a fire in 1861. The American Civil War had just broken out, and his oldest son Charles had decided to join the Union cause without his father’s blessing. He was severely wounded in battle after several months of fighting. For Longfellow, this was just an endless punishment. In 1864, he sat down at his desk and penned the poem “Christmas Bells.” In this poem, Longfellow somberly recognizes that God is not dead, that right will prevail, and bring peace and goodwill to men. This is the message of Christmas and its promise of new life. The poem has been set to a few tunes, the two most common being the English organist John Baptiste Calkin’s melody in the 1870s, and Johnny Marks’ traditional melody in the 1950s.

Lyrics

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

#41: I Wonder As I Wander

John Jacob Niles was traveling through a raucous revivalist meeting in North Carolina on July 16, 1933. A group was about to begin street preaching, when a girl stepped out of the entourage. She was unkempt and ragged, but once she started singing she had a beautiful voice. She smiled as she sang a single line of a song: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky…” with the reasons for Christ’s death as the central question and message of the poignant, yet simple tune.

Niles asked the girl to sing the song fragment seven more times over again, paying her a quarter each time she did, while he jotted it down in his notebook. From this, he composed “I Wonder As I Wander,” with four phrases and three stanzas. The song was completed on October 4, 1933, and premiered at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina.

Lyrics

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God’s heaven, a star’s light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God’s Angels in heaven to sing
He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

#40: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Many fathers dress up in red suits and white beards around Christmastime and bring joy and laughter to their children. But what happens when the children creep down from their bedroom late at night and catch “Santa” off guard? The song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” was written by Tommie Connor in 1952, with 13 year-old Jimmy Boyd singing for the recording. The song reached #1 in the Billboard Charts in December of the same year.

Lyrics

I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus
Underneath the mistletoe last night.
She didn’t see me creep
Down the stairs to have a peek;
She thought I was tucked
Up in my bedroom fast asleep.

Then, I saw Mommy tickle Santa Claus
Underneath his beard so snowy white.
Oh, what a laugh it would have been,
If Daddy had only seen
Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night!

#39: In the Bleak Midwinter

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is based on a poem by Christina Rossetti, written around 1872. The evocative lyrics paint a picture of the Nativity in a snowy Northern landscape. The text of this Christmas poem has been set to music many times, the most famous settings being composed by Gustav Holst and Harold Edwin Darke in the early 20th century. The carol is beloved by millions, and in 2008, Darke’s version of the song was voted the “Best Christmas Carol” by the world’s leading choirmasters and choral experts.

Lyrics

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak midwinter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him,
Give my heart.

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Feel free to email me at christmas@justinreeve.com.