The hymns of Christmas

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Though I have had the privilege of providing classroom instruction at various times for Luther House of Study, this is my first time writing as part of this blog, and thus, a word of introduction is probably in order. My name is Zachary Brockhoff, and I serve as Director of Music and organist at First Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where I have had the privilege of leading worship and congregational singing for the past seven years.

As we look toward 2023 and the upcoming release of a new podcast, “Sing to the Lord!” which will discuss hymns of the Christian faith, I am grateful to LHOS for the opportunity to say something about the hymns of Christmas as we anticipate this season and the celebration of Christ’s birth.

When considering how to approach the topic of Christmas hymns, I first asked an important question, “Which hymn or hymns should be chosen?”

This is a question with which every church musician wrestles every weekend, but Christmas brings a new level of danger for pastors and musicians. That’s because, if we’re honest, everyone has a favorite Christmas hymn. Whether you are a pastor, musician or someone in the second pew, each person has something they would prefer to sing during this season.

Only a few years ago, one parishioner greeted me with these words after Christmas Eve worship: “Why did we have to sing ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear’ this year?” and then added, “I hate that hymn!” These were words shared with a smile, but the point was clear! Try as we might, it is difficult to fit everyone’s favorite texts and tunes into this 12-day time of celebration.

While we cannot crown any one Christmas hymn the most well-loved in one blog post, there is one hymn every congregation will sing together this December 24. Whether sung in German or English, almost every congregation across the country will sing a carol we all know well, “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Simply mentioning the title evokes memories for everyone. It might be the memory of singing this carol in four-part harmony, surrounded by family. Perhaps you recall singing this melody as a member of a children’s choir. Or, maybe, this hymn was first introduced to you at midnight Mass, surrounded by candlelight.

What is especially striking about this hymn is how far its origins are from the picture we often paint in our mind. On Christmas Eve in 1818, Father Joseph Mohr entered the sanctuary to find a frantic musician. Franz Gruber, organist and musician of the parish, had discovered the pipe organ was not working. You can imagine the scene. The pastor and musician probably exchanged less-than-holy words, but resolved to write something suitable for worship that same evening. It was under these panicked circumstances that Mohr wrote the text we have come to love, while Gruber wrote the tune. And, in a way few have heard since, “Silent Night” was first sung in a setting for two treble voices and guitar.

Though unthinkable today, if congregations want to be faithful to the origins of this hymn, they would not sing it together on Christmas Eve. Instead, it would be offered by a choir — treble voices only — with guitar accompaniment.

If that sounds too extreme this year, perhaps it is enough to say this. The story of “Silent Night” can teach us much about singing carols together during Christmas. When Mohr and Gruber wrote this hymn many years ago, nothing was going according to plan. It was a “silent night,” but only because instruments were broken! And, there was nothing “holy” about that night or most other circumstances, with Mohr’s parish placed at the center of war in Europe just years earlier. Yet, in the midst of such challenges, both men could write words of peace.

Today, as we prepare to welcome Christ and celebrate his birth among us, it is likely much of what we plan will not happen as we hope. Whether flights delay family visits, or the batteries don’t come with the toy as promised, this world finds many ways to frustrate us. Wars and rumors of war continue to close in on all sides, and disease and death have touched many over the past year.

However we sing the words of this familiar carol — or any Christmas carol this season — hear again the good news they carry! It is not simply a time for nostalgia, wrapped up neatly with a bow. Instead, the night we celebrate is made holy because of the message the angels proclaim: “To you is born a Savior!” In this message, we have peace — and in this peace, we sing with hope and confidence. “Christ the Savior is born,” and in his birth, he has promised us forgiveness, peace, and joy.

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