UK’s Top Ten Christmas Carols — Any Surprises?

Written by Steve Pauwels on December 25, 2013

The United Kingdom’s Premier Christian Radio recently sponsored a survey to identify favorite Christmas carols. The results? Some predictable, some mildly unexpected.

The top spot was snatched by a choice that surprised me just a tad: “O Holy Night” (15%) is undeniably a ubiquitous holiday fixture (anyone listening to 24/7 Christmas radio can hardly challenge that). Composed in 1847 by Roquemaure, France’s Mayor Placide Clappeau,  it’s an ambitious one to sing — Premier’s Pam Rhodes noted it’s not the most common congregational sing-along, more often experienced as a performance piece. “O Holy Night” certainly boasts all the elements that make for memorable music: a lovely, dramatic melody that gathers into a crescendo (thus its vocal challenge), thoughtful lyrics (the lesser known second verse is especially poignant ).

I concede all that — still: for some reason, it’s not among my best-loved. (Although the inimitable Andy Williams’ timeless rendering? Always worth a listen.)

Felix Mendelssohn/Charles Wesley’s “Hark!The Herald Angels Sing” hovers in the second spot (14%). An inarguably stand-to-your-feet composition, its rousing music and poetry will combine to stir any heart open to being stirred to appreciate afresh this festival’s wonder. Talk about crescendos!: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; /Hail the incarnate Deity, /Pleased as man with man to dwell; /Jesus, our Emmanuel.” Glorious.

This poll’s “show” position (11%) was taken, in my opinion, by another dark horse — yet a delightful one, at that. I’m a bit embarrassed to confess I wasn’t familiar with Christina Rosetti’s haunting “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” until a handful of years ago. I grew up exposed to all kinds of Christmas music, but this one, unaccountably, stayed out of earshot.

Penned by the poet Rosetti in the late 1800’s, English composer Gustav Holst contributed a mystical melody several decades later. Musically, atmospherically, “Bleak Midwinter” is a quiet stunner — but I have two nits to pick: Although the exact date of Christ’s birth is unknown, it’s doubtful it transpired during wintertime, per Ms. Rosetti’s assertion. Second, neither does Christmas Day itself occur in the “mid-winter”. Point of fact, most of the Christmas season, as currently celebrated, technically plays out in mid/late-Autumn — and even by December 25, official calendar-winter has just barely launched. [A reader has informed me “midwinter” can be defined as a reference to the winter solstice (Dec 21/22). Perhaps Rosetti was using the term in that way.]

These gripes, however, are more than tolerable when measured against a song concluding with gems like this line: “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.”

Slots four and five were earned by two perennials that, flatly, had to be included in in any Christmas compilation worth its eggnog: The nearly two-hundred-year-old “Silent Night” (9%)(translated into English from Joseph Mohr/Franz Gruber’s German original) is a self-evidently worthy selection: so familiar, so unadorned, yet calming, hushed, hypnotic; a canticle fated to be sung to candlelight for ages to come.

“Joy to the World” (7%) — not Three Dog Night’s 1971, Top-Forty hit about Jeremiah the Bullfrog —  but Issac Watts’ masterpiece of three centuries duration. Based on Psalm 98 and initially intended to laud Christ’s future Second Coming, “Joy” became inextricably associated, instead, with the commemoration of His first.

This anthem serves listeners a blast of rock-solid and robust theology, bursting into the room with cymbal-thrashing, trumpet-shouting acoustical exuberance. At moments exhilarating, then suddenly mischievously playful (“And heaven and nature sing!”) it might be among the most hopeful, most inspiriting of this line-up: “No more let sins and sorrows grow/ Nor thorns infest the ground/He comes to make His blessings flow/Far as the curse is found”.

Here in North America, “Joy to the World” is ranked as the 20th Century’s most-published Christmas hymn. Rather deserving of that, I’d say.

Clocking in at number six is another Christmastide no-brainer: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (6%). Of somewhat uncertain provenance, and originally drafted in Latin, this instantly recognizable summons to worship is as frank in its piety (“O Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!”) as it is charming in its simplicity.

Although neither numbers seven (“O Little Town of Bethlehem” (5%), nine (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”(3%) nor ten (“Away in a Manger”(3%) figure musically among my personal favorites, each has its pleasant points. The text of “Bethlehem”, generated by English cleric Phillips Brooks following his 1865 visit to that storied, Jewish locale, is marked by particularly expressive verse: fetchingly imaginative  but still accessible to the reader/singer. “No ear may hear His coming/But in this world of sin,/Where meek souls will receive him still,/The dear Christ enters in.” Quite nice.

A question lingers, though:  Specifically which melody does this choice reflect? In the British Commonwealth nations, “Bethlehem” is commonly linked to an arrangement quite different from its American equivalent. Probably best to assume the British Premier network was opting for the widely-accepted British version (!).

“Midnight Clear” poses a similar uncertainty: it can be crooned to two alternate tunes, one preferred in the United States, one in the United Kingdom. As with “Bethlehem”, in this case I’d guess it’s the UK melody those surveyed had in mind. (I remain not-crazy about either version).

Curiously —  and happily — the words of “Midnight Clear”, as usually acknowledged today, have been altered modestly from the Reverend Edmund Sears’ 1849 stanzas – leaving them, fair to say, slightly more biblically full-bodied than his originals? This shouldn’t startle us — the Wayland, Massachusetts pastor, after all, was a Unitarian whose writings shaped 19th-century Liberal Protestantism.

“Away in a Manger” is sweet enough, a tender lullaby — and perhaps a skoche dangerous, as well? This aggressively maudlin carol, alas, just might encourage holiday revelers to mentally freeze “Jesus” into the gurgling infant status: adorable, welcomed as a sentimental icon to be fawned over a few weeks every December, resolutely unthreatening; but not much else.

Yet, the “Baby Jesus” didn’t stay that way, nor mature into a mere, “teary-eyed” Savior whose only specialty was bobbing children on his knees and cradling frightened lambs. The Christ of the New Testament? He was a life-changer, demanding, confrontational. Yup, kids and needy ones sought Him, but not a few hated Him, too.

All of that, I fear, could be smothered in “Away in a Manger”‘s saccharine strains.

Finally, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” settles into eighth place (4%). I was raised to regard this ancient classic as more an Advent, than Christmas, piece – but really, who cares? In any context, its gorgeous melody and aching plea capture ineffably the weary longing of an Israelite people pining hundreds of years for their Messiah; nearly afraid to allow themselves any hope He might appear. I’m so pleased this one made the cut, always a highlight of the season.

I’m thinking a roster of Americans’ most-treasured holiday hymns would stack-up comparably to these, our Brit cousins’, picks. Whether equipped with a plummy accent or Yank drawl, folks usually can recognize and enjoy great music.

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Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.