*Something different this week in the Spirit of Christmas:  meaning behind Christmas Carols

The song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol. From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of the Church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember.

The “True Love” one hears in the song is not a smitten boy or girlfriend but Jesus Christ, because truly Love was born on Christmas Day. The partridge in the pear tree also represents Him because that bird is willing to sacrifice its life if necessary to protect its young by feigning injury to draw away predators.

The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments

The three French hens stood for faith, hope, and love (Three Theological Virtues).

The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The five golden rings represented the first five books of the Old Testament, which describe man’s fall into sin and the great love of God in sending a Savior.

The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit—–Piety, understanding, counsel, knowledge, wisdom, fortitude, fear of God..

The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes. (Blessed are….)

Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit—–Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Gentleness, Faithfulness, Modesty, Continency [Chastity].  **There are Twelve Fruits….the writer combined three that were similar)

The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.

The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful Apostles.

The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.

We adore Thee O Christ and we bless Thee for by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.

O Come O Come Emmanuel 

This is one of the oldest of all carols, and is believed to have been derived from a set of Latin verses called the ‘O antiphons’ which were performed in monasteries around the 8th century AD. Each of these verses related the prophesy of the coming of the Messiah, and each referred to one of the titles of the Messiah. One referred to the Messiah as ‘Emmanuel’ as described in ‘Isaiah 7:14’, and it is believed that around the 12th century AD this text was adapted into a rhythmic poem, ‘Veni veni Emmanuel’. The music which today accompanies the lyrics is thought to have been separately written for a 15th century Franciscan funeral hymn with influences from Gregorian chant. How and exactly when the words of ‘Veni veni Emmanuel’ became united with the funeral hymn is unknown, but certainly it had happened by 1851, when John Mason Neale translated the words from Latin into English…When Neale wrote the English language version of the carol, he titled it ‘Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel’, but later modifications of the text gave us the title and verses we know today. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

This is sung throughout Advent ‘asking’ for Christ to Come at Christmas.

Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight O Lord my strength and my redeemer


O Little Town Of Bethlehem…In the winter of 1865, Phillips Brooks, the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, visited the Holy Land, and included in his itinerary was a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Three years later, and inspired by this experience, Brooks composed the lyrics of this song, and his organist Lewis Redner was asked to add music so it could be performed by the church’s children’s choir at Christmas. Neither Brooks nor Redner really expected much more from their carol, but in 1874, the Reverend Huntington, the rector of All Saints’ Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, chose to publish it in his Sunday School hymn book, ‘The Church Porch’. In so doing, he introduced the carol to a much wider audience. Gradually the song lyrics grew in popularity across the world, though a strong dichotomy in the choice of music to accompany the words would also develop. Redner’s original tune known as ‘Saint Louis’ remains the music most often used for this carol in America. However, in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, the same lyrics are sung to a markedly different tune called ‘Forest Green’.  Bethlehem is honored in this carol as the place of Christ’s birth.

Bring A Torch

The carol ‘Torch!’ or ‘Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella’, comes from the Provence region of Southern France. First published in 1553 by Émile Blémont, this ancient carol was originally a dance song, the melody of which possibly dates even further back to the 14th century. The carol tells an off-beat fictional tale associated with the Nativity in which two milkmaids, Jeanette and Isabella, go to milk their cows one day in Bethlehem, and they find the baby in the manger. They run to inform the townspeople and everyone gathers (with torches) to take a look for themselves. They have to watch very quietly to avoid disturbing the baby – hence the distinctive repeated refrains which begin with ‘Hush!, hush!’, ‘Torch!’ was translated into English in the 18th century by organist Edward Cuthbert Nunn, and today the carol is as popular in English speaking countries as in France, where re-enactments of the scene still take place annually in Provence, with villagers dressing up as shepherds and milkmaids carrying torches.

Micah 5:2  But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel,    whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

O Lord come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me.


Away In A Manger

If any carol is particularly associated with children, then it is most probably ‘Away in a Manger’. Certainly this is one of the first carols which I can remember as a child, and it is a song which remains popular because of its gentle melody and words. ‘Away in a Manger’ was first published as two verses by James R Murray in Philadelphia in the Lutheran song book ‘Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families’ in 1885A third verse (‘Be near me, Lord Jesus’) was added by John T. McFarland in 1904.   As with ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ there is a difference in choice of melody between America and the Old World. The music to which the lyrics are usually performed in America was composed and published by Murray in 1887 under the title ‘Mueller’. But by far the best known version in England is a tune composed in 1895 by William J Kirkpatrick and known as ‘The Cradle Song’.    The ‘manger’ is the cattle trough (place where food was put for them to eat) where the Christ Child was laid since there was no bed or cradle.

Go Tell it on the Mountain

Go Tell it on the Mountain’, one of a number of spirituals which were included by John Wesley Work Jr in ‘Folk Songs of the Amer­i­can Negro’, a book published in 1907. Work was a professor at Fisk University in Nashville, and he compiled his collection to preserve the music of African Americans from the slave days… the concensus view is that ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ was first written by a slave and had been sung by slaves or ex-slaves at least since 1865.   This is an evangelistic song encouraging all to proclaim the birth of the Lord.

Luke 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.

I Saw Three Ships

‘I Saw Three Ships’ is another carol like ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ with a strange title and strange symbolic references. The reference to ‘ships’ is not fully understood. An old interpretation of the original lyrics is that this refers to three genuine ships which took relics of the three wise men to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. A more common interpretation is that ‘ships’ refers to camels – the ‘ships of the desert’ – and specifically the camels which were the mounts of the three wise men. As with many other carols, numerous variations have existed with different lyrics being composed in the different regions of England, which only serves to further confuse the origins of the song. It does seem however, that the carol derives at least from the 16th century. According to ‘The New Oxford Book of Carols’, the earliest printed version dates to 1666, at a time when the sea was a major part of the life of the nation. One author suggests the excitement and elation of a ship arriving in port after a long voyage, was analogous in the song to the excitement of the arrival of the Messiah.

John 1:9-14  The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him,  who believed in his name,  he gave the right  to become  children of God, who were born,  not of blood  nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of  grace and  truth.

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts, the whole earth is filled with Thy Glory.


Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this carol is that neither lyric writer Charles Wesley nor melody writer Felix Mendelssohn, would have ever wanted their words and music to be married together in the way that they are! Charles was the prolific hymn writer brother of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and he wrote the lyrics in the year 1739. He originally called it ‘Hark! How All the Welkin Rings, Glory to the King of Kings‘ (‘welkin’ is a word for the vault of heaven, the place where stars and angels dwell). In 1753, Wesley’s colleague George Whitefield changed the title, cut some of the verses, and altered a few of the lines to produce the familiar modern lyrics which he published in a collection called ‘Hymns and Sacred Poems’. Then, nearly 100 years later in 1840, the great composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a tune for a cantata to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, and in 1855 after Mendelssohn’s death, organist Dr William Cummings chose to use this melody to accompany the old lyrics of Wesley and Whitefield. Neither Wesley nor Mendelssohn would probably have welcomed this because Wesley had preferred a slow and solemn tempo to his religious music, whilst Mendelssohn had intended his upbeat tune to be secular. And yet this fusion of two very different visions has become one of the most popular of all carols.

*The Bible actually doesn’t say angels ‘sang’ but this carol has ingrained the concept throughout the world.

Luke 2: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace good will among me.”


Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
(St. Patrick’s Breastplate prayer excerpt)

The First Noel

‘The First Noel’ is a traditional English carol which dates at least to the 17th century, and possibly to much earlier than this. According to some, the melody may in fact be an ancient French tune, but the lyrics are undoubtedly English, probably from South West England. Originally the title was ‘The First Nowell’, but much later on this was changed to the French spelling of ‘Noel’. The earliest publication which survives today is from ‘Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern’ edited by William B Sandys and Davies Gilbert in 1833. In their collection, Sandys and Gilbert arranged and added some lyrics and wrote down the melody to be used, and with some further amendments by John Stainer in 1871, this is the version we sing today.  The Noel is the announcing of Christ’s birth to the various groups  (shepherds first of all).

O Come Little Children

This is the first German carol in this list, and it was originally written as a poem ‘Ihr Kind­er­lein, kom­met’ by the Catholic priest and writer Christoph von Schmid in 1798. It was first published in 1811, and then again in 1818 in a collection called ‘Flowers Dedicated to the Flowering Age’ . Almost at the same time as Schmid was writing his poem, Johann Abraham Peter Schulz was independently creating a new melody called ‘Wie reizend, wie wonnig’ (‘How charming, how pleasant’) from a traditional tune of unknown origin. Sometime between 1830 and 1840, Schmid’s poem and Schulz’s melody were united

Luke 2:15-20:  When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


O Come let us worship and fall down before Christ, O Son of God, Who didst rise from the dead, save us who chant unto Thee, Alleluia.