Monday, December 14, 2009

Centuries of Christmas hits

A new list of the most popular Christmas carols has been posted by It is based on the Dictionary of North American Hymnary, an index of 4876 hymnals published in North American from 1640-1978. The list is supplemented by “about 40” hymnals published since then.

Here are the first 25 of the 29. The #1 entry was mentioned in about a third of the hymnals, and the first seven were mentioned by at least 10%:
  1. Joy to the world!
  2. Hark! the herald angels sing
  3. Brightest and best of the sons of the morning
  4. When shepherds watched their flocks by night
  5. It came upon the midnight clear
  6. O little town of Bethlehem
  7. Angels from the realms of glory
  8. Silent night, holy night
  9. O come, all ye faithful
  10. As with gladness men of old
  11. Come, thou long-expected Jesus
  12. Away in a manger
  13. O come, O come Emmanuel
  14. Thou dist leave thy throne
  15. Calm on the listening ear of night
  16. The first Noel the angel did say
  17. We three kings of Orient are
  18. All my heart this night rejoices
  19. There's a song in the air
  20. Wake, awake, for night is flying
  21. Angels we have heard on high
  22. Good Christian men, rejoice
  23. Shepherds, rejoice! lift up your eyes
  24. What child is this who, laid to rest
  25. From heaven above to earth I come
The list seems a little odd, but my guess is that the sheer number of pre-1900 hymnals skews the results away from modern tastes (not necessarily a bad thing.)

Last year Leland Ross used a similar exercise (with a smaller and more recent list of hymnals) to select his list of 16 favorite Christmas hymns. The differences might say something about the shifting of tastes, although a chronological sort on the DNAH results would do this more consistently.

From the DNAH list, two hymns Ross didn’t have were “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning” and “As with gladness men of old.” Meanwhile, his list ranked “What child is this” and “Good Christian men, rejoice” much higher than the multi-century version.

One Christmas hymn Ross mentioned that was completely absent from the DNAH list: “Go tell it on the mountain,” first published as a “Negro spiritual” in 1907 — although the refrain predates its publication. Personally, I think adding this hymn (#99) is one of the few improvements in Hymnal 1982 — as opposed to “Good Christian friends, rejoice” (ouch) or its mangling of “Hark, the herald angels sing.”

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