Monday, December 26, 2022

Loyal Lutheran Listeners Love Christmas Carols

On Friday, @IssuesEtc repeated their annual listener poll of favorite Christmas hymns and carols. Here I analyze in detail how the 20 songs selected map onto #Lutheran (and #Anglican) hymnody, as well as how this relates to the availability of recordings (a topic I discussed this month for Advent hymns).

The December 23 show demonstrated the skill of the show’s host, Pastor Todd Wilken, who soon begins his 25th year behind the microphone. He expertly merged 41 votes (from phone calls, email, Tweets and Facebook comments) for these pieces. But more generally, this episode is a masterful use of the radio (or MP3-delayed podcast) format, with brief (and mostly interesting) listener suggestions interspersed with playing recordings of the crowd favorites.

The Nominees

Formally entitled “What Is Your Favorite Christmas Hymn, and Why?” Friday’s two-hour show played 20 musical pieces. I looked each one up on Hymnary: Hymnary’s total of hymnals using the hymn (listed below) includes alternate translations. 

In alphabetical order (with the start times indicated), these 20 pieces were:

  1. “All my heart this night rejoices” [01:26:40]: translated from “Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen” by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676); 267 hymnals. 

  2. “Angels we have heard on high” [00:39:10]: translated from “Les Anges dans nos Campagnes”, an 18th century French carol; 213 hymnals. Performed by Solo Deo Cantorum.

  3. “Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light” [00:52:40]: by Johann Rist (1607-1667); 55 hymnals. Performed by Robert Shaw Chamber Singers.

  4. “For unto us a child is born” [01:13:55]: by G.F. Händel (1685-1759).  Performed by Bach Collegium Japan.

  5. “From heaven above to earth I come” [00:58:30]: translated from “Vom himmel hoch” by Martin Luther (1483-1546); 147 hymnals. 

  6. “God rest ye merry gentlemen” [01:29:50]:, an 18th century English carol; 116 hymnals. Performed by King's College Choir.

  7. “Hark the herald angels sing” [00:17:20]: by Charles Wesley (1707-1788); 1350 hymnals. Performed by King's College Choir.

  8. “Joy to the world” [00:02:35]: by Isaac Watts (1674-1748); 1814 hymnals. Performed by John Rutter & Cambridge Singers.

  9. “Let our gladness have no end” [00:24:50]: translated from “Narodil se Kristus Pán”, 15th century Bohemian carol; 10 hymnals. Performed by Children's Choirs of St. Paul Lutheran Church (Fort Wayne).

  10. “Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming” [01:36:20]: translated from “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”, 16th century German carol; 106 hymnals. Performed by LPR Choir.

  11. “O come, all ye faithful” [01:05:25]: translated from “Adeste Fidelis” by James Frances Wade (1711-1786); 924 hymnals. Performed by King's College Choir.

  12. “O Holy Night” [00:21:50]: translated from “Cantique de Noël” by Placide Cappeau (1808-1877); 45 hymnals. Performed by Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

  13. “O how Joyfully” [01:33:40]: translated from “O du Fröhliche” by Johann Daniel Falk (1728-1826); 129 hymnals. Performed by Kapelle of Concordia University Chicago.

  14. “O Jesus Christ, thy manager is” [00:47:55]: translated from “O Jesu Christ, Dein Kripplein Ist” by Paul Gerhardt; 7 hymnals. 

  15. “Of the father's love begotten” [00:31:50]: translated from “Corde natus ex Parentis” by Prudentius (348-405+); 218 hymnals. Performed by Cantorei of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne.

  16. “Praise God the Lord ye sons of men” [00:06:15]: translated from “Lobt Gott Ihr Christen” by Nikolaus Herman (c.1500-1561); 115 hymnals. Performed by LPR Choir.

  17. “Silent Night” [01:18:25]: translated from “Stille Nacht” by Joseph Mohr (1792-1848); 749 hymnals. Performed by Musica Sacra.

  18. “What child is this” [00:44:45]: by W. Chatterton Dix (1837-1898); 197 hymnals. Performed by Richard Proulx & The Cathedral Singers.

  19. “What sweeter music” [01:44:15]: by Robert Herrick (1591-1674).  Performed by John Rutter & Cambridge Singers.

  20. “Where shepherds lately knelt” [00:10:30]: by Jaroslav Vajda (1919-2008); 9 hymnals. 

Note that two are not actually hymns (and don’t appear in hymnals). One is “For until us a child is born,” the 12th movement from Part I (the Advent section) of Händel’s. The other is “What sweeter music,” a carol written by John Rutter (based on a 16th century poem) for the 1987 King’s College Cambridge Lessons & Carols service.

Of the 18 hymns, 7 were originally in German — perhaps not surprising for a radio show serving the main Lutheran denomination established by German immigrants to the U.S. Meanwhile, 2 were from French and 2 from Latin — all four of these are popular American carols, as are two of the German ones.


Some performers were announced, while in other cases Shazam identified the recording for me.

Not surprisingly, six familiar pieces were performed by professional caliber English choirs: King’s College Cambridge (3), John Rutter and his Cambridge Singers (2) and Richard Proulx and The Cathedral Singers (1). Four came from similar caliber American choirs, with one each by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Musica Sacra, Robert Shaw Chamber Singers and Solo Deo Gloria Cantroum, and one Japanese group (Bach Collegium Japan).

Five of the German Lutheran hymns were credited to US Lutheran performers, including elite choirs from Concordia Chicago and the Fort Wayne seminary. Three German hymns and one 20th century LCMS hymn were uncredited, but some sounded like the LPR Choir (credited with two performances).

Singing these Hymns at Christmas

To see how much these hymns could be sung by congregations — and to judge how “Lutheran” these hymns are — I looked at the latest hymnal of the largest U.S. Lutheran jurisdictions:

  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006)
  • Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod: Lutheran Service Book (2006)
  • Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod: Christian Worship (1993)
  • Evangelical Lutheran Synod: Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (1996)

For Anglican comparison, also searched the latest Church of England hymnal used in most English choral recordings (New English Hymnal), The Episcopal Church hymnal also used by ACNA parishes (Hymnal 1982), and the main hymnal of Continuing Anglicans (Hymnal 1940). (Note I am ignoring variations in tunes and text, which were a big deal for Advent hymns I examined earlier).

1 All my heart this night rejoices 32 545   273 360 37 115
2 Angels we have heard on high 42 96   289 368 63 116
3 Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light 25 91     378 44  
5 From heaven above to earth I come       268 358 38 123 & 124
6 God rest ye merry gentlemen 40 105         126
7 Hark the herald angels sing 27 87 26 270 380 61 125
8 Joy to the world 775 100   267 387 62 138
9 Let our gladness have no end       291 381    
10 Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming 17 81   272 359    
11 O come, all ye faithful 12 93 30 283 379 55 133
14 O Jesus Christ, thy manager is         372 40 161
15 Of the Father's love begotten 20 82 33 295 384 35 181
16 Praise God the Lord ye sons of men             148
17 Silent Night 33 111 34   363   140
18 What child is this 36 115 40 296 37067 145
20 Where shepherds lately knelt         369 54  

No surprise that the Händel (#4) and Rutter (#19) choral pieces were not in hymnals, and only a small surprise that “O Holy Night” (#12) is not.

The big surprise was the absence of two German Lutheran hymns in the German hymnal: “O du Fröhliche” (#13) was not in any current hymnal, while “Lobt Gott Ihr Christen” (#16) was only in the hymnal of the (historically Norwegian) ELS (although both tunes were used elsewhere in recent Lutheran hymnals). Also, the hymn by 17th century Lutheran Pastor Jacob Rist (#3) with its Bach harmonization seems more popular among Episcopalians than Lutherans.

The Winner: a Favorite for 16 Centuries

Thirteen of the hymns were nominated by only one caller (or correspondent), including such perennial favorites such as “Angels we have heard on high” and “Silent night.” Three received two votes; those with more were

  • 3 votes: ”Joy to the world” and “O come, all the faithful”
  • 5 votes: “Hark the herald angels sing”

Most of the reasons for the votes were either because of what the text teaches, or strong personal memories or sentiments associated with the hymn.

With 11 votes, the landslide winner was “Of the Father’s love begotten,” a 4th century hymn by Prudentius that I blogged about in 2008 (based on an Issues Etc. discussion of the hymn by a LCMS seminary Professor Arthur Just) and 2010. Of course, I’m particularly excited because the hymn was introduced into the English-language repertoire by John Mason Neale, the great hymn translator of the 19th century.

What was particularly interesting were many of the comments by those who wrote to nominate the hymn. I tried to transcribe all 11 comments, but here are some excerpts:

  • Elaine: “because of the transcendent beauty of the music and the lyrics”
  • Joshua: “text and tune are beautiful, and a long part of the church’s history”
  • Janet: “because I have always loved ancient melodies and texts”
  • David: “it’s been sung by Christians since the fourth century”
  • Jennifer: “the simplicity of the plainchant makes you focus on the fabulous lyrics which take you from the beginning of time to the end, full of the gospel message combined that with the age of the hymn and I love thinking about all the saints before who have sung the same words”
  • Brandon: “I love the beautiful simplicity of that ancient hymn. It’s a joy to hear or sing — with or without accompaniment — yet the majesty of the lyrics can still awe.  And given its age I like how by singing it, the church unites across time and space in language to honor the birth of our savior.”

To me, this is the epitome of the argument for what I call “timeless hymns” and this hymn’s place at the front of the panoply of such hymns.

I realize that those who call and nominate a hymn are not a cross-section of a parish or denomination. Still, I think it suggests that the arguments that we have to dumb down worship to reach Christian worshippers are giving up much too easily.


  • Joint Commission on the Revision of the Hymnal, The Hymnal 1940 Companion, 3rd ed. (New York: Church Pension Fund, 1951).
  • Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrot, The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)
  • Joel W. West, “Singing Together for the Advent of our Lord,” North American Anglican, December 22, 2022, URL:

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