A Christmas Hymn Wishlist

I’m always curious to hear what people think about music in the Church, particularly in recent years with the forthcoming new hymnbook.  Usually this time of year is insanely busy for me—with the bell choirs that I’ve been a part of, ward Christmas parties and programs, etc., around now I’m used to an endless series of rehearsals and performances of Christmas music.  This year has been much more quiet, but both Christmas music and the recent update on the forthcoming hymnbook and children’s songbook have still been on my mind.  As such, I’d be interested to hear what is on everyone’s wish list for the Christmas sections of the new music collections of the Church.  What Christmas hymns and songs would you like to see included and why?  Are there other changes with the Christmas music of our hymnal or children’s songbook that you think should happen?

I’ll share some of my wish list while I’m at it.  There are several Christmas hymns that are currently included in Latter-day Saint hymnals outside of the English language one that I would love to see be included in the new hymnal.  “Sing We Now of Christmas,” “He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child,” and “What Child Is This?” stand out among them for me.  I also would not object if “Stars Were Gleaming” (or the older text associated with the tune, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”) migrated from the children’s songbook to the hymnal.  And, of course, there are a number of Christmas songs that I would enjoy having in the hymn book of the Church, such as “Sussex Carol” (“On Christmas Night”), “Go, Tell It On the Mountain,” and “O Holy Night,” among others.  And, to be honest, there are a couple hymns in the current hymnal that I could do without (I don’t care for “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” or “With Wondering Awe”).

The biggest change I would like to see, however, is to include at least a couple Advent carols and songs in the hymnal.  Advent is not universally embraced or even known within the Church, but it has been discussed by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and some members with exposure to more traditional Christian churches or cultural areas will know about it.  My personal opinion is that it would be worthwhile to include a few Advent songs, both to provide greater exposure and opportunities to celebrate Advent in the Church and to embrace those cultural areas that have a stronger tradition of celebrating Advent (the Nordic countries and central Europe, for example).  These might include some well known songs (like “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” or “Sleepers, Awake!”); some that have already been published in Latter-day Saint hymnals or other Church publications (“Watchmen! Tell us of the Night” from the 1841 Nauvoo hymnal, “Advent” from the Swedish children’s songbook, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” in the Swedish hymnbook, and “Come, Lord Jesus” from “The Savior of the World” musical performed at Temple Square stand out to me in that regard); or even some lesser known ones (I’m fond of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” and “Comfort, Comfort You My People”).  You could say that having a couple Advent songs may prove advantageous to the Church.

The children’s songbook is honestly where I see the most room for improvement when it comes to Christmas.  There are 17 Christmas songs in the current English edition.  Of these, there are three that I truly love (“Samuel Tells of the Baby Jesus,” “Stars Were Gleaming,” and “He Sent His Son”) and three more that I like (“Away in a Manger,” “Mary’s Lullaby,” “Picture a Christmas”), while the remaining 11 songs either fall into the categories of being completely unknown to me or songs I don’t particularly care about.  There are a few songs from the Church’s current non-English children’s songbooks that I wouldn’t mind to have included, such as “Star Bright,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “What Child is This?,” the Czech songCarol of the Shepherds,” and (as mentioned above), “Advent.”  And there are other pre-existing Christmas songs like “A La Rue” (“O Sleep, Dear Holy Baby”) or “O Come, Little Children” that I think would work in our children’s songbook.  So, those are my thoughts and wish list for Christmas music in the Church music collections moving forward.

As far as what is likely to happen, there are a few things that I suspect.  I think that the Christmas section of the hymnbook isn’t going to see dramatic changes.  There are 14 Christmas hymns in the English hymnal, and of these, 8 seem to be in the core 100 hymns that are required in almost every hymnbook the Church publishes (“Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Away in a Manger,” “Joy to the World,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”).  It’s highly likely that at least those 8 will be included, if not all 14 that are in the English hymnal.  If any of the 14 do get dropped, based on the SingPraises.net survey of how frequently hymns are sung in sacrament meeting, “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks,” was sung least frequently, followed by “Once in Royal David’s City,” “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” and “With Wondering Awe.”  As what seem to be the least-used Christmas hymns, these four are probably most likely to go to the chopping block.  All told, however, there are 48 Christmas hymns included in Latter-day Saint hymnals that are not in the current English hymnal, and it is very likely that at least a couple of these will be included in the next iteration for the worldwide church.  Of these, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Fair Is Creation” (AKA “Beautiful Savior”), “O Ye Joyful People,” “What Child is This?,” “He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child,” and “A Babe is Born in Bethlehem” are included in multiple translations (5, 5, 3, 3, 2, and 2 languages for these hymns, respectively).  My guess is that these six hymns are going to be the top contenders for being added to the new hymnbook’s Christmas section.  The children’s songbook is a bit more of a wildcard to me (partly because I’m less familiar with that as a topic compared to the hymnals), so I don’t have much in the way of speculation there.  Regardless, we still have a few years before we get to see what happens to both the hymnal and the children’s songbook.

Now that I’ve rambled on about Christmas (and Advent) music, sharing my wish list and speculations for the forthcoming music collections, I’d love to hear yours.  As asked above: What Christmas hymns and songs would you like to see included and why?  Are there other changes with the Christmas music of our hymnal or children’s songbook that you think should happen?

23 comments for “A Christmas Hymn Wishlist

  1. I would love to have “Were You There on That Christmas Night?” added. I also like many of your suggestions, my favorite of which is “O Come, O Come Immanuel.” Really, I’d just like it if this section of the hymnbook were expanded, because I love Christmas music like I love no other type of religious music. If I were to vote for one to drop, I’d pick “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which has a lovely message, but feels super boring to me musically.

  2. Britain’s favourite top ten carols can be heard here: https://youtu.be/CHj_q7ttDCE
    You will not we have very different melodies for “it came upon a midnight clear” and “o little town of Bethlehem”.

    My top request for the new hymn book for Christmas is “O come o come Emmanuel”, though I love quite a few of those you’ve mentioned. And for the children’s song book the song we always sang in school “Little Donkey” I have fond of vague memories of infant school and playing coconut shells to this..

  3. Put me down as a vote for keeping “With Wondering Awe” and “Once in Royal David’s City”. The latter really is beautiful, and a particular favorite in Britain. If it’s less sung in our congregations, I suspect it’s because it’s moderately difficult for organists, but I don’t think that’s enough to justify its removal. I like “With Wondering Awe”, which is bright and upbeat (when played at the right tempo, of course), but there is a more simple reason it may keep its place in the hymnbook – it’s short and takes only a half a page.

    For new music, I think the hymnbook is the place for tried-and-true classics, and the children’s songbook for newer and less proven music. The main issue with several proposed additions to the hymnbook either is that they’re more suited for an experienced choir than for a general congregation (“O Holy Night” is firmly in this category – to be blunt, it’s too difficult for the vast majority of untrained singers); or it doesn’t have a specifically Christian message (“We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, etc.) That does leave some good candidates – “What Child Is This?” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” are worth considering. But it’s the children’s songbook or the separately published supplements that can be more creative in their selections.

  4. When Joseph Went to Bethlehem in the children’s songbook is the only Christmas song we have about Joseph. I second the appreciation for He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child and O Come, O Come, Emanuel. I really like Mary’s Boy Child, especially if we could retain the calypso flavor. ? And as an organist…I don’t think Once in Royal David’s City is harder than Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains with its 8th note runs in the pedal. I think it’s mostly just less familiar.

  5. Ziff, I agree that I’d love to see this section of the hymnbook expanded (Christmas music is the best), but also I’m in favor of a larger hymnal in general. I hadn’t even thought about “Were You There on That Christmas Night?”, but that is a nice hymn.

    Hedgehog, we do have the British tune for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in our hymnbook, but use it for rarely-sung “I Saw a Mighty Angel Fly” (15). I’ve slipped that into prelude during Christmastime a few times over the years, though I doubt very many people over here in Utah noticed or understood.

    Zerubbabel, I’ll agree with you on keeping “Once in Royal David’s City” in the hymnbook. I do love that hymn. I still disagree on “With Wondering Awe,” but that’s probably more due me being sick of it from it being overused in the ward choir I grew up singing in than anything about the hymn itself. As a side note, in the post, I was suggesting “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for the children’s songbook (as it is in the Korean edition the Church currently publishes), where I feel like it’s less necessary to have a specifically Christian message (i.e., “Once There Was a Snowman”). In reflecting on it, though, you’re right on “O Holy Night”, even though I love the song. It is probably too difficult for inclusion in the hymnal–both on the vocal side and probably for an accompaniment part as well.

    PWS, I’d love “Mary’s Boy Child” (or “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy”) if we could keep the calypso flavor. That would be a lot of fun.

  6. The lyrics for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” work very nicely with the (much better) music for “O Love that Glorifies the Son”.

  7. Good Christian Men Rejoice!

    My wife was once told that by our Bishop she couldn’t sing it in sacrament meeting because it was too…joyous?

  8. The traditional English version of It Came Upon A Midnight Clear is possibly my favourite Carol: https://youtu.be/KtV477Cqni0
    Which makes having to sing the sickly version in the current hymn book all the more painful. Switching the tunes for that and O Little Town Of Bethlehem (as Hedgehog points out) would be an easy win for improving the current selection. At least for me :)

  9. In my last ward we had a few Tongan members, and the elders quorum sang Folofola mai ?a S?s? which is in the LDS hymnbook in Tongan (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/music/library/hymns/thus-sayeth-the-lord?lang=ton) but not in English. I really grew to love that hymn and would love to see it in the new “global” lds hymnbook.

    We recently moved to Warsaw, Poland, and we have been singing Polish carols from the Polish LDS hymnbook that are not in the English hymnbook that have been really beautiful. I’d love to see some of the lively Polish carols like Dzisiaj w Betlejem (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/hymns/today-in-bethlehem?lang=pol), Przybie?eli do Betlejem (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/hymns/the-shepherds-ran-to-bethlehem?lang=pol) in the new hymnbook.

    I also love the idea of including some Advent hymns.

  10. I’m really hoping for the addition of “Come, Lord Jesus” — which you mentioned above. (It was on my list of suggestions I sent in — that and for Sacrament Songs I really want “Behold the Wounds” — I suggested 18 or so, but if these two get in, I’d be solidly satisfied).

  11. Chad, yes I generally do play 15 when we sing O Little Town of Bethlehem. The melody is also why we never actually sing hymn 15. Singing such a common carol tune outside of Christmas just feels too weird.

    On Britain’s top ten carols I don’t understand why O Holy Night takes the number 1 spot. That particular carol has never appealed to me.

    Definitely agree with Ziff on dropping I Heard the Bells.

    Some of those less well known songs in the children’s songbook I really like – There was starlight on the hillside .. that sounds lovely in parts, also The shepherds Carol (round).

  12. There are a lot of carols I would like to see considered for inclusion in the new hymnal. Here are two or three that I would like see but probably won’t make the cut and they are Some Children See Him and Christ in a Strangers Guise, both by Alfred Burt and an Appalachian carol Wonderous Love. Being as there was a churchwide call for new submissions, who knows that there might be some new submissions in the Christmas category that might make it into the collection that might blow everyone away.

  13. Agree with the OP and many commenters above on adding ‘What Child Is This’, ‘The Sussex Carol’, ‘Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming’, and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ to our hymnbook – we need some calypso rhythm!
    We have a very old, much re-copied copy of Star Bright that my grandma would ask us to sing every year, so that one has fond memories for me.
    ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ is one of my favorite Advent hymns, and has the advantage of being so very old that copyright has no meaning. Also, it’s just a beautiful example of plainsong and if all the verses are sung, gives us so many aspects of Christ’s character and attributes. Another I’d like to see is ‘Angels From the Realms of Glory’, because while I love ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’, the other has better lyrics in my opinion.
    I actually just barely found ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’ today from a different source, but I already want to learn it.
    From or for the children’s songbook, I’d hope they keep ‘Mary’s Lullaby’, which I vastly prefer to the more popular ‘Mary, Did You Know?’, because of course she knew what her baby was going to become – that was the point of the Annunciation.
    ‘Still, Still, Still’ would be nice to include, as well as ‘What Sweeter Music’ and the Wexford Carol and ‘Carol of the Birds’. But while I would love to see all of these and more in one place (preferably our hymnbook), I realize this is a faint hope. Still, there’s some really delightful carols and Advent songs out there.

  14. No love for “I saw three ships”? The TABCATS did a great version that I enjoy.

    But if you want to drop “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” – I counter with Josh Groban’s recording. Sure it will never rise to that quality as a congregation, but please let us continue to try!

  15. That is a great one, Wondering. “Hitsuji Wa” (“Sheep Fast Asleep”) is another non-European Christmas hymn that could be included (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQtAX5LkZws).

    Thor, I love “I Saw Three Ships,” particularly the Mack Wilberg arrangement (and I’ve performed that one several times over the years, both as a choir singer and as a bell ringer). I just don’t think the lyrics are a great match for what is appropriate for our hymnbook, particularly since I’m not aware of ships being part of the traditional nativity scene.

    E.C., we actually did have “Angels From the Realms of Glory” at one point (though with the standard tune, not the same one that “Angels We Have Heard on High” uses, as in the Mack Wilberg arrangement), but it’s in a tie with “Good Christian Men Rejoice” as being one of the hymns to spend the shortest time in our official hymnbooks (both were removed after only two years due to some Church politics, though I wouldn’t mind having them both return). Also, pretty much anything is better than “Mary, Did You Know?” in my opinion (but I have a personal vendetta against that song).

    All the talk about “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” reminds me of a story Craig Jessop told in a workshop I attended about how we need to be thinking about the words when we cut out verses in hymns. He was leading music in his ward, but they were short on time, so he suggested they only sing three out of five verses of the hymn. They did so, and he was very embarrassed when he realized this made them conclude the meeting with “For hate is strong and mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

  16. Try this version of “I Heard the Bells…” Arrangement by a good friend, Rob Gardner and sung by my Son-in-Law, Jordan Bluth. Love it.

  17. Chad, you’ve done an excellent job!
    I second all your suggestions. I’d just add “Still, still, still” and “In the bleak Midwinter”, but would need to balance out the quietude with a few more joyful ones.

    Ps- I agree 100%, Mary did you know is infuriating. Yes. She did. And every question asked in the song is answered in the scriptures, if people would read them.

  18. It will never happen (not a lot of Appalachian hymns found in LDS hymnbooks), but I really love I Wonder As I Wander.

  19. Totally agree. Would love to see What Child Is This? in the hymnbook and many of the others mentioned but given that they plan to reduce the size of the hymnbook (as I understand it), I’m not hopeful.

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