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Favorite Christmas hymns

Singing and listening to Christmas carols throughout the month of December is a highlight for many Lutherans. We asked you, our readers, to tell us your favorite carols as well as some memories behind those hymns. Here’s just a sampling of what you shared.

treble clefAway in a Manger

It’s my favorite moment in the Christmas Eve worship service. The nursery-school children are carefully shepherded to the front of the sanctuary. With bright eyes and broad smiles, they begin to sing. Or should I say—shout! “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.” Proud parents and grandparents drink in every word.

“The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” Their singing carries me back more than 60 years to a piano bench next to my mother. I can’t read music yet, but I listen—mesmerized. Like a hawk I watch while her fingers dance on the keyboard. As she plays, she sings, “The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay.” She pauses, and repeats each phrase. Again and again. Patiently, tenderly, she teaches me to sing. “The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”

“Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask you to stay close by me forever and love me, I pray.” The shout-singing of the children tugs me back out of my memories. Just in time for the boy inside me to join in: “Bless all the dear children in your tender care, and take us to heaven to live with you there” (Christian Worship 340).

Glenn Schwanke, Trinity, Minocqua, Wis

Our granddaughter was born in May. I’ve been singing “Away in a Manger” to her all summer. I’m looking forward to celebrating her first Christmas with her. It is so enjoyable to see the “images” of this hymn through the eyes of a little one and then realize the words are just as meaningful to me. “Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask you to stay close by me forever and love me, I pray. . . .”

Joel Zank, Mount Olive, Appleton, Wis.

“Away in a Manger” is a new favorite for me, as I’ve just started this year singing this song to my daughter as a lullaby. I sing it to her because my husband had it as a lullaby for him when he was a child.

Lydia Prange, Amazing Grace, Dickinson, N.D.

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Where Shepherds Lately Knelt

Have you ever wished you could have been in the Bethlehem stable the night Jesus was born? I know I have! In fact, in the hymn “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” (Christian Worship 345), author Jaroslav Vajda assures us that “there is room and welcome there for me”!

To make that visit personal and possible for you and “for me,” Vajda refreshingly records the nativity in the first person. Like the shepherds who “lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,” we too “come in half belief” as “a pilgrim strangely stirred,” finding our Savior as the angels had said, “in that unlikely place,” “sweet newborn babe, how frail! And in a manger bed.”

It’s as though we really were there!

This collaboration of a Vajda text and a Carl Schalk tune has been a far-reaching favorite for Treble Choir members, Dr. Martin Luther College Christmas concert audiences, and anyone who has heard, performed, and grown to love this contemplative, contemporary hymn over the years. May it become a personal Christmas favorite for you too, as it has “for me”!

Joyce Schubkegel, St. Paul, New Ulm, Minn.

When we start to sing verse 3, the tears are falling . . . but it’s so wonderful to repeat, “for me, for me.” The best Christmas story!

Carol Egelseer, Bethany, Hustisford, Wis.

As much as I love this hymn, I can never sing it! The huge lump in my throat prevents my voice from being heard as tears stream down my face.

Anonymous, St. Paul, Saginaw, Mich.

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treble clefWhat Child Is This?

God let me celebrate 25 Christmases in Russia. “What Child Is This” (Christian Worship 344) was one of my family’s favorite carols. The Akademgorodok choir, pre-service, and other music kept us humming the carol’s haunting melody throughout the Christmas season.

Once while teaching a piano lesson in Novosibirsk, I tried to explain the terms “major” and “minor.” When I suggested that minor keys sound sad, Galina disagreed. Not sad, but thoughtful, sincere, and beautiful. “What Child Is This” is a lovely example of a minor carol that isn’t sad at all, but full of thoughtful beauty. Words and music express awe and wonder as we contemplate the mystery of God’s Son, our Savior, in human flesh.

This year we will celebrate Christmas in Durres, Albania, far away from our Siberian friends. I’m not sure if we will sing “What Child Is This” at church, but I’ll be listening to Christmas music at home. Whenever I hear that beautiful, minor melody, I’ll be thinking of our Russian brothers and sisters and praying for them.

Jennifer Wolfgramm, Durres, Albania

My middle daughter was born Dec. 5 and baptized on Christmas Day. The doctor was listening to hymns in the operating room, and “What Child Is This” was playing the moment she was born. On her Baptism day, that was one of the hymns sung by the congregation.

Shelli Wodsedalek, Bethany, Manitowoc, Wis.

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Oh Come, All Ye Faithful

Every year I look forward to singing the Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (Christian Worship 354). Maybe it has to do with the joyful excitement that sprung up inside me as a Lutheran elementary school student when the opening strains of this hymn reached my ears as I waited in line to enter the sanctuary for our annual Christmas Eve service. Maybe it has to do with the brief but grand setting composed by John Williams in the famous movie Home Alone 2 that has always captivated my musician’s ears. Maybe it relates to what some have called the most powerful chord in all of hymnody in Sir David Willcocks’ 1961 setting of the final stanza.

In actuality, I think it’s simply the hymn’s invitation to come and see a promise fulfilled—our God as man—and our hope assured, coupled with a beautiful melody and stirring refrain. Regardless of when or by whom it was written, or whatever setting is used, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is a wonderful reminder of our Savior God’s love for us!

Ryan Stangl, Watertown, Wis.

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Joy to the World

We always sang “Joy to the World” (Christian Worship 353) while walking out of the school Christmas Eve service in church when I was in grade school. Over 20 years later, they are still doing it, and my children are now singing the same hymn while walking out of their Christmas Eve service at the same church. Brought tears to my eyes the first time my children did it!

Heather Maron, St. Mark, Watertown, Wis.

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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Growing up, we had our family devotion after dinner during Advent, and afterward we would light the Advent wreath and sing all four verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (Christian Worship 327). I remember sitting around the table in the dark, my family lit only by the candles, hearing our voices blending together. It always seemed like such an ancient and holy song, and it was a treasured time for us. Today I can still sing all four verses by heart.

Lena Becker, New Life, Kenosha, Wis.

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treble clefTo Shepherds as They Watched by Night

Christmas songs that include shepherds and sheep, like “To Shepherds as They Watched by Night” (Christian Worship 335), remind me of my mission work with the indigenous tribal group, the Shawi, of the Peruvian Amazon jungle.

“What are sheep, Terry?” the Shawis asked during my village presentation on the Christmas story. My Peruvian coworker stepped in. “A sheep is like a cross between a pig and a llama,” he explained. That didn’t help much. The next question was, “What is a llama?” We would need to take the story very slowly!

“What harm can sin and death then do? The true God now abides with you.”

I told of how the God-man Jesus came to earth. One day he would hang on a cross made from a tree to pay for the sins of the world. (We used a drawing to help explain that.) It became obvious to everyone: Such great love the world has never known!

“Let hell and Satan storm and rave, Christ is your brother—you are safe.”

I never met a Shawi who had trouble believing that the devil (Supai) took the form of a serpent, slithered over to Eve, and sin soon came upon the entire human race. At Christmastime we rejoice at the tender babe who would crush the serpent’s head!

Terry Schultz, artistic development missionary for Multi-Language Productions

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Go, Tell It on the Mountain

Our son had a growth hormone deficiency, so over his first few years he was exceptionally small for his age. At the age of four, he was old enough to participate in his first children’s Christmas service. Though physically no bigger than a two-year-old, emotionally and spiritually he was a thriving four-year-old. We debated whether to involve him in the service as he was so much smaller than the other children. But he so wanted to be with his classmates. “I want to sing praise to Jesus!” he exclaimed.

The night of the worship service came, and the whole school was up in front to sing “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” (Christian Worship 361). He was so small next to all the other children. The teachers decided to have the children begin by singing the first verse. As they finished the verse, all at once we heard what sounded to us like the voice of one child singing with all his heart and every ounce of his strength, “Go, tell it on the mountain!” The same thing happened after each verse.

Following the service, he excitedly told us, “I praised Jesus, Mom and Dad, for taking away my sins! Did you hear me?” With misty eyes and joy-filled hearts, we assured him that we had. We also shared how proud we were that he had sung his praises to Jesus, his Savior, for others to hear. That’s when “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” became my favorite Christmas hymn.

Paul Lindhorst, Christ, Big Bend, Wis.

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Silent Night

When I was growing up, my family would put an artificial Christmas tree in the window at the top of the stairs. The twinkling lights greeted us as we came home from farm chores in the dark evenings between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was a magical time of year. I still can hear my father softly singing and humming “Silent Night” (Christian Worship 337) each night as we went upstairs past the tree to our beds. His singing quietly kept the true meaning of the season in our hearts and minds. Though my dad was never outspoken, his quiet faith was such a blessing and an example all through my childhood. This Christmas marks the eighth year he will be celebrating with Jesus in heaven, but the music and words of that hymn still direct my eyes to the wonder and peace found only in the true meaning of Christmas.

Dorothy Grivno, Crown of Life, Hubertus, Wis.

Top 5 Christmas Hymns sidebar

“Đêm xuống êm đềm” is how my favorite Christmas hymn begins in Vietnamese. “Silent Night” has always been the closing hymn of our cozy candlelight Christmas Eve service at Peace in Jesus Vietnamese. I play double bass with the others on guitar and piano, while also watching the joyful, candlelit faces of people who love this song and who are loved by God. I recall snow falling gently as our members gathered to sing of God’s redeeming grace. I remember the puff of smoke when little Ngọc let her hair get too close to the candle while singing of love’s pure light.

I love the international flavor of “Silent Night,” from its beginning in Oberndorf, Austria, sung at the Church of St. Nicholas on Dec. 24, 1818. I love that Father Mohr, distressed by a broken organ and the prospect of a service without music, wrote the words of “Silent Night,” which he took to his friend Franz Grüber, who composed the now-famous melody on his guitar.

The somber-sweet lyrics rang out in 1914, sung simultaneously in French, English, and German by troops during the Christmas truce of World War I. I appreciate our new Christian Worship including German, Spanish, and Mandarin versions. Over 45 languages now carry the tune about the virgin mother and child, which prompts me to treasure the thought of people from every nation and language praising God in heavenly peace.

Daniel Kramer, Peace in Jesus Vietnamese, Boise, Idaho

For an interactive Christmas hymns experience, visit forwardinchrist.net/favorite-christmas-hymns. There you’ll find more Christmas reflections as well as audio and video recordings highlighting the hymns.

Author: Multiple authors
Volume 109, Number 12
Issue: December 2022

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