The forgotten Christmas carol verses

December 23, 2013

Faith and Reasons

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Christmas carols make the season joyful. They also help us reflect on our faith.
Photo/di_the_huntress. Licensed under Creative Commons.

If you think you know Christmas carols by heart, try singing all the verses.

It seems like many Christmas carols and hymns have been distilled into short tunes that are strung together to form instrumental “carol medleys.”

I hear them on the radio, in doctor’s offices and in stores. Even at Mass we rarely sing more than a couple verses of any carol.

It’s too bad because there’s a lot more to many of these carols than we often hear at Christmas. Sing all the verses and there is sometimes a real story connecting the incarnation with Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, or a story of someone’s struggle.

“We Three Kings of Orient Are” is a familiar carol–until we go past the first verse and chorus. The next verses describe each of the kings’ gifts. Have you ever heard this verse on the radio?

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gath’ring gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

That’s pretty heavy for a Christmas carol but it was Christ’s life. The carol does have a happier ending:

Glorious now behold him rise,
King and God and sacrifice;
Heav’n sing “Hallelujah!”
“Hallelujah!” earth replies.

The final verse of “O Holy Night” tells of Jesus’ mission and of his victory:

Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love, and his gospel is peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise his holy name.
Christ is the Lord, oh, praise his name forever!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

When we sing  “O Little Town of Bethlehem”  we’re probably thinking about “the silent stars going by” not our redemption. We don’t often get to the fourth verse:

O holy Child of Bethlehem!
descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.

Probably the most personal story I’ve heard in a Christmas carol is in “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The lyrics of this carol are taken from a poem by American poet  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in 1863.

The opening verse is familiar:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But the fifth and  following verses are not so Christmasy. Longfellow wrote the poem after his wife died and his son left to join the Union army during the Civil War:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

I waited to see if Longfellow would regain his hope. Thankfully he did:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Besides offering the joy of the season, Christmas carols tell a real story. They help us reflect on Christ’s birth and life. If you want to know more about the forgotten verses, check out this large collection of lyrics and recordings of Christmas carols and hymns.

Have a Blessed Christmas!

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About Susan Klemond

I'm a freelance writer who enjoys writing about the Catholic Faith, local issues and people. I love the challenge of learning about the Church and discovering the reasons behind her teachings.

View all posts by Susan Klemond
  • TCSEditor

    Great post, Susan! There’s a lot to reflect on here during this Christmas season.

    • Susan

      Thank you!