“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:13-14).
And so it was, the gift of Christmas music was given to the world as fitting praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, Savior and King. It could be argued that the record in Luke does not mention music or song, only referring to the “saying” or speaking the praises, but as nineteenth-century writer, Thomas Carlyle, has noted, “Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”
Author Whitney Hopler has outlined that angels are often associated with music in most religious traditions (learnreligions.com/how-angels-communicate-through-music-123829). One example to support this conclusion can be found in the Book of Mormon. As recorded, the prophet Lehi sees a vision of “God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Nephi 1:8).
The exact details describing the heavenly host praising the wonderous birth over 2000 years ago cannot be known, but one truth remains; Music has become indispensable for Christians at Christmastime. What a bleak celebration the Savior’s birth would be without the carols, hymns and noels, from lullabies to triumphant calls to join in the glad tidings. Christmas hymns are joyous. They honour the Savior without the grief associated with human frailty or the sorrow which is part of Easter music. Sacred Christmas music makes us happy. It speaks to our spirit. It is a gift from heaven.
Sacred Christmas music is uniting
Sacred Christmas music is uniting. Think about the longevity of our best loved carols. Many have been sung for hundreds of years. Children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and even great-great grandparents and beyond have worshipped with some identical yuletide hymns. Then consider that “Silent Night” has been loved as “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” “Douce nuit, sainte nuit,” and “Noche de paz, noche de amor,” plus almost endless variations throughout the world. Generations, past and present, are united, as are geographical regions. There is even a spirit that non-Christians feel.
While living in Guangzhou, China during a Christmas season, I can attest that the trappings of yuletide were seen in public places. Christmas trees were decorated and Christmas music was heard in restaurants and malls, even though sacred carols and pop Christmas songs were usually not seen as dissimilar. Much of it was spurred by commercial interests, but the atmosphere in the city became more attentive to the needs of foreigners. At this time interest was generated. One adult student asked, “What is Christmas about, anyway?” Another student complained that the carol, “Silent Night,” was so sad and gloomy. It was easy to explain that it is a well-loved lullaby honoring baby Jesus and his mother, Mary.
My husband, the bass singer, and a branch friend, a tenor, were asked to sing at the Guangzhou branch Christmas party. To practice we went to the small apartment of Susan, our close Chinese friend, because she had a piano. A few carols were rehearsed, including “Silent Night.” Susan wanted to record the music on her cell phone. In the small room, where the piano occupied most of the space, there was a hush. My husband felt the warmth and peace of the Spirit present. We all did. Sacred carols bring the spirit of hope, faith, and love, or simply put, the Spirit of Christ.
It is always a pleasure when a local carol is accepted into the broader Christian repertoire of music. Here is mention of two.
The first is our celebrated, and generally well-known Canadian Christmas hymn, “The Huron Carol” or “Twas In the Moon of Wintertime.” It has the distinction of being the oldest carol written on Canadian soil, composed by Jesuit missionary Father Jean de Brebeuf, in 1642. The haunting, gentle melody evokes a sense of sadness that underscores Brebeuf’s martyrdom while living among the Huron people. The imagery used, such as baby Jesus being swaddled in a robe of rabbit skin, has made our Canadian contribution unique and cherished.
The second is a contribution coming from a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains” (Hymns, no. 212). This contribution is not at all haunting and gentle, but joyfully exuberant, with the bass singers usually having a rollicking good time. As Karen Lynn Davidson outlines, in 1869 John Macfarlane was the ward choir director in St. George, Utah, when he needed a new carol for a special program. After being frustrated and unable to produce a suitable melody for the lyrics that a friend had provided, the following describes a small, ensuing Christmas miracle. “Then one night it came, suddenly in a dream. John was awake instantly. He shook Ann [his wife] into wakefulness, crying out, ‘Ann, Ann, I have the words for a song, and I think I have the music too” (Our Latter-Day Hymns, The Stories and the Messages , 223).
In 2020 President Russell M. Nelson urged all people to have gratitude in our lives, as a healing power in our unsettled world and for individual spiritual woes. So, let us be grateful for the marvellous gift of sacred Christmas music. When we give a gift, we love to see it used, or worn, and appreciated. Certainly, Heavenly Father likewise enjoys expressions of thanks. Sing the carols with joy. Offer a silent prayer of gratitude to the inspired composers and lyricists. Thank performers who elevate these noels beyond our own capabilities. Express gratitude for the very existence of the superlative music of Christmas. Most of all express gratitude for the birth of baby Jesus.
President Henry B. Eyring expressed his love for the music of the season at a Christmas devotional (First Presidency Christmas devotional, 2012). He testified that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and that someday we will sing songs of joy with the angels in heaven. But for me, at Christmastime, I feel as though I am singing with the angels in heaven already.
Angels we have heard on high,
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
“Angels We Have Heard on High” (Hymns, no. 203).