The first specific Christmas hymns we know of appeared in 4th century Rome. Composed in Latin, one such hymns is known as Veni Redemptor Gentium, written by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan who lived 340-397AD. Saint Ambrose wrote statements of theological doctrine surrounding the birth of Christ, the Incarnation of God in verse form. The St. John Church's video of this Gregorian Chant is linked below.
Veni, Redemptor Gentium
O COME, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every age in wonder fall:
such birth befits the God of all.
Begotten of no human will
but of the Spirit, Thou art still
the Word of God in flesh arrayed,
the promised fruit to man displayed.
Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light
where endless faith shall shine serene
and twilight never intervene.
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
whose advent sets Thy people free,
whom, with the Father, we adore,
and Holy Ghost, for evermore. Amen.
Later in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Christmas "Prose" was introduced in North European monasteries, developing under Bernard of Clairvaux into a sequence of rhymed stanzas. Traditionally, carols have often been based on medieval chord patterns. This is what gives them their uniquely characteristic musical sound. It was during the 13th Century under the influence of Saint Frances of Assisi the singing songs specifically about the Advent or Coming of Christ grew popular during the Christmas season. The Piae Cantiones is a collection of Christmas carols dating back to Theodoricus Petri, Finnish believer in 1538. This collection was given as a gift to John Mason Neale who translated several songs and published them in 1853. The songs include, Here is Joy For Every Age, Christ was born on Christmas Day, Good Christian Men, Rejoice, and Good King Wenceslas. It is thought the song O Come All Ye Faithful made popular in the 18th century may have lyrics originated as early as the 13th century. Christmas Carols gained great popularity after the Reformation and grew as publication became easier. Songs like God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, The First Noel, I Saw Three Ships, and Hark the Herold Angels Sing were published in 1833.
Completely secular Christmas songs emerged much later with Jingle Bells & Deck the Halls, but these songs weren't made popular until the late 1940s-50s when a big push was made by the commercial industry and Hollywood to increase retail sales.
Whatever Christmas Carol you are enjoying this year, may you know and remember the true reason of why the world sings... to celebrate God in the flesh being born to take away the sins of the world.
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