Here’s a few, little-known facts about Christmas
Did you know that Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870? In fact, Congress actually met in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution. (Furthermore, did you know that Christmas wasn’t declared a state holiday in Virginia until 1890?)
Did you know that in 1822 the United States Postal Service wanted to outlaw the delivery of Christmas cards because the overwhelming number of seasonal mail put such an unusual strain on their resources and manpower?
Did you know that from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was completely outlawed in Boston, and law-breakers were fined five shillings (approx. $0.40) for celebrating it?
And did you know that the singing of Christmas carols — as we now know them — was abolished in England by the Puritan Parliament in 1649? It was under the leadership of the famous Oliver Cromwell that this was done.
As a result of Parliament’s ruling, Christmas hymns and carols were scarce between the late 17th and the early 18th Century in England. Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” was one of the few written during that period that became popular wherever Christians gathered during Advent. After Cromwell died in 1658 and the monarchy was soon restored, the former decision to prohibit the singing of Christmas carols was abandoned. Thus, hymns written to honor the birth of Jesus began to appear and have continued to this day.
Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” is one of the most popular Christmas carols today. It can even be heard in both of the classic films It’s a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas. But did you know that the carol is completely different today than originally written? Did you know that both Wesley’s words and tune have been changed?
The first line of the hymn originally read, “Hark! how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings.” Welkin is an old English word that means “vault of heaven.” In 1753, George Whitefield, a famous English preacher, rewrote the first line of the carol into the modern version, “Hark! the herald angels sing — Glory to the newborn King!” And this, of course, is how we sing it today.
Despite Whitefield’s presumption that angels sing, the song has remarkable theological accuracy, depth, and richness not often found in carols. (Bible students love to point out that nowhere in the Bibles does it ever record that angels actually sing. It doesn’t say they don’t sing, it just never says they do sing. Confused? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. I still think that Whitefield’s version has a better ring to it. Try singing and rhyming the phrase, “Hark the herald angels mentioned…”)
If you listen closely to the lyrics you’ll notice that the carol gives a full explanation of the gospel. We often sing just three verses of the song, but there is a fourth, lesser known, verse that exists. The fourth verse says:
Come, Desire of nations come, Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the Woman’s conquering Seed, Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface: Stamp Thine image in its place;
Second Adam, from above, Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.
However, what this song had in rich lyrics, it greatly lacked in melody. Wesley insisted that his hymn be sung to a slow, somber, and “boring” religious tune. It wasn’t until the words were paired with a more upbeat melody that it became popular.
The current tune for this carol was composed by Mendelssohn, who himself was a Messianic Jew. It is from the second chorus of a cantata he wrote in 1840. The cantata was originally written to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. Mendelssohn strictly warned that his composition was to only be used in a purely secular manner. However, in 1856, long after both Wesley and Mendelssohn were dead, Dr. William Cummings ignored both of their wishes and joined the lyrics by Wesley with the music by Mendelssohn for the first time. As a result, the modern version of this beautiful, gospel-centered carol was born and generations have been singing it ever since.