History of Christmas carols in the LDS hymnbook

Published: Thursday, Dec. 22 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Hymn book Christmas songs to go with Sister Julie B. Beck Christmas memory.

John Clark

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Click here to see the complete list of Christmas carols and learn more about their origins.

"There's something in our human DNA that needs to rejoice and raise our voices in song," said Craig Jessop, dean of the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University and former music director for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. "I think it's an ancient, ancient, ancient tradition of the human race."

The word "carol," as defined by Merriam-Webster, is actually an old round dance with singing. Christmas carols, in particular, draw from deep roots of ancient celebrations of the winter solstice. Countless authors and composers have penned poems and scored tunes that have withstood time, carrying the celebration of Christmas around the world.

Jessop believes that the 14 Christmas hymns in the 1985 English edition of the LDS hymnbook are a collection of the "most universally beloved Christmas carols."

The hymnbook has been translated into 21 languages.

Karen Lynn Davidson, author of "Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages," discussed how the Christmas selection actually varies from country to country based on native Christmas traditions. The German LDS hymnbook, she says, has four Christmas hymns the English doesn't. The French hymnbook has three and the Italian version has an extra one.

In the English version, the hymns draw from a variety of origins and backgrounds. The only classified LDS Christmas hymn in the book is "Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains," coming from LDS hymnist John Menzies Macfarlane out of St. George, Utah.

"Our hymn tradition has adopted hymns from many different denominations," Davidson explained, "and the shared Christmas hymns are especially dear to us."

Christmas hymns in the LDS hymnbook can trace back to priests and hymnists that were Catholic, Methodist, Unitarian and more.

"So many of them relate the Christmas story as told in Luke," Davidson said. "Even tiny children know what happened, so there isn't a lot of room for disagreement among different denominations."

Latter-day Saint hymns aren't without some minor changes, though. Try comparing "Joy to the World" out of the LDS hymnbook to any other version.

"William W. Phelps often took other hymns and modified them," Davidson said. "He couldn't resist 'Joy to the World,' so he turned it into a millennial hymn."

Jessop recalled the first time he heard "O Little Town of Bethlehem," sung in a congregation while he was serving his mission in England. They sang it to the tune Latter-day Saints associate with "I Saw a Mighty Angel Fly" (Hymn No. 15).

It's also thanks to his mission experience that Jessop picks "Once in Royal David's City" as his personal favorite.

Jessop has a tradition of listening to the "Nine Lessons and Carols" broadcast from Kings College in Cambridge on Christmas Day. It always opens with that hymn.

Jessop said traditions like that and messages of hope, joy and wonder are especially attached to Christmas hymns. It's hard for him to imagine the season without singing these songs.

"I can't think of a time throughout the year when choral singing and hymn singing is more beloved than at Christmastime," he said.

And, he added, the tradition of carols and hymns is only enhanced if you know the backstory of the songs.

"Oh, I think it adds so much to the enjoyment, knowing what was behind it, what inspired it, why they wrote it. For me, I always want to know the circumstances under which any kind of music was written and composed," he said.

"When you know what it's all about, it makes a big difference."

Click here to learn about each of the Christmas hymns found in the English 1985 LDS hymnbook. The information is taken from "Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages" and comments from Davidson and Jessop.

Email: hbowler@desnews.com

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