by John Hutchins
It just wouldn’t feel like Christmas without hearing the carols we grew up with. More than any other time of year, Christmas reminds us of music’s power to unite the hearts and minds of a community towards Christ. But church music was not always accessible to the people. In the centuries leading up to the Protestant Reformation, Western Christians could not interact with church music in a meaningful fashion unless they were part of a select few. That began to change on Christmas day of 1521 in the German city of Wittenberg.
Christmas Music in the Early Church
It is fitting that Christmas is a musical holiday: many who witness the miracle of Christ’s incarnation break out in song. 1 The early church formed key parts of its liturgy around the benedictus (Zechariah, Lk. 1:68ff), magnificat (Mary, Lk. 1:46ff), gloria (Angels, Lk. 2:14ff) and nunc dimittis (Simeon, Lk. 2:29ff). In fact, the focal point of the Christmas celebration on December 25th became a liturgical church service (the term Christmas is a portmanteau of “Christ’s mass,” referring particularly to the Eucharistic liturgy in the Christmas service).
Evidence of Christmas services goes back to the 4th century. 2 “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is one of the oldest Christmas hymns we know (likely written in the early 400’s). “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” likely originated in the 6th century. The early church could not keep silent, but expressed the good news of great joy in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19).
Silencing the Congregation
But the ancient Christians were silenced during church. The Council of Laodicea (340-380 AD) ruled in Canon 15: “No others shall sing in the Church, save only the canonical singers.” 3 The rules purported to keep the music doctrinally pure and musically polished. The Roman Catholic Church also insisted on conducting the service in Latin, which prevented the people from understanding the liturgy.
Nevertheless, the genuine faith of plain folk still expressed itself in music. Robin Leaver points out that although congregational singing was discouraged, religious folk songs (leisen) still spread during the middle ages. Some leisen focused on particular feasts, such as Christmas. After mass, the churchgoers would empty out onto the village square, singing religious songs as they feasted. 4 Although churchgoers could neither participate in nor understand the language of medieval church music, they still sang out their faith.
The First Evangelical Christmas Service
The Protestant Reformation had its roots in the pastoral and theological concern of justification by faith by Christ’s grace. Church music quickly became a key battleground where the reformers applied their ideas. While Luther was in hiding after refusing to recant at the Diet of Worms, Luther’s associate Andreas Karlstadt continued to develop the theology and the practice of the evangelical reformation. Although he had a scholarly background, Karlstadt took a practical interest in reforming the liturgy.
In October 1521, Karlstadt petitioned Prince Frederick III to reform the traditional Latin mass, especially by singing in unison and in German (to reflect that the gospel is for all people alike). The leisen fit the bill. In fact, some churchgoers would boisterously sing leisen during Roman Catholic masses as a form of protest. 5
On Christmas day of 1521, Karlstadt led the first evangelical Christmas service. He donned secular clothes instead of vestments to emphasize that the priest was no more holy than the simplest Christian. He spoke the Eucharistic liturgy in German, so that each heart would understand the good news of “this is my body, which is given for you.” He distributed both the bread and the cup to the laity, emphasizing that all believers had full access to God. 6
Karlstadt’s anti-establishment momentum led him to reject helpful practices such as Gregorian chants, instrumentation of any kind in church, and sacred art. 7 Martin Luther returned from the Wartburg Castle in 1522 and moderated Karlstadt’s reforms. At once he set about developing the hymns and liturgy of the nascent evangelical church. He not only used his own creative talent, but encouraged professional church musicians to create new (and revise old) German hymns.
The first German hymnals were published in 1524. 8 On Christmas Eve of 1524, the city of Wittenberg banned private and unreformed masses. When Luther finally published his German Mass in 1526, it included four slots for vernacular hymns. 9 The first hymns were printed on single sheet handouts, which were cheaper for the printers. Over time, the printers developed the sophistication to publish entire hymnals. 10
The Lutheran hymnbooks of the 16th century left us with several well-known Christmas carols: 11 We Praise You, Jesus, At Your Birth (Erfurt, 1524), Good Christian Men, Rejoice (Wittenberg, 1535), From Heaven Above to Earth I Come (Liepzig, 1539) and Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (Speyer, 1599). 12
The blessed son of God only
In a crib full poor did lie;
With our poor flesh and our poor blood
Was clothed that everlasting good.
The Lord Christ Jesu, God’s son dear,
Was a guest and a stranger here;
Us for to bring from misery,
That we might live eternally.
All this did he for us freely,
For to declare his great mercy;
All Christendom be merry therefore,
And give him thanks for evermore.
Kyrie eleison. 13
The Anglican tradition also brings us famous carols such as Joy to the World (Isaac Watts, 1748), Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Charles Wesley, 1788), Angels from the Realms of Glory (James Montgomery, 1854), Once in Royal David’s City (Cecil Alexander, 1895), As with Gladness Men of Old (William Dix, 1898) and The First Noel (Gilbert & Sandys, 1931), not to mention their artful translations of many Latin, French and German Carols.
The Christ Mass Today
As we approach this 496th Christmas since the first evangelical mass, consider the rich history that brings God’s Word of salvation to us. Why do we have the text of Scripture in our own language and hymns that form God’s truth in our hearts and mouths? The Holy Spirit empowered men and women to boldly sing of Christ in spite of those who tried to silence them. They confessed the truth through faith in the Christ who was born in a stable millennia ago. Jesus likewise comes to us this Christmas in Word, song, and “in the body and the blood” (in the words of the carol Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence). 14 With the saints and angels, let us sing the eternal gospel—“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
1 In fact, the faith of Old Testament believers was always expressed and passed on through song. David and Solomon commissioned professional singers into 24 twelve-man choirs to provide music “for the service of the house of God” (1 Chron. 25:6). The Psalms especially formalize worship into song and provide a framework for Christians to meditate on God’s works and commands. Jesus sang with his apostles (Mt. 26:30). The apostles continued hymns of praise after Jesus’ ascension, both inside and outside the church (Ac. 16:25; 1 Cor. 14:26).
3 Pope Gregory (540-604) also enforced the idea that untrained lay Christians had no business singing in church. Gregory organized and regulated the liturgy, now known as the “Gregorian chant.” It still serves as the basis for the Roman Catholic mass and other Western rites. James Franklin Lambert, Luther’s Hymns, (Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1517), 4.
4 Robin Leaver, The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 20-21.
5 Ibid., 41.
6 Ibid., 39.
7 Karlstadt, Disputation On Gregorian Chant (1522), cf. Robin Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2007), 36.
8 The Erfurt Enchiridion is the earliest extant Lutheran hymnal, published in 1524. However, Leaver hypothesizes that internal evidence in Wittenberg’s 1526 Enchiridion suggests a first edition may have been published in 1524, as a companion of the 1524 Chorgesangbuch (choir song book) which was specifically for choral singing. Leaver, The Whole Church Sings, 162.
9 Ibid., 132.
10 Ibid., 81.
12 We Praise You, Jesus, At Your Birth and Good Christian Men, Rejoice contained pieces of lyrics and melody from existing medieval songs.
13 David Holbrook and Elizabeth Poston, The Cambridge Hymnal, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), #170 arr. Ralph Vaughn Williams.
14 This hymn is sometimes used as a Christmas hymn, but has its roots in the celebration of the Eucharist in the Divine Liturgy of Saint James.
John Hutchins is a Lutheran libertarian millennial Christian with a beautiful wife and three young kids. He enjoys gardening and dabbling in hobbies that usually involve making things. He works as an insurance adjuster and denies any knowledge of or responsibility for any and all superhero activities.