Welcome back to Catholic Conversations, where we engage a varied group of Catholic voices around one question about Catholic life and practice.
What is your favorite Christmas carol?
Said the night wind to the little lamb. It starts simply, the whisper of grace rising through nature. The simplicity of his coming finds welcome in the poor and lowly: Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, do you hear what I hear? From the lowly the sound is amplified to reach the mighty king: Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king, do you know what I know? It’s a hearing, then a knowing. It’s a challenge: In your palace warm, mighty king, do you know what I know? A Child, a Child shivers in the cold. . . And it is hope. The heart can be receptive, rich and poor, lowly and powerful: Said the king to the people everywhere, listen to what I say. Pray for peace, people everywhere! Christmas ascends from beyond us and is offered to each of us. Do we hear? Can we begin to understand? The child shivers. Can we go to him? The shepherd speaks. Can we heed him? Do we still hope, that even kings can follow to where he is? The Night Wind of God initiates a change that can reach even one such as I.
Bing Crosby’s version can make me weep.
Writer, The Catholic Weekly; author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning
I really like the German carol Josef, Lieber, Josef, Mein. It’s a sweet, gentle lullaby, but it’s actually Mary singing to Joseph, asking him to help her rock the baby. I love the reminder that the Holy Family had real relationships with each other, and that they had to talk and figure out how to help each other.
Rev. Jan Michael Joncas
Artist-in-Residence, Research Fellow in Catholic Studies,
University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN)
I suspect that it might be dirty pool to quote one of my own compositions as my favorite Christmas carol, but it’s true: I love Stars Flung Like Diamonds. I wrote it for singing at the Mass During the Night on Christmas with its rich texts from Isaiah, Psalm 96, Titus, and Luke. I think phrases like “a poor son of Adam, born but to die,” “broken for us as the famished break bread,” and “here in our midst we touch God’s human face” connect the wood of the crèche with the wood of the Cross, bringing together the mysteries of Incarnation and Redemption. It appears on the collection Here in Our Midst, published by Oregon Catholic Press.
Stars flung like diamonds against the black sky.
Bethlehem sleeping as evening sails by.
Silent as sunrise caressing the earth,
deep in the silence a child comes to birth.
deep in the silence a child comes to birth.
Just one of many born lowly and poor,
prey for the hunger that waits at the door,
born in a stable where strangers must lie,
a poor son of Adam, born but to die,
a poor son of Adam, born but to die.
Born by the power that comes from above,
born in our flesh to give flesh to God’s love,
light for the blind, life for the dead,
broken for us as the famished break bread,
broken for us as the famished break bread.
What shall we call him, this child of our dreams:
Israel’s beacon through many dim years?
the promise of ages? the long-waited dawn?
the future we cherish in God’s only Son?
The future we cherish in God’s only Son.
Here where our hatred comes to an end,
here where the stranger is neighbor and friend
no longer abandoned by nation or race,
here in our midst we touch God’s human face.
Here in our midst we touch God’s human face.
Sr. Helena Burns, FSP
I have so many favorite Christmas carols (like everyone else)! It seems THE favorite Christmas carol of all time is Silent Night, and I can totally drink Wassail to that (or an eggnog latte). But I’m also (chest)nuts about Ding Dong Merrily On High. It’s the first Christmas song I start humming Thanksgiving night. The Huron Carol (with Iroquois refrain) has to be right up there, too—penned by St. Jean de Brébeuf. For me it’s a kind of perfect example of inculturating Christianity—the lyrics are just so right. Less religious songs always get me in the ticker: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, The Christmas Waltz, and any other sappy, saccharine, syrupy, sweet, sentimental songs. And at the risk of sounding like a cotton-headed ninny muggins, I like so many silly “secular” Christmas tunes as well: You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch is one of my favs. (Am I revealing too much here?)
Advent is looking forward (it’s ultimately about the Second Coming), but I find that Christmas is always more nostalgic for me: looking back to Bethlehem and to all my past Yuletides with family and loved ones. But it’s only because the baby grows up and opens heaven that I’m able to have hope of everlasting reunion with dear ones and banish melancholy forever. (Job 19:25)
James Martin, S.J.
Editor-at-Large, America magazine; author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything
Believe it or not, it’s Good King Wenceslas, the traditional carol about a king and a page who go out into the cold night and end up helping a poor man. Almost 20 years ago, I heard a beautiful recording by The Roches that blew me away. One of the lines goes, “Ye who now shall bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.” It’s was a vivid reminder that Jesus came not only as a poor person, but to remind us to help the poor. Christmas is a lot more about that, than about getting a good deal at Macy’s.
Editor-in-Chief, Aleteia (English edition); author of Little Sins Mean a Lot; blogger at The Anchoress
The French carols always fill me with delight, and while I’d love to say something more sophisticated, I must confess Angels We Have Heard on High is the carol that has thrilled me since I was a child. It doesn’t lend itself to bombast or overproduction. Keep it simple and you can just lose yourself in those joyful Glorias. Like Advent, the carol reminds me of the stars. Wonder, again.
Founder and author of catholicmom.com; author of A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms
My favorite Christmas carol is John Sullivan Dwight’s [translation] of the song Cantique de Noël, popularly known as O Holy Night. While I’ve always loved this song and honestly listen to it throughout the year, I fell more deeply in love with it after writing a work of children’s fiction (The Strangers at the Manger) based upon the infancy narratives. After spending so much time in lectio studying Luke 1 and 2, my favorite carol now allows the story of Christ’s birth to play out in my heart. I am particularly moved by the final verse, which to me points to the true meaning of Christmas, and the reason that Christ came into our world.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Singer-songwriter, speaker, producer
I love Gabriel’s Message—it’s somber, contemplative, and set in a minor key, which are three things I love in a Christmas or Advent piece. Call me depressive or call me reflective, but I like music that brings my heart to a quiet place at this time of the year.
Featured Image: Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 48r, The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Musée Condé, Chantilly); courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.