The Songs of Christmas


Wayne Danielson

Tarrytown Methodist Church

Dec. 15, 1996

Fellowship Class

The Songs of Christmas

Matthew 2:1-12.  After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east.  “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” they asked.  “We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.”  When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem.  He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  “At Bethlehem in Judaea,” they told him, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,

for out of you will come a leader

who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately.  He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem. “Go and find out all about the child,” he said, “and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.”  Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out.  And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward and halted over the place where the child was.  The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage.  Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.  But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.

Luke 2:1-19. And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in he city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

I love the songs of Christmas, don’t you?

When fall rolls around, and the first carols begin to be played in the stores, I’m always glad to hear them.

We were in Nashville last weekend, and I found a radio station there that had  changed its format and was playing nothing but Christmas songs.  I tuned the radio in our room at the Opryland Hotel to that station, and I noticed that most of the stores and other businesses in town were doing the same thing.  All of Nashville, it seemed, was listening to the songs of Christmas.

While Austin doesn’t have any  continuous  Christmas music during the Advent Season, on Christmas Day most of the radio stations in Austin will offer Christmas concerts, each in their own way.  The classical station will play classical Christmas music.  Our favorite, the Golden Oldies station,  will play all-time Christmas hits. The country stations will play “I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus.”   It’s fun to open presents in the midst of Christmas songs, knowing,  with some regret, that the next day everything will be back to business as usual, and we’ll be out in the stores returning gifts to the tune of “It’s a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille.”

The songs of Christmas.

Mainly we just enjoy them, don’t we?

But it seems to me that they have another purpose — their original purpose, after all — to teach us something about our faith.  And today, I would like to spend a few minutes with you listening to some songs and  seeing what they have to say to us about our relationship with God.

I should mention that carols originally were not approved by the church.  They were

not sung inside the churches.  They were considered to be too frivolous.  So they were sung outside — in the courtyards and in people’s houses and in the streets.  Some of the earliest ones, Angels We Have Heard on High,  and O Come All Ye Faithful , for example, were written in Latin or used choruses in Latin. The Latin was probably intended  to make them sound churchly,  but the songs were not of the church, they were outside the church.  They were written in the common tongue to bring joy to  the common people and to teach them deep lessons of the faith.

With the coming of the Reformation, however,  the Bible was translated into the vernacular, and the ancient Christmas songs of the people crept over the thresholds of the churches and began to be sung by church choirs and congregations. In plain English, German and French, the old songs rang out in the sanctuaries, teaching the old lessons.


Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head,

The stars in the heaven looked down where he lay,

The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

What is this song based on Luke’s story intended to tell us?

It’s main message, I think, is that God, in Jesus, is like us.  Our faith, the Christian faith, is not just for the rich.  It’s not just for the nobility.  With the birth of Christ, in a humble manger, God came closer to the common people.  Martin Luther, preaching on this theme in 1530, put it very plainly:

If Christ had come with trumpets sounding, if he had had a cradle of gold, his birth would have been a stately thing.  But it wouldn’t comfort me.  So he had to lie in a poor girl’s lap and be scarcely noticed by the world.  In that lap I can come to see Him. In this way he now reveals himself to the distressed.

Yes, he would have had greater fame, if he had come in great power, splendor, wisdom and status.  And he will come some day, in another way, when he comes to oppose the great nobles.  But now he comes to the poor, who need a savior.  Then he will come as judge to oppose those who oppress the poor now.

A  continuing theme of the songs of Christmas is the nearness of God, the identification of Jesus as one of us, a person not unlike you and me.  During his entire life,  Jesus was never Jesus son of Joseph, he was always Jesus of Nazareth, a boy of the town, but God loved him anyway, just as he loves you and me.  The message of Away in a Manger, so clearly presented in Luke’s gospel, appears as a continuing theme in many other songs of Christmas:

What child is this?

The Little Drummer Boy

In the Bleak Midwinter

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

Jesus Our Brother Kind and Good


Star of wonder, star of might

Star with royal beauty bright

Westward leading, still proceeding

Guide us to thy perfect light.

A second theme of the songs of Christmas is the star of Bethlehem.

The wise men saw this star rising and followed it, eventually coming to the place where Jesus was.  The story of the star is Matthew’s story, and it is intended, as much of Matthew’s book is, to show Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture and wisdom, the long-awaited messiah.  Accordingly, this story has kings, and intrigue, and disputes, and dreams and prophecies.  The underlying message of these songs is that God, through the star and many other signs, is always available to lead wise people in the right direction, which is in the direction of Christ.  We Three Kings is perhaps the main example of a star song.  With its strong rhythm reminiscent of a camel’s stride, We Three Kings reassures us that we too can find God if we keep our eyes on the star of Christ. Other star songs might include:

The First Noel

As With Gladness Men of Old

Light of the World, We Hail Thee

Brightest and Best


Hark the herald angels sing,

“Glory to the new born king;

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled!”

Joyful all ye nations rise,

Join the triumph of the skies,

With th’angelic host proclaim,

“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,

“Glory to the new-born King!”

Angels as God’s messengers to men appear in many of the Christmas songs.  When I was growing up, angels were not much in favor. We tended not to believe in them.  The angel songs came from an earlier, more primitive era,  when people needed tangible proof of God’s presence in the world.  Nevertheless, the idea of angels has persisted, and in our own time, the last ten or fifteen years or so, angels have come into vogue again.  Now, wherever you look, you see angels.  Angels are in many movies this year.  Angel paintings and sculptures are on display in all the stores.  Books on angels fill the shelves of the bookstores.  We are surrounded by clouds of angels.  I suspect that the truth is that the angels have always been there.  It simply takes a particular state of mind to see them.  It doesn’t require a lot of high-powered intelligence — the shepherds, after all, were not rocket scientists.  But they could see angels all right and could understand them well enough to follow their directions to the Christ child.  Perhaps the present abundance of angels is an indicator to all of us that one finds the Christ not so much by depending on the mind, but by depending on the heart.  Other angel songs would include:

Angels from the Realms of Glory

There’s a Song in the Air

Angels We Have Heard on High

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night


Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright

Round yon virgin,

Mother and child.

Holy infant so tender and mild

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Birth is a common enough event.  Yet every birth is something of a miracle.  I remember when the young animals were born on the farm.  Their mothers took such pride in what they had accomplished.  A mare would bring her new-born colt out for the family to see.  Her whole attitude seemed to be: “Look at what I have done!  Isn’t this a miracle!  Have you ever seen such a beautiful baby?”  All the farm animals were the same — pleased to show off their progeny.  Human beings are no different.  They take great pride in the miracle of birth.  I can remember the birth of each child:

° Matthew after such a long labor finally coming into the world.  And the nurse opening his diaper to show me that I had a son. 

° Ben making his appearance within minutes after we reached the hospital. 

°  Grace, coming so fast she had to be put in a closet, away from the other babies, because her mother hadn’t been properly prepped. 

° And Paul, a surprise baby, not exactly scheduled, but bright and cheerful from the moment of his arriving, a delight to us all. 

Each birth was a miracle and a reminder that miracles do happen all the time, if we know where to look for them.  Other songs that emphasize the miraculous nature of the nativity and help us link our own lives to the divine include:

O Holy Night

Ave Maria

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Gentle Mary Laid Her Child

Lulay, Thou Little Tiny Child

Love Came Down at Christmas


Joy to the world! the Lord is come:

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare him room,

And heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the world reflects the final enduring theme of the songs of Christmas and that is simply the world’s joy at receiving a savior.  It is a joyful and comforting thing to know that we are not alone on this forbidding planet.   We are not victims on the mean streets of our towns and cities.  We are children of the Most High, and we have a savior in Jesus Christ  who will always be with us.  We are linked to God all our life, and, no matter what happens to us, no matter what troubles and pain we are asked to endure, we know we are always held in God’s protecting hands.   The deep joy this knowledge brings energizes our lives and gives us the confidence we need to act boldly for what is right.  Other Christmas songs of pure joy in having a savior include:

Go Tell It on the Mountain

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella

I Saw Three Ships on Christmas Day.


The songs of Christmas, how we love them.

And yet there is more here than the simple enjoyment of melody and harmony.

The songs of Christmas were intended to teach us, and they do teach us, some of the main messages of our faith. 

° The songs of Christmas teach us that the almighty God is near us, and he is very much like us — he is not a distant and unreachable and unknowable being.  In the birth of Jesus we have the proof:  Jesus came to us as a poor child, born in a manger.

° The songs of Christmas teach us that we are not lost; we  have a star to guide us.  In the story of the life of Jesus we can find the way to reach the Holy One.  All we have to do is look for the star that leads toward God.

° The songs of Christmas teach us that we live surrounded by angels — God’s messengers watching over us, caring for us, protecting us.  The glory of God is all around us all the time.  If we but look, we can find it.  The peace of God is available to us all the time.  If we wish, we can live our lives in that peace.

° The songs of Christmas teach us that we live surrounded by miracles, not the least of which is the miracle of life itself.  We owe reverence and respect to one another because we all are miracles of the creative power of God.  In Mary and her child, we see that miracle repeating itself Christmas after Christmas.

° The songs of Christmas teach us that we ought to live our lives in joy.  Oh, we will  have troubles enough, no doubt of that.  But behind the troubles — beyond the troubles — lies joy.   We have joy in our deepest being because we know we have a savior in Christ Jesus, an eternal advocate, who stands at the right hand of God, guiding and protecting us in all that we must do and all that we must endure.

The songs of Christmas do indeed teach us many of the main things, the important things,  we need to know about how we ought to lead our lives.  That’s why I’m always glad to welcome them back.  I’m just one of those people who need a lot of teaching.  You might say, I Need a Little Christmas every year just to remind me who I am and who God is and how we ought to get along together.