Ringing in the season: Local pastors discuss their favorite Christmas carols

WORTHINGTON -- There are so many beloved traditions surrounding Christmas that give the season meaning -- must-have foods, favorite decorations, treasured customs and cherished songs. Christmas music, of course, comes in many styles and categorie...


WORTHINGTON - There are so many beloved traditions surrounding Christmas that give the season meaning - must-have foods, favorite decorations, treasured customs and cherished songs. Christmas music, of course, comes in many styles and categories, but it is the long-standing Christmas carols of old that hold the deepest meaning for most people at this time of year.

“Long-standing” is no exaggeration. In a quick search of eight beloved carols, all eight of them were written in the 1700s or 1800s. Many began as poems and had the melodies written by more musically inclined acquaintances of the poet; in some cases, the music was added much later. Some were written in Latin or German and are sung - at least in part - in their original languages to this day.
Technically speaking, “Christmas carols” are songs that tell of the birth of Christ on Christmas day and are most appropriate for the days between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6, which is Epiphany in the church calendar. “Advent carols” are the carols that cover the four Sundays prior to Christmas day and tell of the coming birth of the Savior or even of his second, future coming. “Christmas songs” would be in the category of any non-religious Christmas song.
For the purposes of this article, Christmas and Advent carols are being lumped together. Various pastors from around Worthington offered insight into their favorite Christmas music.

Far and away favorite
One of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time is “Silent Night.” Written in the spur of the moment by Father Joseph Mohr in a small Austrian village, “Silent Night” is one of those carols often sung with a verse in German.
Facing a broken organ and a rapidly approaching midnight mass, Mohr penned the words for the song, then turned to church organist Franz Gruber to set the words to music. “Silent Night” was sung for the first time to the accompaniment of a guitar.
The Rev. Jim Callahan at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Worthington finds the story behind “Silent Night” to be particularly inspiring.
“My favorite Christmas carol is ‘Silent Night,’ because it is a story of a people in crisis and the community used the gifts they had to write it,” he shared.
Callahan isn’t the only local pastor with a fondness for “Silent Night.”

“‘Silent Night’ is the ultimate Christmas carol,” said the Rev. Daren Flinck, pastor at First & Emmanuel United Methodist Churches. “Who doesn’t want to sing about radiant beams from thy holy face? Can you imagine what that must have been like? It’s a great carol of joy, peace and grace.”
For Gary Andersen, pastor at American Lutheran Church, “Silent Night” also ranks among his favorite carols.
“It’s difficult for me to name only one favorite Christmas carol - I like singing them all,” Andersen said. “Each, in its own way, conveys a timeless message about the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ are all favorites.”
Not to be left out, Brad Bonnett, pastor at Journey Ministries in downtown Worthington, also ranked “Silent Night” at the top of his list.
“My favorite is ‘Silent Night,’ because growing up we used to sing it in the church we went to, and one verse would always be in German, and I can remember my grandfather singing very fluently in German,” Bonnett said. “That’s a favorite song just because of the memories associated with it.”
Fond memories of grandparents singing in foreign languages aren’t limited to the German lyrics of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. Pastor Jonathan Larson at Indian Lake Baptist in rural Worthington cherishes memories of his family singing in Swedish.
“I could go a lot of directions with a favorite carol,” Larson mused. “One song which stands out is ‘Lyssna,’ a Swedish carol. We have a long family tradition of having a Christmas program in our own home.
“For as long as I can remember when I was growing up we had one, and we did it in our home with our own children, too. ‘Lyssna’ was always a part of the program. We would all sing it in Swedish. ‘Lyssna’ means ‘listen.’ The words were, ‘Listen, listen, hear the angel’s song.’ It harkens back to my Scandinavian roots.”

Family ties
Speaking of harkening back to one’s roots, Pastor Doug White at Worthington Christian Church can trace his roots back to the humble beginnings of a favorite carol.
“My favorite carol is ‘Joy to the World,’” explained White. “It is a hymn that proclaims that our lord has come, was born, lived and will rule the earth someday. And the man who wrote it is a very distant relative of mine.”
How cool is that?
“He’s very distant,” White reiterated, “but yes, we’re related.”
The author of the hymn is Isaac Watts, born in England in 1675 and universally acknowledged as “The Father of English Hymnody” because of his prolific offerings to the world of church hymns. “Joy to the World” is one of the most-published Christmas carols in North America.
Pastor Galen Smith of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Worthington chose the same song for one of his favorite carols.
“I would have to say that ‘Joy to the World’ is at or near the top (of my list),” he said. “I realize that in our world today there is so much sorrow, fear, stress and uncertainty that sometimes Christmas isn’t very joyful. Yet the very message of Christmas is that God comes into this world filled with sorrow, fear, stress, and uncertainty to be with us.
“We are reminded that in spite of these terrors that God is still in charge. God’s presence brings hope, peace, joy and love. ‘Joy to the World,’ maybe more than any of the other Christmas hymns, speaks of this hope we have.”
Andersen also had “Joy to the World” on his list.
“‘Joy to the World’ proclaims that Christ has come for all people and all creation,” said Andersen. And sticking with that theme, he added, “The first verse of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ ends with the words, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’ - words of promise so appropriate for today considering world events.”


Holding a tune
“Hope” is a big theme in Christmas carols - hope for the future, hope for peace.
“‘The First Noel’ just tells the entire story about shepherds, angels, wise men and the holy family bringing peace to the world that night,” Flinck explained. “Apart from the message of peace and joy it brings, it just has a very nice melody.”
Pastor Kris Stewart at First Covenant Church in Worthington chose her song in part based on the beauty of the melody as well.
“I would have to choose ‘Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,’” Stewart decided. “It is rich melodically and theologically very deep, going all the way back to Old Testament prophecy.”
Co-pastor John Stewart also chose a carol with deep theological roots.
“‘Oh Come, All Ye Faithful’ is my favorite,” he said. “It’s theologically rich, and the fact that it sometimes comes with a Latin line gives it a sense of timelessness that is a part of Christmas.
“Plus, when I was a kid you knew you’d finally arrived when you got to be a wise man and sing ‘Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,’” he laughed. “I was so excited when I was old enough to do that.”
Todd Baumann, pastor at Abundant Life Tabernacle in Worthington, chose a carol that is less often heard in churches but holds a message worth remembering.
“I’d say ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ because of the idea of giving to God our best,” Baumann said.
Pastor Scott Barber of Grace Community Church chose two unique carols as his favorites.
“I really appreciate how ‘What Child is This’ captures both the cradle and cross of Christ’s incarnation. I especially appreciate the building chorus of praise that the babe is Christ the King,” Barber explained. “‘Oh Holy Night’ captures the holistic work of Christ’s salvation, that it has effect both earthly and eternal.
“Both songs have an eerie beauty to them that captures the complexity of joy, mystery, wonder and victory in the midst of tragedy. The chorus of each song stirs my heart to wonder and praise of my savior.”

One for the road
Finally, Bonnett added one last song.
“My other favorite song is ‘Blue Christmas’ by Elvis. If that counts as a Christmas carol I don’t know, but I kind of like Elvis’s rendition of ‘Blue Christmas.’”
And on that note, we’ll leave you to enjoy your own favorite carols with - hopefully - a little more insight into why they might be your favorites.

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