Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'On Christmas Night'

History of Hymns: 'On Christmas Night'

By C. Michael Hawn

Luke Wadding
Luke Wadding

“On Christmas Night”
Traditional English
Worship & Song, 3064

On Christmas night all Christians sing,
to hear the news the angels bring:
news of great joy, news of great mirth,
news of a merciful King’s birth.

Hymnologist Paul Westermeyer notes that this is a “‘Wexford carol’ (though not the carol most often called the ‘The Wexford Carol’” (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 50). The text and the tune of this favorite carol have distinct backgrounds, though the exact origins of each are impossible to discern. The first printed version of an earlier form of the text appears with the ascription, “Another short Carroll for Christmas day” in A Smale Garland of Pious and Godly Songs, Composed by a devout Man, For the Solace of his Freinds [sic] and neighbors in their afflictions (Ghent, 1684) by [Bishop] Luke Wadding (No. XXI, pp. 40–41), one of the Wexford Wadding family members. The phrase, “Composed by a devout Man”—undoubtedly Wadding—leaves some ambiguity about the authorship of the texts contained in A Small Garland since, according to the practice of the time, the collection did not always indicate the source of each selection.

Lutheran hymnologist Samuel Eatherton suggests that the carol and, indeed, the collection may reflect the plight of Wadding and his fellow Irish Catholics during the second half of the seventeenth century due to the English invasion of Ireland (1649–1653) under Oliver Cromwell, leaving monasteries and towns in ruins. The persecution reached its zenith in a plot contrived by Protestants in 1678 to falsely accuse British Catholics of plotting against Charles II. Many Catholics were executed, and all Irish bishops, archbishops, and clergy were banished that year. Wadding (1628–1691) avoided banishment at this time since he was not yet consecrated Bishop of Ferns, though, in his poetry, he refers to being twice banished (Herl, et al., 2019, p. 124).

The original second stanza may be an oblique reference to this persecution:

Angels with joy sing in the Ayre
To him who can their ruins repaire
And prisoners in the Limbs rejoice
To heare the Ecchos of their voice
And how on Earth can man be sad
The Redeemer is come to make them glad
From sin and hell to set them free
And by their libertie.

Interestingly, the ascription that heads the next carol in the collection more directly references the persecution of the time: “On Christmas day the year 1678 when the Clergie were bansh’d in the time of the plot.” The first stanza is explicit:

This is our Christmasday
The day of Christ’s birth
Yet we are far from Joy
And far from Christmas mirth
On Christmas to have no masse
In our great discontent
That with out masses this day should pass
Doth cause us to lament.

Later editions of Wadding’s collection included the carol, though with significant revisions (Keyte and Parrott, 1992, p. 489). Variants appeared in A New Carol (Birmingham, ca. 1830) and A Good Christmas Box (1847). Over the years, several tunes were paired with the text. Though Lucy Broadwood collected the melody in 1892 in a 4/4 meter, it was not until the eminent composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) collected the tune SUSSEX CAROL from Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex, in 1904, that the text found a worthy musical partner. It was printed in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society (1905). The composer incorporated a modified version of the text with SUSSEX CAROL in his famous Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912) for baritone, SATB chorus, and orchestra. The pairing was firmly established when it was included in Vaughan Williams’ Eight Traditional English Carols (1919) and then included in the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), for which Williams was the musical editor (Herl et al., 2019, p. 124). Within a decade of Vaughan Williams’ version, folksong collector Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) published a variant in English Folk-Carols (London, 1911), but to a different tune. Gone are references that might refer to the Protestant persecution in the second half of the seventeenth century.

A Smale Garland (1684)

Collected by Vaughan Williams (1904)

Collected by Cecil Sharp (1911)

Stanza 1:

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To heare what news the Angels bring
News of great Ioy cause of great mirth
News of our mercifull King his birth

Stanza 1:

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King's birth.

Stanza 1:

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear what news those angels bring;
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our Saviour King's own birth.

Stanza 3:

Then sin depart behould here's grace
And death here's life come in thy place
Hell now thou mayst thy terror see
Thy power great must Conquer'd be

Stanza 3:

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

Stanza 3:

Now sin depart, behold His grace,
Everlasting life comes in its place,
And soon we shall its terror see
And poor and rich must conquered be.

Stanza 4:

And for thy darkness we have light
Which makes th Angels sing this night
Glory to God and peace to men
For ever more Amen.

Stanza 4:

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
"Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!"

Stanza 4:

Then out of darkness we see light,
Which makes all angels to sing this night
Glory to God and peace to men
Both now and evermore. Amen.

Worship & Song maintains the version by Vaughan Williams, except for changes for inclusive language:

Stanza 3:3— “heaven and earth” replaces “Angels and men”

Stanza 4:4—“Glory to God, on earth be peace, goodwill to all shall never cease” replaces “Glory to God and peace to men, now and for evermore, Amen!”

Hymn writer and hymnologist Carl P. Daw Jr. notes, “The text as it stands here contains little of the biblical narrative except the song of the angels [Luke 2:14]. It is more concerned with the interpretation of the angelic good news than with the coming and going of shepherds and Magi. At its heart, this carol celebrates the theological implications of the Incarnation rather than the circumstances of the Nativity itself” (Daw, 2016, p. 113). For example, rather than the familiar Luke 2:8–14, the first lines of stanza 4 evoke John 1:5, 2 Corinthians 4:6, Ephesians 5:8, and, cited here, 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (NIV).


Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, eds., The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Joseph Herl et al., Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns, Vol. 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2019).

Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).

Verses marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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