History of Hymns: “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Good Christian Friends, Rejoice"
4th cent. Latin by John Mason Neale
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 224

John Mason Neale

Good Christian friends, rejoice
with heart and soul and voice;
give ye heed to what we say:
News, news!
Jesus Christ is born today!
Ox and ass before him bow,
and he is in the manger now.
Christ is born today!


Most of the songs sung at Christmas are really Christmas hymns. “Good Christian friends, rejoice” is truly a Christmas carol from the medieval carol tradition. 

As UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young points out, folk carol “texts may be either sacred or secular, and usually are of unknown authorship. The sacred texts in the English and continental traditions are for the most part about the nativity of Jesus and other major feasts and days in the Christian calendar. . . . Most authorities link dance to the folk carol.” 

The Oxford Movement of 19th-century England resurrected many ancient Greek and Latin hymns and translated them for modern use. The chief proponent of this movement was John Mason Neale (1818-1866). It is no accident that one may sing Neale’s translations throughout the entire Christian year since the observance of the Christian calendar was part of the revival of the Oxford Movement. 

“Good Christian friends, rejoice” is rather unusual compared to other translations rendered by Neale in that the original song was in two languages—Latin and German. The technical term for this is macaronic, meaning Latin plus the vernacular language, thus this song is classified as a macaronic carol. 

Macaronic carols were most certainly not sung as a part of the medieval Roman Catholic liturgy for at least three reasons: only Latin would have been sung in the Mass at this time; macaronic carols used dance-like rhythms in contrast to unmetered flow of plainsong chant; and folk instruments including percussion were often used to accompany these songs, instruments usually not permitted in the Mass. 

Folk carols were music the people used in more civic and domestic festival celebrations outside of the liturgical structure of the Mass. 

Some controversy stems from Neale’s original first line of the carol, “Good Christian men, rejoice.” Today’s standards for inclusive language in reference to humanity result in the change of this line in most hymnals published in the last 20 years. In addition to the solution chosen for The UM Hymnal, others have resolved this dilemma with “Good Christian folk” or Good Christians all.” 

Interestingly enough, the original Latin does not refer to “men” or people at all. A literal translation of the original stanza follows, coming from Methodist hymnologist Guy McCutchan’s text, Our Hymnody (1937):

In sweet jubilation
Now sing and be joyful!
The joy of our hearts
Lies in a manger
And shine like the sun
In the lap of his mother
Alpha and Omega (beginning and end)!


The second unusual feature about this carol is the atypical change in meter that takes in its early part: “News, news!” As it turns out, this interjection is the result of an error. Neale’s translation was first included in his own collection, Carols for Christmas-tide (1853). 

According to Carlton Young, Thomas Helmore, serving as the music editor for the volume, “incorrectly transcribed the tune from the old notation and added two notes after each third phrase. To accommodate the change in meter Neale added ‘News, news,” ‘Joy, joy,” and ‘Peace, peace.’” In The UM Hymnal, “News, news!” has been maintained for each stanza. 

A popular choral work, “Christmas Day,” by the famous British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) incorporates this carol with the “error” and, though some hymnals omit it, the inclusion of “News, news!” has become a standard version for many. 

All this said, the message of the carol is clear and may be found in the last line of each stanza: “Christ is born today!” “Christ is born for this!” Christ was born to save!”
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns

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