As you see a number of suggestions for music on Christmas Eve, remember one truth: you must be the best judge of what your congregation will and won’t sing, especially on major holidays like Christmas. Be bold in your planning, but remember that the progress and health of your congregation is at stake in times like this. Many churches have traditions for these holidays for which you may or may not want to become a martyr. Understand, though, that there is also a responsibility for leadership in the church to be prophetic in its ministry in an ever-changing context.
The truth is, not many things can do more harm to the liturgy of worship than damaging the trust between a song leader and the congregation. As musicians, we have a responsibility to foster and nurture an environment of trust so congregations will be willing to sing whatever might give voice to the piety and ministry of a given church. How will the people have confidence to sing to the Lord a new song if they do not trust their musical leadership?
It is because of these questions that you, as the leader of the congregation’s song, are responsible for knowing the traditions of the church in which you lead and how far people are willing to go to do something new. Work within your teams to cast a vision for making Christmas Eve worship both respectful of past traditions and daring as the church gives witness to God’s love in the community. Then determine what Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs best allow your church to be who God is calling them to be, especially on a day of wonder such as Christmas Eve.
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
Taken from the birth narrative from Luke 2:1-20, this traditional Christmas hymn is a way for the congregation to sing the story of the shepherds’ encounter with the “angel of the Lord.” Because of the continuing narrative found in the hymn, it is best to sing it in its entirety. However, because there are six stanzas, it is also recommended to keep a brisk pace. This story is the core of the Christmas Eve message. Keep it engaging! The tune, CHRISTMAS, is best accompanied on organ or piano.
Angels We Have Heard on High
I can’t think of one person who doesn’t look forward to singing the “Gloria” chorus of this hymn. In addition to the beautiful way it tells the story of Christmas, this setting is very well written and one of the easiest and most interesting hymns to sing in four-part harmony. Sing this hymn boldly with organ, brass, handbells, or even a cappella. Since most congregations sing everything one dynamic level — loud — providing an opportunity for dynamic variance (loud/soft/loud) within a hymn can increase its potency within a worship setting. “Be not afraid” to sing either stanza 3 or 4 with a hushed quality, but be sure to keep the tempo lively. Read History of Hymns: "Angels We Have Heard on High" »
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Not many Christmas hymns are as well known as this Charles Wesley hymn, which is set to a familiar melody by Felix Mendelssohn. Sing it with gusto, and keep the tempo moderate — not too fast, and not too slow. Accompany with organ, brass, handbells, or any other instruments you have available on Christmas Eve. Read History of Hymns: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" »
On This Day Earth Shall Ring
This melody may not be familiar for some churches, but rest assured, it is a Christmas standard in many places. There is an inherent power in this text/melody combination, and the PERSONENT HODIE tune is exciting for keyboardists. Pronunciation of the Latin text is as follows: “ee-deh-oh glah-ree-ah een ek-shell-sees deh-oh.” If you have a handbell choir, there are many wonderful settings of this hymn available at handbellworld.com or ring-press.com. The tune has a distinct Renaissance-era character, so even if you sing this with organ or piano as the accompaniment, add a tambourine in a pattern with a quarter note on beats 1, 3, and 4, with two eighth notes on count 2 to create a spirited atmosphere.
’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime
This Christmas carol has risen in prominence because of its importance as an early Native North American nativity carol. The hymn is replete with imagery that originates from the Huron people of North America. It is very singable and can be accompanied in a number of ways. Yes, it may be played on organ or piano, but it is also frequently sung with a hand drum and unaccompanied flute. Care needs to be taken at the transition into the refrain with a long enough pause for breath before the refrain begins. This can be accomplished by slowing slightly in the measure before the refrain and inserting a cutoff at the break in the measure with enough time for a quick breath. Read History of Hymns: "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime" »
Once in Royal David’s City
One of my personal Christmas favorites, this hymn focuses on the humanity of Jesus and his ability to understand our human condition in the midst of his divinity. Following the lead of musicians like Sufjan Stevens, one of the best ways to accompany this hymn is with a folk, “grassroots” ensemble of guitar, mandolin, banjo, and brushed snare drum with a unison or harmonized melody. See the linked chord sheet for a setting in this style and Read History of Hymns: "Once in Royal David's City" »
Glory to God in the Highest (Canticle of God’s Glory)
This Scottish chant might be a possibility for your church if you have a confident song leader and/or a choir who sings four-part harmony fairly easily. This may not fit every worship context, but it is a good place to start if your congregation is open to chant that is accessible. Believe it or not, they might find joy in the singing of chant periodically! Freeing ourselves from relentless rhythm can be surprising, creative, and somewhat liberating. Worship leadership with this is key: If you embody a sense of confidence in the leading of this chant, it will go a long way. Make sure the words flow in a conversational manner; they are not intended to be sung in the exact rhythms shown on the page.
Glory to God in the Highest (David Haas)
Haas has created one of the most energetic and lively settings of the Gloria with this chorus. The melody is very accessible to congregations, and the choir or soloists can sing the stanzas. The piano part is quite challenging, so your pianist needs to be adept at playing very technical passages. This setting would also work well with a band who loves embracing liturgical texts. Set in the key of E, guitarists will find this very accessible.
Sing We Now of Christmas
This French carol has become more popular, and the tune has also been used often with the Easter hymn, “Now the Green Blade Riseth” (UMH 311). We recommend use here with stanzas 1-3 only, since stanzas 4 and 5 specifically address the Epiphany. The tune is bouncy (as it should be!), so don’t let it drag with an accompaniment that is too loud or heavy. There are a number of choral, children’s, and handbell arrangements of this tune, and many are accessible for choirs of any size or ability. There are several options available from the Choristers Guild, http://www.choristersguild.org (type “Sing We Now of Christmas” into the search box.) Read History of Hymns: "Sing We Now of Christmas" »
Still, Still, Still
This nineteenth-century lullaby was originally published in Salzburg, Austria. Its words and verses have varied some over the years, not only in translation, but also in the original German. The version included in Worship & Song (3066) combines a more recent English translation (stanzas 1 and 2) with a variation of stanza 2 of the German version. The lilting tune is designed for quiet singing, like a parent singing an infant or young child to sleep. We suggest this as a choral response to extend the sense and feeling of peace evoked as the theme and conclusion of the sermon. Read our "Still, Still, Still" hymn study »
Night of Silence/Silent Night
If you are not yet familiar with this work by Daniel Kantor, you are missing out on an opportunity to present the traditional carol, “Silent Night,” with a newer text that addresses the frailty of the human condition at Christmas. Published by GIA Publications (G-5622), this choral setting is a musical overlay in which both melodies and texts are sung simultaneously at the conclusion. The effect, especially when accompanied by the written instrumentation, is breathtaking. The candles used in candlelighting rituals, then, are more than a way to honor Jesus’ birth. They are also a reminder that Christ is still with us as the bringer of peace in the midst of our hurt, pain, and loneliness.
A setting for congregation only can also be purchased and downloaded through OneLicense.net.
Some Children See Him
This Alfred Burt carol was chosen to be a part of the collection Worship & Song because of its poignancy, but also because of its level of familiarity within many congregations. Many of the colors used in this song, when taken out of context, could be seen as culturally insensitive. However, the presence of all the colors together with such a caring text can be a unifying element, too, celebrating diversity in ways in which many children can especially relate. This piece was originally intended as a solo with piano accompaniment, but despite its somewhat irregular 5/4 time signature, the singable phrases make this an accessible Christmas selection for congregations, too. If the E in the second phrase is too high, it is possible to sing this down one whole step in the key of E-flat, thus making the high note a D instead. Read our "Some Children See Him" hymn study »
Welcome to Our World
Chris Rice has written a touching song of welcome that calls us to address the pain we witness and feel in our community. Jesus comes as the bringer of peace and salvation, and we make room for him in our hearts, in our churches, in our communities, and in our world. Don’t make the accompaniment of this contemporary hymn overly complicated. Simple is better; a guitar or piano best brings out the character of the text and tune.
The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy
If you are looking for a different musical expression of the nativity, consider this West Indian carol that features idiomatic Caribbean rhythms, harmony, and melodic contour. Many of the characters of the nativity are represented: Mary, Jesus, angels, shepherds, and wise men. Piano, organ, or instrumental ensemble work well with this setting. Regardless of the harmonic instruments, add lots of percussion! Make sure the tempo remains lively, and encourage some movement within the congregation.
Mary Had a Baby
This African American spiritual is a great way to offer a four-part, a cappella hymn (as led by the choir) on Christmas Eve. This spiritual is also a way to incorporate multigenerational groups — children, youth, and adults — by dividing up stanzas with each group leading a different stanza. The repetition of the text and the predictable contour of the melody will make this an immediate favorite with people of all ages. Don’t take the tempo too quickly, however. Allow it to remain steady and moderate, and, if clapping during the song, be sure to clap only on beats two and four.