I am often criticized by my friends and family (in a loving way, though) for being a bit of a Scrooge at Christmastime. Mostly because I do not seem to enjoy Christmas music as well as others. I have written before about my thoughts on Christmas music, and I am of the same opinion still — That I do not enjoy Christmas music as much as I enjoy Christmas hymns and carols. I love the songs that remind of of Christ and his birth and his atoning mission on this earth, though not the songs about Santa or reindeer.
And I have found that I much prefer the Christmas hymns that we sing at church in German to their counterparts in the English hymnbook. I still carry around my little pocket German hymnbook in my suitcoat pocket and sing the hymns in German when I can, and I love the messages that the hymns in German portray more than the lyrics to the English versions.
I was reading through some of the hymns in German the other day and I think I discovered why I am more drawn to the German text more than the English text, and it is this same idea that Christmas music should direct our thoughts to the Savior and his atonement. I am not saying that the English versions of our Christmas hymns do a poor job of reminding us of Christ, they certainly do speak of him and of his birth and the circumstances surrounding his birth. But, as I read the text of these hymns in German, there is more emphasis on atonement and of redemption and of Christ’s birth as the moment that earth and mankind had been waiting for from the beginning.
Here are the German words to some of my favorite Christmas hymns and I have also included a rough English translation. Some of these hymns do have corresponding verses in English that do touch on an atonement theme, and I have included some of those words from the English versions you are familiar with as well.
“Welt ging verloren, Christ ward geboren” — The World was lost, Christ was born
“Christ ist erschienen, uns zu versühnen” — Christ has appeared, to atone for us
Engel auf den Feldern singen (Angels we have heard on high)– This is the hymn where I first noticed the emphasis that the German hymns have on Christ’s birth being to redeem us all. It uses the same rhyme that is used in O du Fröhliche.
“Ja, ein Kind ist uns geboren, kommen ist der Heiland dein. Er erettet, was verloren” — Unto us a child is born, the Redeemer is come. He saves/redeems what was lost
Herbei, o ihr Gläubigen (O, Come all ye faithful) —
“Sehet das kindlein, uns zum Heil geboren” — See the child, born for our healing
Stille Nacht (Silent Night) — This is one of my favorite Christmas hymns, and of course needs to be sung in its original German.
“Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht Lieb aus deinem göttlichen Mund, da uns schlägt die rettende Stund” –Son of God, o how shines Love from thy godly mouth, Now it chimes to us the redeeming hour
The English version gets pretty close, while still keeping the beautiful poetry of the verse, and does mention redeeming grace, which is more most hymns in English do.
“Radiant beams from thy holy face, With the dawn of redeeming grace”
Hört, die Engelschöre singen (Hark, the herald angels sing)– This hymn has more references to the atoning sacrifice and the true purpose of Christ’s birth than any other I have found. I love the pure message of love and redemption that is found in this hymn, and the English version also has a great message.
“Gnad und Friede allen Menschen, die erlöst sind von der Sünd” — Grace and peace to all men, who are redeemed from sin.
“Endlich ist der Tag erschienen, der uns lang verkündet ward, wo du kamst, für uns zu sühnen, Wirst ein Kindlein klein und hilflos, trägst der Menschheit Mühn und Last”– Finally the day has arrived that was long prophesied, where you came to atone for us. You became a child, small and helpless, but carried the burden of all mankind.
“Uns zur Freud ist er geboren, denn sonst wären wir verloren” — For our joy was he born, otherwise we would all be lost
The English version has a similar message of redemption from sin-
“Peace on earth and mercy mild,God and sinners reconciled!”;
“Light and life to all he brings, Ris’n with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth. “
I greatly appreciate these Christmas hymns whose message is not only reminding us of the birth of Jesus but of his life and his mission. I don’t want to say that the English hymns are bad, they do remind us of Jesus and have a wonderful spirit that they bring into our lives, but I find that I love the German hymns more with their focus on the reason behind this miraculous birth. In German we sing more of the Redeemer, more of the Atonement, more of being saved from the effects of sin. It is not just about Stars in the sky, Wise men from the East, or Shepherds in their fields. It is not just about Angels in the Heavens, or a Baby in a Manger, it is about our God who came to earth as a child, who grew “from Grace to Grace” as we all must, and who performed an infinite and eternal Atonement for the sins of all mankind. That is the ultimate Gift at Christmas time, that is the purpose behind the celebration at Christmas, and I am glad that the traditional German hymns have kept that intact.
This Christmas let us remember not only the birth of a baby but the life of our Lord, the resurrection of our Redeemer and the glory of our God.