Unusual Christmas Carols

Uncommon Christmas Carols Recommended by Coty Pinckney


Books of Carols

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Welcome to the Unusual Christmas Carols page! If your browser is set up to play midi files, you are listening to the tune "Boston" by William Billings, written in the 1700's as a setting for Isaac Watts' Christmas poem, "Shepherds, Rejoice!" Click here to adjust playback, here for details on that carol, or scroll down the page to read about all the carols. Enjoy!

Lyrics by Timothy Dudley-Smith, an Anglican bishop who writes one new Christmas carol a year, are particularly high quality. Dudley-Smith is a biographer and former associate of John Stott. Here are selections from four of his carols. All of these are copyright in the US by Hope Publishing Company. These and hundreds of other Dudley-Smith texts are collected in A House of Praise: Collected Hymns 1961-2001. More recent texts are collected in A Door for the Word: Thirty-Six New Hymns 2002-2005.

Secret Birth (recommended tune: Secret Birth, by Norman Warren, published in Carols for Today.)

Child of the stable's secret birth
The Lord by right of the lords of earth
Let angels sing of a king newborn
The world is weaving a crown of thorn
A crown of thorn for that infant head
Cradled soft in a manger bed.

Infant hands in a mother's hand,
For none but Mary can understand
Whose are the hands and the fingers curled
But his who fashioned and made our world:
And through those hands in the hour of death
Nails shall strike to the wood beneath.

Holy Child (recommended tune: Ruxley, by Brian Hoare, published in Carols for Today)

Holy Child, what gift of grace
From the Father freely willed!
In your infant form we trace
All God's promises fulfilled.

Holy Child, before whose Name.
Powers of darkness faint and fall;
Conquered, death and sin and shame,
Jesus Christ is Lord of all!

Tell Out, My Soul (based on the Magnificat, Mary's prayer in Luke 1:46-55)

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord:
Unnumbered blessings, give my spirit voice;
Tender to me the promise of his word;
In God my Saviour shall my heart rejoice.

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his name:
Make known his might, the deeds his arm has done;
His mercy sure, from age to age the same;
His holy name, the Lord, the mighty one.

Exult, O Morning Stars Aflame (full text here)

Exult, O morning stars aflame!
With all the works of God proclaim
The Child of Bethlehem who came
For love and love alone.

Come earth and air and sky and sea,
Bear witness to his deity
Who lived, the Man of Galilee,
For love and love alone.

Other Carols:

Hark the Herald Angels Sing by Charles Wesley is hardly an unusual carol, but many hymnals leave out the fourth verse. Here it is -- this is so theologically profound, be sure to sing it -- insert it in your bulletin or display it on your overhead!

Come, Desire of nations come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the Woman's conquering Seed,
Bruise in us the Serpent's head.
Adam's likeness now efface:
Stamp Thine image in its place;
Second Adam, from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Glory to the Newborn King.

Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendour

Chip Stam writes: "This hymn was written at a particularly difficult time in the history of the missions to China. Missionaries had been captured by the communist Red Army and released in poor health after over a year of suffering. Others had been captured never to be heard from again. In 1934 the young missionaries John and Betty Stam (my great aunt and uncle) were captured in Anhwei and beheaded . The news of these sorrows had reached the mission's headquarters in Shanghai. Though this was a very dangerous time for both the Chinese Christians and the foreign missionaries, Frank Houghton decided he needed to begin a tour through the country to visit various missionary outposts. While traveling over the mountains of Szechwan, the powerful and comforting words of 2 Corinthians 8:9, "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor," were transformed into this beautiful Christmas hymn."

(By the way, I believe 2 Corinthians 8:9 is better translated, "because He was rich, He became poor for your sake, that you through His poverty might become rich." If interested, see my sermon on this verse (text, audio).

(Sung to the tune of a lovely, traditional French carol; click here for a page that includes links to two midi files of part of the hymn; you can also order sheet music from that link. Click here for a lovely a cappella performance of the French version of this carol, "Quelle est cette odeur agréable?")

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love's sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love's sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love's sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love's sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.

-- Frank Houghton (1894-1972)

(Here is the first verse of the copyrighted Jubilate Hymns version, with updated language, published in Carols for Today:)

Lord, you were rich beyond all splendor,
Yet, for love's sake, became so poor.
Leaving your throne in glad surrender
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Lord, you were rich beyond all splendor,
Yet, for love's sake, became so poor.


All My Heart This Night Rejoices (recommended tune: All My Heart, by David Peacock, published in Carols for Today)

This is a traditional text, though not well known. The tune I recommend is new.

Lyrics by Paul Gerhardt, in German, in 1656 as Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen. Translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1858. The second verse below is the version from Jubilate Hymns, and is under copyright. Full traditional text is available on the web (that link also includes a traditional tune, but I strongly recommend you seek out the David Peacock tune).

All my heart this night rejoices
As I hear
Far and near
Sweetest angel voices.
"Christ is born," their choirs are singing
Till the air
Now with joy is ringing

Listen! From a humble manger
Comes the call,
'One and all,
Run from sin and danger!
Christians come, let nothing grieve you:
You are freed!
All you need
I will surely give you.'

Rise Up, Shepherds, and Follow. Traditional words and music. A spiritual quite appropriate to the joyous Christmas season. Follow this link for a midi file of the tune, which I found on this page. Another midi file and score (which requires the fine shareware program Noteworthy Composer) are available at The Cyber Hymnal. The CD "Black Christmas" contains a lovely solo performance of this tune by Thomas Young; unfortunately, that CD is "out of print."

There's a Savior to see on a Christmas morn
Rise up shepherds and follow.
He will show you the place where the child is born.
Rise up shepherds and follow.
Leave your sheep and leave your lambs.
Rise up shepherds and follow.
Leave your sheep and leave your lambs.
Rise up shepherds and follow.
Follow, follow,
Rise up shepherds and follow.
Hark to the angels of Bethlehem
Rise up shepherds and follow.


Shepherds, Rejoice! Words by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Recommended tune: "Boston," by William Billings (1746-1800) (playing now as a midi file).

Despite starting life as a tanner and never studying music formally, William Billings became a powerful musical force in Boston during the last thirty years of his life. Many consider him to be the first great American composer. Billings' works are full of originality and energy, yet are sadly lacking from most of today's hymnals. A celebration of his 250th birthday took place in Boston in 1996; and another, of the 200th anniversary of his death, took place in September of 2000.

As was often the case in the 1700's, the tenor line in Billings' score for "Boston" contains the melody; in performance, the melody would be doubled by soprano voices an octave higher. The midi file contains that doubling. Click here for a score of the source for the midi file, complete with words for "Shepherds, Rejoice." (You will need the shareware program Noteworthy Composer to display or print the score.)

You can listen to other clips of Billings' music at this link, which contains music from the CD Land of Pure Delight. Order that CD from Amazon via this link. There is no Christmas music on that CD; some of Billings' Christmas music, including the Boston tune, is collected with other early American Christmas music on the CD An American Christmas, which you can order here. For the original score of "Boston," see The New Oxford Book of Carols; read about this collection on my page with information on books of carols .

Here are the lyrics. Note that the first two stanzas are spoken by the angel Gabriel:

'Shepherds, rejoice! lift up your eyes
And send your fears away;
News from the region of the skies:
Salvation's born today!
Jesus, the God whom angels fear,
Comes down to dwell with you;
Today he makes his entrance here,
But not as monarchs do.

'No gold, nor purple swaddling bands,
Nor royal shining things;
A manger for his cradle stands,
And holds the King of kings.
Go, shepherds, where the Infant lies,
And see his humble throne;
With tears of joy in all your eyes,
Go, shepherds, kiss the Son.'

Thus Gabriel sang, and straight around
The heavenly armies throng;
They tune their harps to lofty sound
And thus conclude the song:
'Glory to God that reigns above,
Let peace surround the earth;
Mortals shall know their Maker's love
At their Redeemer's birth.'

Lord! and shall angels have their songs
And men no tunes to raise?
O may we lose these useless tongues
When they forget to praise!
'Glory to God that reigns above,
That pitied us forlorn!'
We join to sing our Maker's love,
For there's a Saviour born.

Suggested Order of Service

Click here to see the program for a Christmas Eve service of readings and singing that uses several of these carols. The service begins, as usual, with the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, and moves through the Christmas story. Less typically, the service uses texts that explain the purpose of the Advent, and closes with readings and hymns anticipating Christ's second coming.

Finding Lyrics/Music for Carols

If you remember a snippet from an unusual carol you really like, first try locating it in the Cyber Hymnal, a wonderful source for free downloads of lyrics, scores, and midi files of hymns no longer under copyright. If it is not there, try searching for the text on the standard search engines. Use quotation marks around your text to force the search engine to look for the phrase, instead of the individual words. Good luck!

For lyrics, scores, and midi files for about 100 carols (and a lovely web-site to boot), visit An Online Christmas Songbook. The Cyber Hymnal and Tim's Christmas Page are other good sources for lyrics.

For collections of carols, see my page on Christmas Carol books, which describes seven collections, providing detailed lists of carols contained in each one. To search for a carol, go to that page and use the search function in your browser to find the title you want.

For sheet music to purchase, try Encore Music, which offers a large selection of vocal and instrumental music. Their search engine by song title is quite helpful at identifying which collection includes the piece you want.


Books of Carols

Finding a Carol

Order of Service

Christmas stories page

Reponsive prayer for the Christmas season

Example program for Christmas Eve/seasonal service

Expository Christmas Sermons

Expository Sermons and Worship Resources

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