Now as Christmas settles down, I invite your comments on what you rate as the "best" Christmas hymn, or carol.
By "best," I mean more than just "favorite," although feel free to offer your favorite -- but tell us why: tell us why it's "better."
Here are my "best" Christmas hymns:
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. It is well written, both for style and for theology. And it is rousing to sing, with lots of exclamation marks.
It moves from Biblical imagery and language to our world and our concerns -- a good "homiletic" method.
It does a good job making both Our Lord's humanity and divinity real: "offspring of the Virgin's womb," "pleased as man with men to dwell"* . . . yet also: "veil'd in flesh the Godhead see: hail th'Incarnate Deity."
(By comparison, Angels we have heard on high, which uses the same Biblical material, is -- in my opinion, weaker in substance, although certainly rousing to sing--but that, mainly, the "Gloria" refrain. I suppose the angels sang "sweetly"--but we know they were disturbing ("and they were struck with great fear," Luke 2:9). The "mountains in reply echo[ing] back their joyous strains" is a nice flourish, from Isaiah, I think.)
Another nominee I'd offer: Of the Father's Love Begotten -- right there, the title (and first line) contains implicit Trinitarian theology, as well as containing both ideas of "begotten"--eternally, before time, as well as in time, via Mary's fiat. This hymn goes on to smash heresies right and left to smithereens, like a joyful child armed with a toy mallet: "begotten, ere the world's began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he, of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore." Take that, Arius! Whack! Whack! Slam!
And that's just the first verse . . .
"When the Virgin, full of grace, [take that, deniers of the Immaculate Conception! Hah!]** by the Spirit blest conceiving, bore the Savior of our race." [Manages to be inclusive without vitiating second-Adam theology.]
"...First revealed his sacred face"--what a nice turn of phrase: does it mean the human face, or the divine? Or both?
Aesthetically, the hymn has the haunting, otherworldly beauty of all chant; and because it is chanted, it is easy to do without any musical accompaniment (and often better without). The tune is relatively simple, and thus easy for most to enter into.
The pity is that Gather has but four verses of this outstanding hymn -- the mostly Protestant "Cyber Hymnal" has nine verses, in both English and Latin! (This hymn, in full, would be very suitable for the offertory on Christmas, as you have both a long collection, then the procession with gifts, then, one hopes, the full treatment of incense.)
Well, I could go on and comment on other fine Christmas carols, but I offer these as two "best."
Please add your own nominees, but please do offer reasons why, if you can.
*Here's my diatribe against PC bowlderization of hymns...changing this to "us" is not only pusillanimous and pandering, it ruins both the poetry and the theology of Wesley's verse. Bleagghhh! Likewise, the following verse is ruined by this stupidity: "born to raise the sons of earth" becomes, "born to raise us from the earth" -- notice the change? It actually shifts from a creation-positive, Catholic idea, to a faintly Gnostic idea! Oh, but we mustn't allow "exclusive" language! Somebody show me the petition signatures asking for these changes, because the original verses were so "offensive"?)
** Of course, the Immaculate Conception was not formally defined in the 4th century, when this hymn originates; and the Latin original doesn't actually use "gratia plena"...comments from a better Latinist welcome...