• Jennifer Barnick

Article: History of the Christmas Carol "O Come, All Ye Faithful"

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When I was nine, I began piano lessons. While I had, for the most part, mixed feelings about playing the piano when my music teacher handed me a sheet music book of Christmas carols for beginners, I became obsessed with practicing. I am quite sure that was a trying holiday season for my family. Out of that experience, I developed a very favorite Christmas carol, and that was "O Come, All Ye Faithful." I must have played (and mind you, I sang as I played) that song over and over and over that year. I suppose if I queried my family what was their least favorite carol, "O Come, All Ye Faithful," might be it.

The interesting thing about the origin of this famous carol is that there are a lot of theories. For the most part, it is agreed that the hymn was published and composed by John Francis Wade. "Although its exact sources and origins remain unproven, musicologists agree that the hymn was first associated with the 18th-century Catholic layman and music copyist John Francis Wade. He lived in an English Catholic community exiled to France after the failed Jacobite rising of 1745." (The History of a Christmas Classic, 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' by Benjamin Ivry, December 10, 2021, americanmagazing.org) "O Come, All Ye Faithful" was originally in Latin and was called "Adeste Fideles." What is under debate is who authored the lyrics, as many believed Francis Wade had taken an older anonymous hymn and formulated it into the iconic song and melody we recognize today. "There are conflicting theories that Wade wrote the original text of 'Adeste Fideles' himself or took the words from an anonymous Latin hymn, written by monks, possibly as early as the 13th century." (songfacts.com) The translation from Latin into English was made by several different authors. However, the English version we all know and love is attributed to Frederick Oakeley in 1841. "Dr. Oakeley was born in Shrewsbury, England, on September 5, 1802. He was educated privately at Oxford, becoming a Fellow at Balliol College and taking orders in the Church of England. Later he went into the Roman Catholic Church and for many years was canon of the diocese of Westminster." (The Story Behind… "O Come, All Ye Faithful," plymouthbrethren.org)

The meaning of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" is under some controversy. While most would say it was a hymn about the birth of Jesus and a call of all Christians to celebrate his birthday, others have pointed out possible deeper meanings to the carol. One of the most common meanings attributed to the hymn by religious and musical scholars is the song's direct reference to the Nicene Creed. "Of particular note is the second stanza that draws heavily upon the Nicene Creed. […] Thus, singing stanza two establishes a link to the church that reaches back to 325 A.D., at the Council of Nicea, where the creed originates." (History of Hymns: "O Come, All Ye Faithful" by Dr. Hawn, May 20, 2013, umcdiscipleship.org) The Nicene Creed is a state of principles of belief shared by many Christian denominations. The belief in the holy trinity and the physical birth of Jesus are in the Nicene Creed. The second stanza of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" clearly mirrors the Nicene Creed. The second stanza: True God, of true God, Light from Light Eternal, lo, he shuns not the Virgin's womb; Son of the Father, begotten, not created. Recently, there has been a competing theory about the meaning of the hymn put forth by professor Bennet Zon. "The U.K. musicologist Bennett Zon claimed that the hymn can be interpreted as a call to arms for the faithful Jacobites to return with triumphant joy to England (Bethlehem) and venerate the king of angels, that is, the English King (Bonnie Prince Charlie)." (The History of a Christmas Classic, "O Come, All Ye Faithful" by Benjamin Ivry, December 10, 2021, americanmagazine.org) The Jacobite Rebellion was a failed attempt of Charles Edward Stuart, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie, to depose the sitting King of England, George II. There is some credence to this theory as John Wade, the hymn's author and composer, had fled to France from England during the doomed Jacobian rebellion. "A Catholic layman, Wade was forced to leave England for Duoai, France during the 1745 Jacobean rebellion because of continued persecution of Catholics." (christmasclassics.com)

Like many great classics, "O Come, All Ye Faithful" is not without some interesting facts. The song also was known as “The Portuguese Hymn.” "‘Adeste Fideles’ has also been referred to as ‘The Portuguese Hymn’, because it was believed for a time to have been first sung by the famous choir of the Portuguese Chapel in London. This would not have been an unlikely scenario, as Wade was known to have corresponded with prominent Catholic musicians of the foreign embassy chapels there, including Thomas Arne, the highly respected English composer." (christmasclassics.com) "O Come, All Ye Faithful" is not only my favorite Christmas carol; it was also president Dwight D. Eisenhower's favorite, and the Latin version "Adeste Fideles" was President Thomas Jefferson's favorite hymn. (songfacts.com) Lastly, Bing Crosby's version (as "Adeste Fideles") was the only version that made it into the U.S. charts. It made it to #45 in 1960. (songfacts.com)

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.

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