Full responses of music leaders across diocese to favorite Christmas hymn survey
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following are expanded responses given by parish music leaders, choir directors, and accompanists to a survey conducted by The Catholic Post in December seeking their favorite Christmas hymns and the reason behind their selection. We thank all respondents for their time and, more importantly, for sharing their musical gifts.
Click on the titles of some of the lesser-known hymns to listen to recordings of them on YouTube. For a story on the survey, click here.
O HOLY NIGHT (7)
Mary Edgerley, accompanist, Sacred Heart Parish, Granville — I have heard it sung by so many different singers, and each rendition is beautiful in its own way. When I hear, “Fall on your knees!” or “Christ is the Lord! Oh, praise His Name forever!” my soul can’t help but do just that! The lyrics speak of hope and joy, and God’s great gift to us of His Son. “Let all within us praise His holy name!”
George Macomb, organist and liturgist, St Patrick, Seneca, and director of Prairie Singers — I especially love it in the original French and the Rutter choral arrangement. We usually use it on Christmas Eve Mass or for Christmas morning.
Terri Borkgren, St. John Vianney, Cambridge — My parents would play the Lettermen’s Christmas album when I was a child and to this day this song brings back so many wonderful memories of my childhood and Christmas.
Susan Welgat, choir director, Saint John Paul II, Kewanee — Because of the beautiful arrangement which then causes you to really listen to the words. They are so powerful! In addition, I had the most significant experience when my grandson sang this as a solo, which I directed, at our school Christmas program.
Debbie Askins, music coordinator, St. John, Clinton — My grandmother used to always ask me to sing it at midnight Mass.
Eileen Hahn, organist, St. Monica, East Peoria — For the Christmas Vigil, we always sang it right before Mass started. For many years Mike Ritschel sang, then Jack Richardson (which both are passed) did such a beautiful job which I can still hear them sing and it still touches my heart. Adam Vestal has a beautiful voice and is now singing “O Holy Night” at the Christmas Vigil.
Paula Trainor Rosenbaum, St. Joseph, Flanagan — It’s so peaceful.
SILENT NIGHT (5)
Christopher Versluis, director and organist, St. Mary, Rock Island — At St. Mary’s we have a tradition to go back to our German roots and sing traditional German carols (i.e. “Auf Hirten er wacht,” “Schonstes Kindlien” in German and English. My personal favorite is “Silent Night.” It is peaceful and prayerful.
Richard Dubois, organist, St. Mary, Metamora, and Immaculate Conception, Lacon — This hymn is very special to our family. We sing it together as a family on Christmas Eve. The lyrics and message is what Christmas is all about. This is the first song I played on the piano when I was very young.
This year marks my 50th anniversary of playing the organ at St Mary and Immaculate Conception.
Marilyn Roberds, St. Monica, East Peoria — My husband, Arlan, and I have been singing together for 61 years having met as music majors at Eastern Illinois University. We sing as a duet with guitar at St. Monica’s. We love singing together “Night Of Silence/Silent Night” and as big fans of Peoria’s own Dan Fogelberg, we love singing his “Christ The King” from his Christmas album.
Eugene Verscha Jr., organist, St. Dominic, Wyoming — I love it for its simplicity and beauty. Yet when played right it can embody the majesty and glory of the birth of our Savior on that wondrous night.
When I was an altar boy, midnight Mass always felt like an honor to get to serve, the only other Mass that seemed more of an honor to serve is Easter. On Christmas, we’re given the greatest gift, our Savior. I think “Silent Night” embodies the humble and wondrous way our Lord came to earth.
Peg Doran, organist and school teacher, St. Paul, Macomb — I love it because it is one of the first songs my beloved mother taught me to play on the piano. I also love to hear it sung by everyone at the end of the St. Paul School Christmas program.
Sister Lori Kirchman, OP, director of music, Holy Family, Lincoln — It is not really a hymn but a chant. It has the most beautiful melody I could ever imagine and fills my soul with the beauty of God when I hear or sing it.
The text is equally beautiful. In the second verse, “Blessed was the day forever…And the child, the world’s Redeemer, First revealed his sacred face” – speaks of the Incarnation in a way that again fills my soul with the glorious abundance of God’s gift.
It was a chant I learned as a novice and that was a special time in my life so that’s also probably why it means so much to me.
Jonathan Myers, music director, Holy Family, Danville — The chant melody is simply sublime. The ancient text is very rich with the imagery of Christ coming to us as both God and man in the distinct but co-equal person of the Trinitarian God. While I love many of the 18th and 19th century Christmas carols, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” gives congregations a hymn they usually don’t hear on the radio this time of year. Sometimes, I think, that allows the meaning of the text to sink in more deeply.
Dr. Kyle Johnson, music director, St. Mark, Peoria — It’s simply sublime.
ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH (3)
Mary Kay Benda, organist and choir director, St. Paul, Macomb — It can be sung by a group of children or in four-part harmony, or accompanied by brass or acapella, and it is beautiful in all of those settings. One of my favorite renditions was last year when one of our cantors sent me a video of her 2-year old daughter (future cantor, I hope!) singing the refrain.
Teresa Scherrer, musician, St. John the Baptist, Rapids City — The lyrics and music resound the joyfulness of the Heavens and the Earth at Jesus’ birth. The entire congregation always joins in singing this hymn.
Joanie Resendiz, music director, St. Columba, Ottawa — The rhythm is upbeat and joyful. The verses are easy to sing. The melody of the “Gloria” refrain is relatively easy to learn and makes one feel part of an exciting, complicated piece of work. Our Children’s Choir sings the melody of the “Gloria” refrain with confidence and great joy — can’t help but smile at that!
O COME, ALL YE FAITHFUL (2)
Nancy Swanson, organist, St. Anne, East Moline — Fifty years ago I celebrated midnight Mass in Madrid. After the Mass, the organ played the hymn, inviting all there to come adore the infant Jesus. The experience touched my heart and filled me with the love, joy, and peace of the birth of Jesus so long before and how he became human to save us. May we always remember to adore and thank God for His great gift.
Ann Hunter and Jennifer Hunter, organists/singers, Holy Trinity, Cherry; St. Patrick, Arlington, St. Thomas More, Dalzell — It’s grand and majestic! Calling on everyone to come join us. The best gift ever is Jesus!
It’s where the story begins.”
WHAT CHILD IS THIS? (2)
Kaye Coit, music director, Sacred Heart, Farmer City — I love the melody and the lyrics of this tradtional Christmas carol. I especially enjoy playing the medley of Silent Night/O Little Town of Bethlehem/What Child Is This? from “Christmas Joy for Piano” arranged by Phillip Keveren during the Christmas season. I traditionally play this medley as a prelude to Christmas Day Mass.
Abbie Hamilton, organist, Saint John Paul II, Kewanee — I love hearing it as an almost lullaby. It’s so soft yet the words are so powerful.
Duane Berkland, choir director, St. Joseph, Marseilles — I would have to say the song I keep coming back to is “Angels Gloria” written by Jal Althouse. It’s sung in two parts by men and women and opens with an original “Gloria” melody with an upbeat tempo which becomes intertwined with a contemporary version of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” I will notice I’m singing it to myself at least once or twice a day from the beginning of December until after the New Year. It’s quite catchy and can get stuck in your head very easily!
Kevin Rund, St. Mary, Lexington — From its quiet opening to its majestic crescendo, the hymn arouses so much emotion! It evokes vivid memories of my childhood at St. Mary in rural Pesotum, especially from midnight Masses of old. First listening as an altar boy to the harmony of the choir and the grand pipe organ with its stops opened wide. Later — still a lad — I joined the choir, initially singing soprano. Through time I moved to alto, then tenor and finally bass, each year growing to better know and love this hymn. It was a thrill to be immersed in the glory of the Christmas season surrounded by those angelic voices singing “Birthday of a King.”
John Wabel, Immaculate Conception, Lacon — It’s a nice melody and I have a personal memory of singing it with Becky Strong before she died from cancer.
Mary Rose Smith, music director, St. Philomena, Peoria — This piece by John Rutter is special to me because my family has sung it for many Christmas Masses together. The message leads us to meditate on the angels singing a soft lullaby to Baby Jesus. It takes us through the Nativity story, how God humbled himself to be born a human, and helps us think of our gift of love to Jesus. I’ll always find a way to sing this song on Christmas and think of the wonderful voices around me filling the church with this joy-filled song as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Clare Tschirn, music ministry, St. Patrick, Washington — This song by Steve Angrisano and Curtis Stephan combines an invitation to stillness and peace with the bust-out joy that Christ has indeed come. We used it last year and will again this year for our parish’s Advent Lessons and Carols, as a hinge from the more meditative reflective mood to the more joyous “Christmas-is-almost-here” mood, and have found it to be very effective. This song captured me the first time I sang it (just to see if I liked it), and it hasn’t let go yet.
Julie Rhoades, music director, St Joseph, Hopedale, and St Mary, Delavan — I have many favorites but if I have to pick one, it would be the Coventry Carol. It takes me back to my days of singing in Madrigal groups in high school and college. I love the Medieval/Renaissance feel of the melody. So many beautiful choir arrangements of this piece.
GOD WITH US, EMMANUEL
Barbara De Waard, music coordinator, St. Paul, Macomb — Although it is included in the Advent section of our hymnal, I feel the lyrics are more about Christ already here among us, so I tend to use it the final week of Advent and in the Christmas season. It is a beautiful hymn, lyrically, as well as melodically, sung with joyful emphasis on the refrain I also enjoy the variation and challenge of the change in timing within, from 4/4 to 3/4, and back. (Music by Jim Cowan.)
GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN
BethAnn Wirth, coordinator of sacred liturgy, Blessed Sacrament, Morton — We sing this every Christmas Eve at Blessed Sacrament. I just love hearing the assembly singing this one as our Sending Forth song . . . at the top of their collective lungs, clapping, smiling, and praising the newborn King.
HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING
Matthew Ernat, music director, St. Louis, Princeton — This hymn was always a staple of Christmas liturgy when I was a child. To me, it perfectly captures the overwhelming joy of Christ’s birth, recognizing it as the beginning of His saving act.
LO, HOW A ROSE E’ER BLOOMING
Catherine McClarey, cantor, St. Paul, Macomb — It’s not the easiest hymn to sing, but such a beautiful melody!
Heath Morber, director of music, St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, Champaign — “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a pairing of a gorgeous Gustav Holst melody with a lovely text by Christina Rosetti. I can’t say that the details are historically accurate (not sure “snow had fallen, snow on snow” in a climate like Bethlehem’s), but I am always, always moved by the last stanza:
“What can I give him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; / If I were a wise man, I would do my part; / Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.”
IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR
Trevor Loes, music director, Sacred Heart, Rock Island — Unfortunately, it seems to have slowly become a lesser known carol, which is too bad because it has a lot of great textual, harmonic, and melodic drama.
Abbie Hamilton, organist, Saint John Paul II, Kewanee — It evokes such strong memories for me of being a small child and sitting in the choir loft with my parents while they sang. The words perfectly relay those moments before the Savior’s birth!
Donna Augustyn-Sloan, musician, Immaculate Conception, Lacon
It is one of few songs that mentions Joseph equally with Mary and presents an amusing conversation concerning the Father of the Baby! The Old English tradition is represented by the symbolism of the cherry tree.
THE FIRST NOEL
Dr. Kyle Johnson, music director, St. Mark, Peoria — It’s almost perfectly calibrated as a catechetical tool. It is wonderfully singable, with runs of notes up and down the scale that ripple pleasingly with almost no difficult intervals to sing. It is also rich with scriptural intent regarding the Magi and salvation history. (As a side note, I asked your poll question to my chiropractic patients yesterday, who are of varying backgrounds, and every single person named “Silent Night” as their favorite.)
Monika Tonsor, organist, St. Philomena, Peoria — This hymn is significant to me because the lyrics tell the story of Jesus’ birth and includes the names of His earthly and heavenly family: “Twas Mary, Virgin pure of holy Anne”; “Saint Joseph, too, was near to tend the child”; “the angels hovered round”; “to praise the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”. Also, the refrain is sung in Latin, the traditional language in liturgical celebrations. Look for this hymn in your music collection, and sing the story of Christmas!
Mora Novey, St. Patrick, Urbana — The haunting beauty that Ralph Vaughan Williams creates in this folk song arrangement reflects the paradox of our collective human state. There is a perfect synthesis between the yearning modality and plaintive text that outlines salvation history.
The tragedy of the human condition — the intended harmony between man and woman shattered by conscious sin — still manifests itself in our lives (mine, at least), and we consequently live in a world of unsatisfied desire. But God cannot revoke His promise — His promise of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation — that He fulfills in His Son, as the last line proclaims. It expresses the intermediacy of salvation: we live in hope that Christ, who has already died for our sins, will come again at the end of time, but will also more dramatically plunge into the chaos, the tohu wa-bohu, of our present brokenness.
Mary Jane Tonozzi, organist, Nativity of Our Lord, Spring Valley — I learned it from my grandmother, Olga Castellani Ferretti, a native of Umbria, very close to the town of Assisi. For my family it remains the quintessential Christmas experience.
Until I married, I was a member of Holy Rosary Parish in LaSalle. Our pastor, Msgr. Simon Bernardi, was also from Italy. Our parish celebrated Advent with a novena to the Infant of Prague that ended on Christmas Eve. We prayed the rosary together, sang three verses of “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle,” and ended with Benediction.
When I moved to Spring Valley, I was fortunate to become an organist and choir director at St. Anthony, now Nativity of Our Lord, in 1974. I taught that carol, in Italian, to our choir, and we have been singing it every Christmas Eve since then. My sons Daniel and Nicholas sing it and accompany our choir on cello. It’s an event happily anticipated for all of us.