For this final installment of some of my favorite Christmas Carols, I want to share with you the Sussex Carol, otherwise knowing as “On Christmas Night.” This isn’t a well-known carol in the U.S., but is among one of the more popular Christmas hymns in England.
The song was first published in 1684 by an Irish Bishop, Luke Waddinge, in an 11 song collection entitled “A Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs, Composed by a devout Man, For the Solace of his Friends and neighbors in their afflictions” (seriously, I think the title is longer than some of the songs). Since this was long before hymnals were readily available (not to mention streaming music on the internet), it was through little songs books like these that hymns and carols were brought to congregations, giving them resources for worship and a library of music.
It wasn’t until the early 20th Century, though, that the carol became well known. English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was working to preserve and collect English folk songs. In 1904, he was traveling through Sussex County, England, asking people to sings old folk songs for him, which he would then transcribe. A Mrs. Verrall sang the ‘On Christmas Night” song for him, and it since became known as the Sussex Carol.
What I love about this carol is it’s simplicity in style, but richness in content. It is a call and answer carol; where one voice sings, and another voice echoes. The tune has a joyful bounce to it, so you can’t help but smile when you sing it.
And that’s the purpose of the words as well. This carol doesn’t tell the story of Christ’s birth, nor is it shrouded in the longing and burden of the years of waiting for Christ’s coming. Instead, this carol calls us to sing of the joy of Christ’s coming, the blessing of our salvation, and of God’s grace conquering over all our sins. The carols sings of Christ’s work of redemption, bringing light and grace, and setting us free from our sin.
I pray you’ll enjoy this carol as much as I do.
I’ve included a link to the King’s College Choir from 2019, and the lyrics are below.
On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring
News of great joy, news of great mirth
News of our merciful King’s birth
Then why should men on earth be so sad?
Since our Redeemer made us glad
When from our sin he set us free
All for to gain our liberty?
When sin departs before His grace
Then life and health come in its place
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the newborn King
All out of darkness we have light
Which made the angels sing this night
“Glory to God and peace to men
Now and for evermore, amen!”