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The Story Behind the Christmas Carol "Joy to the World"

Since 1719, “Joy to the World” has been a Christmas staple. Its lyrics were crafted by Isaac Watts, and to date, it remains one of the most-published hymns in Northern America. However, the fun fact is, the song wasn’t even intended to be a Christmas carol, as its original version had no such link with Christmas. It wasn’t even supposed to be a song!

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According to church history, Isaac Watts was one of the most prolific and celebrated creators of hymns. However, his most famous creation, “Joy to the World” was born of coincidence, rather than desire. In 1719, Watts published “The Psalms of David,” a collection of poems where each verse was based on a psalm. But, instead of translating the original texts of the “Old Testament,” he made some subtle adjustments. His poems referred more explicitly towards the works of Jesus, thus seeking inspiration from the New Testament.

Musical Overview

The majority of the hymns of “The Psalms of David“ have now fallen into obscurity, except for the second part of “Psalm 98.” Ironically, the poet had no intention of creating a Christmas carol when he composed the verse. However, in 1836, Lowell Mason composed a riveting melody for this second part and combined with its popularity in the church. “Joy to the World” started its journey into the music stratosphere.

The musical origin of “Joy to the World” is somewhat mystical. Lowell Mason’s version remains the most prevalently utilized to date, which was the fourth revised interpretation of the carol. Lowell named it “ANTIOCH,” the tune of which is attributed to George Frideric Handel. The choruses of Handel’s oratorio, titled “Messiah” shared a chance resemblance with “ANTIOCH.” A theme of this musical accompaniment also portrayed an eerie similarity with the orchestral inception of “Comfort ye,” a recitative.

Further, the first four notes also bear a striking similarity to the opening of the choruses “Glory to God” and “Lift up your heads,” all belonging to the same oratorio. However, this claim has its loose ends, since no autographed score by George Frideric Handel exists. This, added with zero documentary evidence suggesting Handel’s involvement offers “ANTIOCH” the benefit of the doubt. In 1986, John Wilson further unearthed the fact that the initial publication of “Joy to the World” was in two separate English collections. One of these versions, titled “Comfort” is dated back to 1833. This again creates a theory excluding Lowell Mason from the list of the composer, as his first version is dated three years after.

Isaac Watts

Although Isaac Watts is well appreciated today, he was considered to be a black sheep back in his time. He severely disturbed the status quo of his contemporary musical culture and was also termed as a heretic for his lyrics. He grew up in a society that consisted only of sections of scriptures and psalms being incorporated with music. Watts broke this hegemony, as he noticed a certain lack of emotion among the congregants who performed it. He hated this monotonous and dull negligence that was prominent upon the faces of the performers. His father challenged him to do something about this, and eventually, he started tweaking his verses, opening a whole new frontier of possibilities.

The Accidental Christmas Hymn

Another widespread debate that is most associated with this hymn is its origin as a Christmas carol. Although it clearly depicts the Second Coming of Christ, it doesn’t have any trivial connection with the Christmas story. However, contrary to popular opinion, there lies a correlation - a “Second Coming” cannot be manifested without a “First Coming.” The piece is all about fulfillment, depicting the notions of a supernatural phenomenon, of what could be achieved from its impact. Similarly, Christmas does not only dwell in the past attainments but also looks forward to the grace that was achieved subsequently. The song proclaims the ultimate joy that is yet to be revealed, establishing a strong connection with the festive period.

Usage in Popular Culture

The poem in focus was an adaptation of “Psalm 98.” The poet interpreted this particular verse to celebrate of the impact of the Almighty on the world. After a century, the second part of this verse was adapted to music, which culminated in one of the most celebrated Christmas carols of all time.

In 1911, the Trinity Choir recorded a version of “Joy to the World” which became extremely popular. Since then, several renditions have been recorded by an array of artists, namely Mariah Carey, Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Walter Cherry, Bing Crosby, and Andy Williams. The musical group “The Supremes” and acapella group “Pentatonix,” also created alternate versions of the track.

Hope through the music and lyrics

The vision of “Psalm 98” is to bring joy to people. “Joy to the World” inspires the listeners to look forward to the future, at times when the sin will finally be evicted, and all of humanity will bask in the glory of the Almighty’s righteousness. The message, “We must hope, and rejoice - the future will be bright” was accompanied well with melody and harmonies that are uplifting and in the forward motions. Watts and Mason succeeded profoundly in their mission. Although, they had no clue that the work will spark a tune that will bask through the ages.


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