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SACRED SONGS OF CHRISTMAS: A Family Treasury. Hardcover. Illustrations by Andrea Eberbach, Paine Proffitt, and Nicole Wong. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005. 66 pages. $13.99.

One of my fondest memories as a child was gathering around the dinner table during Advent. After the food was consumed and the dishes were taken to the sink, a giant three-tiered “Advent cake” with twenty-eight candles was set on the table. The number of candles lit would correspond to the number of days into the season of Advent we were, and then the dining room lights would get dimmed, and led by my father, our family of six would sing a few Christmas carols before dismissing from the table.

It was here that I learned my Christmas carols. The ones in the hymnal, and those that weren’t—such as “We Three Kings”, “O Little Children Can You Tell”, and “In a Little Stable.” Traditions were born around that Advent cake and in that room. Perhaps ‘born’ is the wrong word, “handed down” would be better, as this Advent cake once belonged to my grandfather.[1]

Many years have passed since those Advent days of yore, but my own budding family has taken up the mantle and the tradition lives on. Our candle-lighting is far less ambitious than the twenty-four candled cake of my youth. Though I have inherited the family Advent cake, I use a simple Advent wreath with four candles (three purple and one pink), and we sing. I’m typically singing a solo. Mom joins me when she isn’t wrangling the infant, my two-year-old daughter doesn’t know any words to any Christmas songs, and my 5-year-old son only hesitantly sings the first stanza of those carols he’s learning in Sunday School for the Christmas program.

Our family singing could be better. The greatest inhibitor is the lack of knowing the words to each hymn. I resolved to put an end to that problem this year, and so I bought a few copies of Sacred Songs of Christmas: A Family Treasury from CPH during their Cyber-Monday sale.

We’ve used this book now for almost a week, giving me enough of a handle to offer up a few of my thoughts by way of a review.

The book is truly a treasury. It’s more than a hymnbook. In addition to hymns it has poems, craft ideas, and recipes. There are accompanying illustrations and articles as well. Some hymns (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” and “He Whom Shepherds Once Came Praising”) are preceded by historical data about their composition. There is a brief and very well-written article about “angels” written by Scot Kinnaman on page 15, and there is a fantastic page titled “Change the Emphasis” with practical ways a family can make the Advent and Christmas season more Christ-focused…such as stacking gifts under the tree by giver rather than receiver (p. 32).

Sacred Songs of Christmas has eighteen hymns. Four of them are not found in Lutheran Service Book and include: (1) “Oh, Come, Little Children” (2) “He Whom Shepherds Once Came Praising” (3) “In a Little Stable” and (4) “Little Children Can You Tell?” Of these four hymns, “He Whom Shepherds Once Came Praising” is very long and musically complicated and requires more personnel than my family is composed of.

The other fourteen hymns are found in LSB, but the lyrics of five of them differ from what the LSB has printed in its pages. Those hymns with varying lyrics are (1) “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (2) “Away in the Manger” set to the tune CRADLE SONG, rather than the traditional tune most people know, (3) “Now Sing We, Now Rejoice” (4) “Once in Royal David’s City” and (5) “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise”. In some instances, the lyric variations are nothing more than word here or a word there. In other instances (especially in “Now Sing We, Now Rejoice”) the variance is significant.

This variance in lyrics is a great inconvenience to me and my greatest criticism. It’s not a matter of neglect or poor planning by Concordia Publishing House. Sacred Songs of Christmas: A Family Treasury was published before Lutheran Service Book. But I’d like there to be uniformity between the hymns we sing around the dinner table and those that we sing around the Lord’s Table. For this reason, this Christmas Treasury is likely to see limited use in my household. The many poems will be used before bedtime with the kids, but the musical portions will not see the frequent use I had originally planned for them around the dinner table.

Family traditions are unique to families. This Treasury doesn’t lend itself to aiding the traditions established in my family, but it’s not hard to imagine how it could aid your family in yours. If your family is lacking Christmas traditions and you’d like to start one, Sacred Songs of Christmas: A Family Treasury would be of help to you in that endeavor.

 Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.

[1] A fun story about this Advent Cake. When it was given to me by my parents, it was packaged in the same box that was used to ship it to my grandfather so many years ago. The return address on that box was of one Rev. David Loesch, who, coincidentally, used to serve the two congregations I now serve today back in the early to mid 1940s.

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