Both the original text and tune of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” appeared in early fourteenth-century Germany. European conditions then were not very pleasant. Temperatures were cooling as the earth entered the so-called “Little Ice Age.” The King of France had arrested the Pope and removed the papal court from Rome to Avignon. Bubonic plague, known as the “black death,” ravaged Europe. England and France became embroiled in the Hundred Years War.
In its multiplied upheavals and catastrophes, the fourteenth-century resembles our own time. Then as now, many people dreaded what seemed likely in the future. Then as now, devout Christians found more cause to rejoice in the God than to sink into despair. One of them, a German mystic and Dominican monk named Heinrich Suso, decided that the birth of Christ deserved celebration regardless of the gloomy headlines.
One night in 1328 he had a vision of dancing angels, who commanded him to lay aside all sorrow and misery in order to keep them company. He danced with them and then wrote the poem “In dulci jubilo” remembering his vision. The text is macaronic. That is, it combines Latin with a vernacular language, in this case German.
The familiar tune is preserved in the library of Leipzig University in a manuscript copied around 1400. It probably existed some time before then and may even be contemporaneous with Suso’s poem. Many songs and texts of the Medieval period fell into disuse and sat forgotten until rediscovery over the past two centuries. “In dulci jubilo,” on the other hand, has enjoyed unbroken popularity of the association of text and tune.
The first known English version appeared in 1540, and numerous others have followed, some maintaining the original Latin and merely substitution English for the German. John Mason Neale, who also translated “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” published his English paraphrase, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” in 1853.
In some ways, the world has changed a lot since the Middle Ages. In other ways it has not. World conditions, which seemed grim back then, have seemed just as grim most of the time since then. People still do horrible things to each other and very often appeal to religion as justification. But the coming of Jesus is still worth celebrating, because Jesus alone brings redemption to a world the rest of the humanity has ruined.
Source: Hymns and Carols of Christmas