Most of what we call Christmas carols are actually Christmas hymns. “In dulci jubilo” is a true carol, that is, a medieval dance tune.
Carol texts could be either sacred or secular. Sacred texts usually concerned major feast days, including the birth of Jesus, thus the association of carols with Christmas music.
Folk instruments, including drums and other percussion, frequently accompanied carols and other dances.
The use of dance rhythms, instruments, and non-Latin texts made carols like “In dulci jubilo” unsuitable for use in Roman Catholic church services.
But the Medieval world knew no separation between religious and secular life. Civic ceremonies and private entertainment at all levels of society made frequent reference to religious imagery.
English-language hymnals often pair the tune with a free translation by John Mason Neale, “Good Christian Men, rejoice.”
In dulci jubilo
The German mystic Heinrich Suso (ca. 1295-1366) wrote the words. Or, as he himself put it, transcribed them from a vision he had in 1328.
Now this same angel came up to the Servant [Suso] brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them [the angels] company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion. Then they drew the Servant by the hand into the dance, and the youth began a joyous song about the infant Jesus, which runs thus: ‘In dulci jubilo’, etc.
Suso’s text is among the oldest of “macaronic” songs. That is, it combines Latin with a vernacular language. The second line of his poem is in German, “Nun singet und seid froh.” The entire text alternates between the two languages. Sacred carol texts, coupled with rousing tunes, helped even illiterate peasants understand sacred stories.
The tune may have existed at about the same time, but the earliest extant manuscript was copied in about 1400. The pairing of tune and text remained well known, and after the Protestant Reformation, well-loved among Lutherans. It appeared in three Lutheran hymnals published in the first half of the sixteenth century. One contains an additional verse Luther may have written.
English versions appeared as early as 1540–“IN dulci Jubilo, Now lat vs sing with myrth and Jo.” The collection Lyra Davidica (1708) translates it as “In dulci jubilo, let jubil trumpets blow.”
Translations into other languages probably began to appear as early as the 16th century. A 1745 service in the Moravian settlement of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania featured singing “In dulci jubilo” simultaneously in thirteen different languages!
Good Christian men, rejoice
Neale’s version depends on a rare source, Piæ cantiones, published in 1582. This book owed it existence to an unusual set of circumstances.
Theodoricus Petri, a Finnish Catholic, enrolled at a German university in Rostock. He compiled a song book with 74 traditional medieval Latin church songs and school songs, including “In dulci jubilo.”.
Jaakko Finne, rector of the Cathedral School in Turku, Finland edited it and sent it to Greifswald, Sweden for publication. He even adapted the texts to conform to Lutheran orthodoxy. Such cooperation between Catholics and Lutherans was highly unusual in that time of violent religious strife.
Swedish and Finnish university students used the collection for centuries. It was unknown elsewhere, but in 1853 the British ambassador to Sweden obtained a copy of the 1582 edition and gave it to John Mason Neale, the warden of Sackville College in Sussex.
Neale was among the leaders of the Oxford Movement, which sought out ancient Greek and Latin sacred texts and translated them into English for modern use. He translated or paraphrased some of the texts as Finne had altered them.
Thomas Helmore, vice-principal of St. Mark’s College in Chelsea, arranged the music. They selected 12 carols and published them as Carols from Christmas-tide in 1853. “In dulci jubilo” became “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”
Helmore made a mistake in transcribing the rhythm, which resulted in the incongruous insertion of the words “News, news” in the text. Many modern hymnals properly omit it, but it remains in many others.
The original Latin makes no reference to “men.” The sort of people who censor old texts to make them conform to modern standards of “inclusive language” change Neale’s first line to something like “Good Christian friends, rejoice” or “Good Christians all rejoice.”
Good Christian men, rejoice / Hymnary.org
History of hymns: “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” / C. Michael Hawn, Discipleship Ministries, the United Methodist Church
Notes to In dulci jubilo / The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Piæ cantiones: a Medieval song treasury / The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Carolers in Union Square. Some rights reserved by EricF2000.
Angels. Public domain from Trombone History Timeline / Will Kimball
Carolers in Pocklington. Some rights reserved by Keith Laverack.