It’s the 4th Sunday of Advent, the day before Christmas Eve, the snow is falling again outside my parents’ home in a suburb north of Copenhagen. All my presents are ready and wrapped, and I feel so content and happy. I thought I’d share some holiday cheer by posting one of my favorite Christmas carols, the German hymn “Schönster Lord Jesu“, also known in English as “Fairest Lord Jesus“.
Now, this may seem a strange choice for any potential German or English readers out there. In the German and English version, the song is not a carol at all, it is simply a hymn and may be sung all year round. I, however, am mostly familiar with the Danish version by poet B.S. Ingemann, “Dejlig er jorden”.
Ingemann was same poet who did the translation of “Silent Night” (which I mentioned here), and like with “Silent Night” Ingemann took some liberties with the material at hand, but in the case of “Schönster Herr Jesu” he did a much better job, I think. What he did was that he turned the hymn into a Christmas carol, albeit in a very simple, discreet manner. He maintains the essence of the German lyrics, which is to praise eartlhy loveliness and praising the heavenly splendor (the English version is mostly devoted to the praising of Jesus). However, in the last stanza Ingemann links it all to one glorious moment in time, that is, the hour when the lord was born and the shepherds learned of their salvation from heavenly angels. The Danish lyrics go, directly translated:
The earth is lovely, God’s heaven is glorious,
Beautiful is the pilgrimage of our souls!
Through the fair kingdoms on earth,
We walk towards Paradise, singing!
Times shall come, times shall roll over us
Generations shall follow the passing of generations
The tone from heaven shall never cease
In the happy pilgrimage of the soul.
The angels first sang it to the shepherds in the field
Beautifully from soul to soul it rang:
“Peace on earth! Man, rejoice!
An eternal savior is born onto us!”
Effective, yet simple. It is difficult to think of a more striking imagery of heavenly beauty on earth than that of the lowly shepherds being visited by angels, and I like how Ingemann doesn’t try to wrap things up in a conclusive fourth stanza. The words of the angels are allowed to stand alone, along with the image of the shepherds and the angels. “Dejlig er jorden” is a Danish Christmas classic, although the Swedes have embraced the carol as well, using it sometimes as a funeral hymn. It does seem appropriate for such a purpose: Whenever we are singing it, walking around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, joined hands as per Danish custom, the second stanza marks a moment of quiet reflection for me, a reminder of loved ones who have passed away, but also of the life and joy that has yet to come. I am not a Christian, and I cannot truly believe that there is a heavenly note that will sound on earth till the end of time. But I love to be alive in a world that is able to conjure up an idea as beautiful as that – a note ringing from heaven! – and there are plenty earthly things to be happy about. This Christmas Eve, walking around my parents’ Christmas tree, I am sure the verse about the “passing of generations” will make me think affectionately of the baby that my brother’s wife is expecting, a little boy who is to be born early in the new year, making my parents grandparents and me an aunt for the first time. And maybe I will also be thinking a little bit about the little Christmas tree I have waiting for myself and my boyfriend when we return from our respective families to celebrate our first Christmas together in his apartment, in which I moved in in October this year. The earth is indeed lovely.