Which traditional Christmas carol is not really a carol at all?
That would be Joy to the World.
This 1719 song, which is based on Psalm 98, makes no reference to the standard images of Christmas and was originally intended to be sung year-round. But that dramatic phrase in the first verse – “The Lord is come!” – quickly made it a December favorite.
Its composer is Isaac Watts, who became known as the “boy genius” of hymn-writing in the 18th century. Today we might call him a snarky teenager.
Watts was 18 years old when he complained to his father about the wretchedly boring music of the Anglican Church. His dad promptly called his bluff: “You think you can do better?”
In no time Watts composed a hymn that so impressed his local church that they asked if he would be willing to write another one.
That he did. Watts composed a brand new hymn for 222 consecutive Sundays, despite a crippling illness that left him virtually an invalid.
Watts’ hymns – which were dismissed at the time by some people as outrageous “contemporary music” – are still being sung around the world 300 years later, including O God, Our Help in Ages Past and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.
The melody of Joy to the World was written by George Frederick Handel, widely celebrated for his Messiah and its “Hallelujah Chorus.” Here is Watts’ upbeat text:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ.
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love, and wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders of His love.
Watts, who loved pushing the edge of the envelope in his own day, would no doubt appreciate this version of his song by the a capella five-some Pentatonix, who are rapidly becoming America’s go-to Christmas recording artists.
If holiday gift shops are now open all summer, and the Hallmark Channel begins to play round-the-clock Christmas movies a week before Halloween, shouldn’t we be able to sing this favorite “Christmas carol” any time we want?
Isaac Watts, for one, would offer a resounding Yes.