The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Nineteen Hymns on the Nativity of Christ in the Flesh

Metrical Poems by Saint Ephraem the Syrian
 (Born at Nisibis, then under Roman rule, early in the fourth century; died June, 373)

Translated into Prose by Rev. J. B. Morris (#1-13)
(Late) Fellow of Exeter College
Translated into Prose by Rev. A. Edward Johnston (#14-19)

Music: Not Stated

Sources of Hymns 1-13:
Source: Rev. Edward B. Pusey, et al., eds., Rhythms of Saint Ephrem The Syrian  / Select Works of S. Ephrem the Syrian. Trans. Rev. J. B. Morris, Volume 41 of A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Anterior to the Division of the East and West. (Oxford: John Henry Parker; London: F. and J. Rivington: 1847), pp. 1-60.

The translation was from Petrus Mobarak Benedictus, S.J., and S. E. Assemani, Sancti Patris Nostri Ephraem Syri Opera Omnia quae exstant Graece, Syriace, Latine. "Tomas Secundus, Syriace et Latine." Volume 5 of 6 Volumes (Rome: Typographia Pontificia Vaticana, 1740, 1743), pp. 396-436. Note that the three Syriac volumes are numbered 1 through 3, not 4 through 6, as one might expect. It is often referred to as the Roman Edition (R. E.), Volume 5 (Hence RE V).

Also found in John Gwynn, ed., Hymns and Homilies of Ephraim The Syrian, Volume 13, Part 2, of Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905), pp. 223-250.

Sources of Hymns 14-19:
John Gwynn, ed., Hymns and Homilies of Ephraim The Syrian, Trans. A. Edward Johnston, Volume 13, Part 2, of Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905), pp. 250-262.

Hymns 14-19 were discovered in a treasure trove of Syrian manuscripts retrieved in the early 1840s by Rev. Henry Tattam (1789–1868), an English Coptic scholar, from the Monastery of the Syrians (Deir al-Suryani) (St. Mary Deipara) in Egypt's Nitrian desert. They were first transcribed from the manuscript, and translated into Latin, in Thomas J. Lamy, ed., Sancti Ephraem Syri hymni et sermones. Volume 2. (Mechliniae: H. Dessain, 1886), pp. 429-516 (Languages: Syrian and Latin).

Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the Holy Bible will be from the English Revised Version of 1895,
which is in the public domain. Neither source stated which translation they used or recommended.

The text reproduced here is that which was published in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. In some cases, the text and notes were changed from that found in the original publication, Rhythms of Saint Ephrem The Syrian  / Select Works of S. Ephrem the Syrian. There are multiple copies at both Google Books and the Internet Archive of Rhythms of Saint Ephrem The Syrian  / Select Works of S. Ephrem the Syrian, the original source document for the first 13 hymns.

The Rhythms of Saint Ephrem the Syrian on the Nativity

Rev. Morris notes "The word ['Rhythms'] here used in the Syriac is frequently employed by the Rabbins (not without great countenance from the use of the root in Holy Writ) to express a mystical commentary on the Text of Scripture. There is much analogous to this in these discourses of St. Ephrem; while the more or less exactly metrical character of them appears to justify the adoption of the title 'rhythm,' especially as the term has already been used in other parts of the Church for devotional compositions of a similar cast." Note a, p. 1.

Hymn 1. This Is The Day That Gladdened Them

Hymn 2. Blessed Be That Child

Hymn 3. Blessed Be That First Day of Thine, Lord

Hymn 4. This Is The Month Which Brings All Manner Of Joy

Hymn 5. At The Birth Of The Son

Hymn 6. Blessed Be The Messenger That Was Laden

Hymn 7. The Son Of The Maker is Like Unto His Father As Maker!

Hymn 8. That Thy Resurrection Might Be Believed

Hymn 9. Come Rest, And Be Still In The Bosom Of Thy Mother

Hymn 10. In Thee Will I Begin To Speak

Hymn 11. I Shall Not Be Jealous, My Son. The Virgin Mother to Her Child.

Hymn 12. The Babe That I Carry Carries Me

Hymn 13. In The Days Of The King. Compare Hymn II. For the Epiphany: In The Time Of The King

Hymn 14. Of The Birth Of The Firstborn

Resp.--Blessed be he who became beyond measure low, that he might make us beyond measure great.

Hymn 15. Celebrate, O Nations, This Feast

Resp.--Blessed is He above all in His Birth! (bis).

Hymn 16. Who Then That Is Mortal Man

Resp.--Glory to all of Thee from all of us! (bis.)

Hymn 17. Infants Were Slain Because Of Thy Birth

Resp., Praise to Thee from every mouth on this Day of Thy Birth!

Hymn 18. Blessed Art Thou, O Church, for lo! in thee is the sound

Resp.--Praise be to Him Who sent Him! (bis)

Hymn 19. The First Year Wherein, Our Saviour Was Born

Resp.--Blessed be thy Birth that gladdens all creatures!

Editor's Notes:

There is great esteem for St. Ephream's poetry in the Eastern Church. He's been said to be a genius in poetry, and his mastery of the language is considered by some to be virtually unequalled.

Translating the texts composed in one language into another language is always challenging. But translating poetry is someplace between extremely challenging and nearly impossible. Translating Syrian poetry into English is especially difficult for several reasons including rhythms and accents, rhymes, assonance, images, structures, and the subtle variances in the meanings of words. In addition, there are major cultural differences in preferences for poetic structures. 

These may be some of the reasons that caused the authors to create prose translations of St. Ephream's poetry.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) entry for St. Ephraem briefly discusses this issue:

In Syriac poetry St. Ephraem is a pioneer of genius, the master often imitated but never equalled. ... The Western reader of the hymns of Ephraem is inclined to wonder at the enthusiasm of his admirers in the ancient Syriac Church.

His "lyricism" is by no means what we understand by that term. His poetry seems to us prolix, tiresome, colourless, lacking in the person note, and in general devoid of charm.

To be just, however, it must be remembered that his poems are known to most readers only in versions, from which of course the original rhythm has disappeared---precisely the charm and most striking feature of this poetry.

These hymns, moreover, were not written for private reading, but were meant to be sung by alternating choirs. We have only to compare the Latin psalms as sung in the choir of a Benedictine monastery with the private reading of them by the priest in the recitation of his Breviary.

Nor must we forget that literary taste is not everywhere and at all times the same. We are influenced by Greek thought more deeply than we are aware or like to admit: In literature we admire most the qualities of lucidity, sobriety, and varied action. Orientals, on the other hand, never weary of endless repetition of the same thought in slightly altered form; they delight in pretty verbal niceties, in the manifold play of rhythm and accent, rhyme and assonance, and acrostic. In this respect it is scarcely necessary to remind the reader of the well-known peculiarities and qualities of Arabic poetry.

Source: Labourt, Jérôme. "St. Ephraem." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 5 Feb. 2017 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05498a.htm>.

We have seen some excellent English-language poets translate poems from other languages into English, as, for example, Katherine Winkworth's translations from the German. Perhaps the time is ripe for contemporary poets to take these prose translations and attempt to put them into a poetic structure that would be appealing to Western readers.

There have been other individual translations of hymns that are in the public domain; as we find them, we'll post them with links on the Eastern Hymns web page.

There are severalf contemporary translations of St. Ephream's poetry including:

St. Ephraem of Syria was also the author of Fifteen Hymns of the Epiphany, as well as other hymns of the Christmas-tide, hymns against heresies, hymns for the faith, etc.

See generally Christmas-tide Hymns from the Eastern Churches.

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