The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Notes for
Vom Himmel Hoch Da Komm Ich Her

For Christmas Eve

Words: Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, by Martin Luther
From Joseph Klug's Gesangsbuch, 1535

Based on Luke 2

Music: "Vom Himmel Hoch"
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / XML
Meter: 8 8 8 8 (LM)

Luther, though a rebel, was no Puritan, and was a passionate lover of music and folk-poetry. “I would fain,” he said, “see all arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them.” Kindly, a lover of children, he had a deep feeling for the festival of Christmas; and in 1534 he wrote for his children (including his little son Hans) one of the most delightful and touching of all Christmas hymns — “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her.” According to Clement A. Miles, its first verse was adapted from a secular song; its melody may, perhaps, have been composed by Luther himself. There is another Christmas hymn by Luther — “Vom Himmel Kam Der Engel Schar” — written by him in 1543 for use when “Vom Himmel hoch Da Komm Ich Her” was thought too long. One English Translation is To Shepherds As They Watched By Night by Richard Massie (1854).

It was first published in 1534, and then republished in 1539 by Luther with a new melody.

The song was designed to show, first, the angel’s declaration to the shepherds; originally, the first five verses were sung by a man (dressed as an angel). This declaration was followed by the shepherds’ response, and our welcoming of our Savior (the next 9 verses were sung in response by Luther's children, with the last verse sung by the angel and the children together). "Together, this entire package forms a whole piece of teaching and admonition as well as gratitude to God," wrote Leonard Payton (Trinity Hymnal Commentary, 1990 Hymnal).

The visual picture of the angelic announcement to the shepherds had led, in the past, to some unusual practices. According to Clement A. Miles, at Crimmitschau in Saxony a boy, dressed as an angel, used to be let down from the roof by a rope singing Luther's “Vom Himmel hoch,” and the custom was only given up when the breaking of the rope caused a serious accident.

Illustration left: "Singing 'Vom Himmel Hoch' From A Church Tower At Christmas," by Ludwig Richter, from "Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan," by Clement A. Miles (1912).

The hymn has enjoyed great popularity in Germany since it was written. It is said that "Vom Himmel Hoch" was one of the hymns sung during the Christmas Truces of the Frank-Prussian War (1870-1871), and World War I, 1914. See the notes following O Holy Night.

The earliest English-language version of the hymn was I Come From Heuin To Tell (subtitled "Ane Sang of the Birth of Christ"), written by the Wedderburn brothers, and published in 1567 in Ane Compendious Buik of Godlie Psalms and Spirituall Sangis. Very similar is the version from 1578: I Come From Heuin To Tell.

H. R. Bramley followed with From Highest Heaven I Come To Tell; his version was "based on an old Scottish version" and was printed in Christmas Carols - New and Old, Third Series, circa. 1878. From Heaven Above To Earth I Come, the well-known translation from the German by Catherine Winkworth, was published in 1855.

J. H. Hopkins, in Great Hymns Of The Church, gives the full 15 verses (From Highest Heaven, On Joyous Wing, the Massie translation), as do other sources. Ian Bradley, in The Penguin Book of Carols has the 15-verse translation by Catherine Winkworth. See: Christmas Poetry of Catherine Winkworth: "A Carol." Many other hymnals and carol collections, however, give or use shorter translations, of which there are a considerable number, as will be seen below.

Sources include:

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The following notes are from John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1892, 1907), pp. 1227-1228.

    Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her. M. Luther. [Christmas.] This beautiful Christmas hymn first appeared in the Geistliche Lieder, Wittenberg, 1535, in 15 stanzas of 4 lines; and thence in Wackernagel, iii. p. 23. Also in Schircks's edition of Luther's Geistliche Lieder, 1854, p. 12, in the Unv. L..S., 1851, No. 55, &c. In Klug's G.B., 1543, it is entitled “A Children's Hymn for Christmas Eve on the child Jesus, taken from the Second Chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke."

It has sometimes been said to be derived, at least in part, from the Latin. To the “Parvulus nobis nascitur” its resemblance is very slight; and this Latin hymn has not been traced earlier than the 1579 edition of Lucas Lossius's Psalmodia (1st edition, 1553). To the “Nuntium vobis fero de supernis” (British Museum MS of the 12th Century, Harl. 2928 f. 114), it has no relationship whatsoever.

Of the origin of the German hymn, Lauxmann, in Koch, viii. 21, thus speaks:—

"Luther was accustomed every year to prepare for his family a happy Christmas Eve's entertainment.. . and for this festival of his children he wrote this Christmas hymn. Its opening lines are modelled on a song, 'Aus fremden Landen komm ich her;" and throughout he successfully catches the ring of the popular sacred song. It is said that Luther celebrated the festival in his own house in this original fashion. By his orders the first seven verses of this hymn were sung by a man dressed as an angel, whom the children greeted with the eighth and following verses."

We may add that Luther took the first stanza almost entirely from the song, which begins:--

Ich komm aus fremden Landen her,
Und bring euch viel der neuen Mahr,
Der neuen Mahr bring ich so viel,
Mahr dann ich euchy hier sagen will.”

From the rest of the song Luther did not borrow anything.

In Klug's G.B., 1535, it is set to the melody of “Aus fremden Landen,” or rather, as F.M. Bohme, in his Aldeutsches Liederbuch, 1871, No. 271, gives it “Ich komm aus fremden Landen her.” In the Geistliche Lieder, Leipzig, V. Schumann, 1539, this was superseded by the beautiful melody still in use, which is sometimes ascribed to Luther, and is set to this hymn in the Chorale Book for England, 1863 (set also to No. 57 in Hymns Ancient & Modern, 1875). Translated as:—

1. From Highest Heaven Good News I Bring By A. T. Russell, as No. 17 in the Dalston Hospital Hymn Book, 1848. There stanza i. is condensed from i., ii.; and stanzas ii.-v. are from iii., iv., viii., xv., and published as From Highest Heaven Good News I Bring in his own Psalms & Hymns, 1851, No. 43. Mr. Russell omitted the tr. of st. xv. and added a translation of st. vii. [Editor's Note: The "Dalston Hospital Hymn Book" was published by Ernest Bunsen with the title Hymns for Public Worship and Private Devotion: For the Benefit of the London German Hospital Dalston, London, 1848.]

2. From Yonder World I Come To Earth. In full, by Dr. J. Hunt in his Spiritual Songs of Martin Luther, 1853, p. 30. From this stanzas vi., ix., xiii., xiv., beginning "Oh! Let Us All Be Glad Today," were included in the Manchester Sunday School Hymn Book,1855, the Book of Praise for Children, 1881, and the Congregational Church Hymnal, 1887.

3. From Heaven Above To Earth I Come. This is a good and full translation, by Miss Winkworth in her Lyra Germanica, 1st Ser., 1855, p. 12, and in her Chorale Book for England, 1863, No. 30. See:

4.  Good News From Heaven The Angels Sing. (A Christmas Carol For Children) This is No. 131 in the Pennsylvania Lutheran Church Book, 1868, in 7 stanzas (answering to st. i., iii., iv., viii., x., xiii., xv.), of which st. i.-iv., vii. are altered from A. T. Russell, and v., vi. from Miss Winkworth. And see:

Other translations are:—

(l) "I Come From Heuin To Tell." From A Compendious Book of Godly and Spiritual Songs, Commonly Known as 'The Gude and godlie Ballatis,' Reprinted from the Edition of 1567 (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1897), pp. 49-51. Rewritten by H. R. Bramley, as No. 66 in the Bramley-Stainer Christmas Carols, New and Old, beginning "From Highest Heaven I Come To Tell"

See also:

(2) "I Come From Heaven To Declare," as No. 300 in pt. i. of the Moravian Hymn Book 1754. [p.179; pdf 200] From this st. vii, viii., x., xiii. were given in the Bible Hymn Book, [Hymn 163, p. 142], 1845, beginning “Awake My Heart, My Soul, My Eyes."

(3) "To-day We Celebrate The Birth," of stanzas iv., vii., viii., xiii. (partly founded on the 1754 translations as No. 50 in the Moravian Hymn Book, 1789 (1886, No. 47).

(4) "I Come, I Come! From Yon Celestial Clime." By Miss Fry, 1845, p. 1.

(5) "Little Children, All Draw Near" by J. Anderson, 1846, p. 3.

(6) "From Highest Heaven, On Joyous Wing." By J. R. Massie, 1854, p. 3.

(7) "From Heaven High I Wing My Flight" By Dr. H. W. Dulcken, in his Book of German Songs, 1856, p. 264.

(8) "From Heaven High I've Wandered Forth." By Dr. H. W. Dulcken in his Golden Harp, 1864, p. 137.

(9) "From Heaven On High I Come To You." [1535] By Dr. G. Macdonald in the Sunday Magazine, 1867, p. 255; From Heaven On High I Come To You, altered in his Exotics, 1876, p. 45.

(10) "From Heav'n On High To Earth I Come." In the Church of England Magazine, 1872, p. 44.

(11) "From Heaven So High I Come To You." By the Rev. J. G. Tasker, in the Wes. Meth. Magazine, Dec., 1883.

We may note that in J. C. Jacobi's Psal. Ger., 1722, p. 13, there is a hymn in 5 stanzas, beginning "He reigns, the Lord our Saviour reigns," which is set to the melody of 1539. It is not, however a tr. from Luther, but is merely a selection of stanzas from Isaac Watts's version of Ps. xcvii. [J.M.]

Additional Translations Not Listed Above:

These hymns are excerpts from translations:

Ian Bradley, in The Penguin Book of Carols, has an extensive discussion of the history of this hymn, which I recommend. He notes that some versions begin with verse 7, Give Heed, My Heart and Ah Dearest Jesus, while other versions select verses based on themes, as in the United Reformed Church's hymnal Rejoice And Sing (vv. 1-3: "The Angel's Message;" vv. 10, 13, 14, 16: "The Children's Welcome"). See: From Heaven High I Come To You (Translator: Winfred Douglas, 1939).

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Alphabetical list of translations of Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her

Ah Dearest Jesus - Excerpt from Winkworth

Awake My Heart, My Soul, My Eyes - Excerpt from Moravian translation

From Heaven Above To Earth I Come - Catherine Winkworth from Lyra Germanica

From Heaven Above To Earth I Come - Catherine Winkworth Version 2, with sheet music

From Heaven Above To Earth I Come - The full 15-verse Winkworth poem.

From Heaven High I Come To You - Translation by Winfred Douglas, 1939

From Heaven High I Come To You - Translation by Winfred Douglas, 1939, alt.

From Heaven High I Wing My Flight - Dr. H. W. Dulcken, in his Book of German Songs, 1856, p. 264.

From Heaven High I've Wandered Forth - Dr. H. W. Dulcken in his Golden Harp, 1864, p. 137.

From Heaven On High I Come To You - Dr. G. Macdonald, altered, in his Exotics, 1876, p. 45.

From Heav'n On High To Earth I ComeIn the Church of England Magazine, 1872, p. 44.

From Heaven So High I Come To You - By the Rev. J. G. Tasker, in the Wes. Meth. Magazine, Dec., 1883.

From Highest Heaven Good News I Bring - A. T. Russell, version 2

From Highest Heaven I Come To Tell - Bramley & Stainer

From Highest Heaven I Come To Tell - Pettman, Modern Christmas Carols, 1892

From Highest Heaven, On Joyous Wing - By J. R. Massie, 1854, p. 3.

From Yonder World I Come To Earth - Dr. J. Hunt

Give Heed, My Heart - Excerpt from Winkworth translation

Good News From Heav'n The Angels Bring - AT Russell and Winkworth, alt., from Wartburg Hymnal

Good News From Heaven The Angels Sing (A Christmas Carol For Children) (Cento from A. T. Russell and C. Winkworth)

Good News From Heaven The Angels Sing - Winkworth and AT Russell

I Come From Heaven To Declare as No. 300 in pt. i. of the Moravian Hymn Book 1754. [p.179; pdf 200] From this st. vii, viii., x., xiii. were given in the Bible Hymn Book, [Hymn 163, p. 142], 1845, beginning “Awake My Heart, My Soul, My Eyes."

I Come From Heuin To Tell - William Sandys, 1833; "Ane Sang of the Birth of Christ," from Ane Compendiovs Booke of Godly and Spiritvall Songs, collectit, &c. for avoyding of Sinne and Harlotrie, 15 verses, published at Edinburgh in 1597; reprinted in Dalyell, Scotish Poems from the 16th Century, 1801.

I Come From Heaven To Tell - From Edith Rickert, 1910, "Ane Sang of the Birth of Christ" from Ane Compendious Buik of Godlie Psalms and Spirituall Sangis by John, James and Robert Wedderburn, 1567. 15 Verses.

I Come From Heuin To Tell - 1567 - From A Compendious Book of Godly and Spiritual Songs, Commonly Known as 'The Gude and godlie Ballatis,' Reprinted from the Edition of 1567 (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1897), pp. 49-51.

I Come From Heuin To Tell - 1578 - From A Compendious Book of Psalms and Spiritual Songs, Commonly Known as “The Gude and Godlie Ballates.” (Edinburgh: Reprinted from the Edition of 1578, M.DCCC.LXVIII [1868]), pp. 43-45.

I Come, I Come! From Yon Celestial Clime. By Miss Fry, 1845, p. 1.

Little Children, All Draw Near - By J. Anderson, 1846, p. 3.

Oh! Let Us All Be Glad Today - Dr. J. Hunt, alt.

This day to you is born a child. (Baloo, Lammy)

Today We Celebrate The Birth - Moravian Translation, 1754

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