This is one of the most beloved carols in the Nordic countries, but the tune is from Central Europe and it has travelled across the Atlantic in English translations. So why haven’t you heard of it yet?
Maybe it’s because people can’t agree where it starts, and there are so many different versions. Schönster Herr Jesu was a 17th century Jesuit hymn first. Translated as “Fairest Lord Jesus“, it was thought to have been sung by crusaders journeying to the Holy Land, when it was added to an 1842 collection of Silesian folksongs by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who also wrote the German national anthem.
Then it went north to Denmark. Bernhard Ingemann’s Dejlig er jorden (“The World is Wonderful”) was first published in 1850. This version still has the pilgrimage aspect but it has become a Christmas carol. There is a fascinating early recording of a six-year-old singing it into a phonograph in 1898, published by Europeana sounds.
I got to know the carol in Finnish as maa on niin kaunis (“The earth is so beautiful”), the title of the first Finnish translation in 1887. This version, still number 30 in the Lutheran hymnbook, is one of the most beloved carols in Finland. Here it is, with images to match, sung by the Cantores minores of Helsinki Cathedral:
In Swedish, it’s Härlig är jorden (hymnbook number 297 – “the earth is glorious”). Well, the Swedes were always more cheerful.
But all the Nordic lyrics tell the story of the message of the angels passing from heaven to earth. And of the pilgrimage we are all making. Here is Aarberg’s”Fair is Creation”, one of three English versions of Bernhard Ingemann’s text:
Fair is creation, Fairer God’s heaven,
Blest is the marching pilgrim throng.
Onward through lovely Regions of beauty
Go we to Paradise with song.
Ages are coming, Ages are passing
Nations arise and disappear.
Never the joyful Message from heaven
Wanes through the soul’s brief sojourn here.
Angels proclaimed it Once to the shepherds,
Henceforth from soul to soul it passed:
Unto all people Peace and rejoicing,
Us is a Savior born at last.
Wishing you a peaceful Christmas, full of rejoicing.