This song goes way back into antiquity. The tune is found in a Leipzig University Library manuscript dating to about 1400 A.D., but was surely older than that.
The story is told of Heinrich Seuse (aka Henrich Suso) (1295-1366), a Benedictine friar and mystic. Seuse allegedly heard angels singing this song and joined the angels in their dance. He took that experience as an invitation to dispense with sorrow and to rejoice in Christ’s birth.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used this melody in several of his works.
John Neale translated this song into English from the Latin and published it in Neale’s Carols for Christmastide in 1853.
The song invites people to rejoice “with heart, and soul, and voice”—in other words, with their whole being. The reason for rejoicing is the birth of Jesus Christ, who “has opened heaven’s door,” bringing blessings to all people everywhere.
The last line captures the spirit of the song. We rejoice because “Christ was born to save!”—a line that is sung twice to close the hymn.
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan