There is some question as to which of the songs in our hymnbook is the oldest. Many of our songs come from German composers and some are attributed to early church fathers. In general, the hymnbook of a modern church is a testimony to the singing tradition of the church throughout the centuries.
Our next Christmas song is somewhat of a puzzle to those who try to track authorship. It appeared for the first time in France in the early 1800’s, but it may well have come from a source much older. In fact, some scholars suggest that this song could have been sung by those who knew the apostles.
In AD 130, just a hundred years after the resurrection, Pope Telesphorus decreed a special mass to celebrate the day of the Lord’s birth—a Christ mass. He further decreed that the words, “Gloria in excelsis deo” would be sung on that day. It is one of the few Latin phrases still heard in evangelical churches. It means, simply, “Glory to God in the highest,” reflecting the words of the angels in Luke. By the 3rd century, celebrating Christmas with these words was already standard practice.
Musicians believe that the music of this song probably came from an old chant, much like those sung by the monks of the Catholic church over the centuries. In spite of the movement of the music, not many notes are used.
So it may be that a Catholic monk from France wrote down this song that was used in his tradition for so long, thereby blessing us with another great Christmas carol.
(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here. These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend. Some of the stories are from my research. The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)