What are the lyrics to ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, and what is the Christmas carol really about?

3 December 2023, 19:36 | Updated: 7 December 2023, 11:59

What are the lyrics to ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’?
What are the lyrics to ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’? Picture: PA

By Daniel Ross

‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ is a dark and delicate carol with a super-confusing back-story. But the good news is there’s a Kelly Clarkson version too!

‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ was originally written in Latin with a title of ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’ (documents featuring the title and words date back to 1710).

The English translation of the Christmas carol came about in 1851 when priest and scholar John Mason Neale’s version featured in the pages of The Hymnal Noted – a key text in the history of hymns collected by hymnal documenter Thomas Helmore.

Neale also originated the words to ‘Good King Wenceslas’, making him officially one of history’s most festive clergymen.

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Carols from King's 2016 | #7 "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" - The Choir of King's College, Cambridge

Since Helmore’s version, slight adaptations and additional verse translations have coalesced into the version most commonly sung today, which includes two extra verses.

Read more: The 30 greatest Christmas carols of all time

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – full lyrics

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav'nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Adonai, Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Read more: The real story behind the carol Good King Wenceslas

Aled Jones and Malakai M Bayoh sing ‘O Holy Night’

What is ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ about?

Quite unusually for a Christmas carol still commonly performed, there are all sorts of arcane words and expressions littered throughout. This is perhaps because the strong roots of the Latin text come from the ‘O Antiphons’ (so-called because each one begins with an ‘O’), traditionally used during the last seven days of advent during the Roman Catholic Vespers service.

The distinctly biblical feel of the lyrics differ from the more overtly celebratory tone of most carols (there’s no herald angels harking nor flocks being watched by night, for example), and the actual nativity narrative doesn’t feature in any meaningful way.

The Emmanuel of the title refers to the Hebrew ‘Immanuel’ which appears in the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament more as a sign of God’s protection than an actual person, whereas in the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament the name Emmanuel refers specifically to Jesus Christ.

Who wrote the music?

The haunting melody of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ has its roots as far back as 15th Century France, with a sketchy-at-best history. It wasn’t until the 1960s musicologist Mary Berry (not that Mary Berry) sourced the 15th century manuscript that bore the tune’s building blocks, among many others used for processional chants for burials.

So the actual composer of the music for one of the world’s most popular carols is enigmatically anonymous. It was, however, the combination of the tune with John Mason Neale’s translation of the Latin text that began its life as a perennial festive favourite.

What are some interesting cover versions?

Well, where to start. ‘O Come…’ has been given contemporary makeovers by artists as wide-ranging as big-voiced pop sensation Kelly Clarkson, punk legends Bad Religion and winsome indie band Belle and Sebastian.

In the classical world, you’ll also hear the strains of the ancient melody in Ottorino Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano, and also in Zoltán Kodály’s ‘Adventi ének’, complete with Latin and Hungarian lyrics.

Listen to Classic FM Christmas, our non-stop playlist of Christmas melodies on Global Player.