“O How Beautiful the Sky”: A Scandinavian Hymn for Epiphany

Also translated, “Bright and Glorious is the Sky” (ELH 120), this delightful hymn for Christmas and Epiphany comes from the country of Denmark. If you could, by some chance, worship in a Danish Lutheran church this past Sunday, you would probably be singing this hymn.
Everything about this hymn is joyous- the words, the meaning, the melody. To hear this hymn and read the words click here.

“Bright and glorious is the sky,” it begins. The first verse paints a picture with words. What a beautiful sight the heavens are with unnumbered stars shining like jewels in the dark night! These are the same stars the Wise Men saw. But the Wise Men discovered a special star, one that shone brighter and more brilliantly than all the rest. They hymn goes on to tell the story of how the “sages from the East far” (v. 3) followed the “Christmas star” (v. 2). The star led them to the “King of nations” (v. 3), who wore no crown or “diadem” (v. 4). Rather they found the Babe of Bethlehem.

3_wise_men_or_3_kings_leading_camel_through_the_desert_following_the_star_of_bethlehem_0515-1012-0801-1607_SMU

The poet tells us that we have a star to guide us, too. The sixth stanza gives us the clue. It is “God’s holy Word.” The light from its “sacred pages” will shine upon “our path of life.”  It “forever will provide us/ with the light to find our Lord” (v. 5).

This hymn is sung to a lilting melody that almost sings itself. You will note that the composer of this tune is not known. People were probably singing this Danish melody when the words were written.

The Danish name for the tune is  DEJIG ER DEN HIMMEL BLAA. The  tune is also known by the Latin name, CELESTIA, meaning “heavens,” reflecting the the words of the hymn.

Nikolai Grundtvig  is the author of “O How Beautiful the Sky.” His name is a famous one in Denmark and in the Lutheran Church. This gifted poet and hymn-writer was also a fiery and fearless preacher. He is sometimes known as the “Poet of Whitsuntide” (Pentecost). A number of his other hymns appear in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, including “Built on a Rock” (ELH 211) and “God’s Word is our Great Heritage” (ELH 583). grundtvig_nfs_2

(Article adapted from Katherine J. Weller, We Sing to God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964) p. 14.


Comments

“O How Beautiful the Sky”: A Scandinavian Hymn for Epiphany — 16 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post, Pastor Stafford,

    ELH 151 “Thou Light of Gentile Nations” by J. Franck, the author of “Jesus Priceless Treasure” and “Soul Adorn Thyself with Gladness” is one of my favorites, and, as far as I know, only in the ELH.

    The 5th verse:

    My Savior, I behold Thee
    With faith’s enlightened eye;
    Of Thee no foe can rob me,
    His threats I can defy.
    Within Thy heart abiding,
    As Thou, O Lord, in me,
    Death can no longer frighten
    Nor part my soul from Thee.

  2. “Thou Light of Gentile Nations” (ELH 151) is also #138 in the Lutheran Hymnal (TLH). Yesterday we used that hymn also in my parish. We sang it during communion distribution, since it incorporates the Song of Simeon into verse 3.

  3. The Danish name for the tune is DEJIG ER DEN HIMMEL BLAA.

    I am a long way from home and have not heard this in church in a very long time.

    But Garrison Keillor sings it, in Danish, on one of his Christmas CD’s.

    The CD begins with a song about a church supper, which is a parody of “Jon Jonnsen’s Wedding.” :) [That’s Yon Yonnsen’s Vedding, BTW.] :) :)

  4. I was just reading “Johny Johnson’s Wedding” in the Garrison Keillor collection, “Life Among the Lutherans” (Augsburg, 2009).

    I became acquainted with “O How Beautiful the Sky” when searching for choir pieces for Christmas Eve in 2011. I found an old arrangement by Paul Christiansen, in Norwegian and English, in a filing cabinet up in the church balcony. How pleased I was that it was also included in Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, which contains more Scandinavian hymns than any other Orthodox Lutheran hymnal.

  5. What’s been amazing in my time spent in Lutheranism is how rich and full the hymns are with regard to theology. It’s been a wonderful treat for our family to hear and sing songs that are so full of sound doctrine set to poetry.

  6. @Shawn Stafford #5
    it was also included in Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, which contains more Scandinavian hymns than any other Orthodox Lutheran hymnal.

    What else? They are the “Little Norwegian Synod” (and Norway still celebrates its independence day… Syttende Mai…. that’s independence from the Danes, about 200 years ago.) :) Lots of overlap in Lutheran hymnody there.

    A Norsk friend of mine agreed to sing “Den Storr Hvide Flok” for my funeral… one verse in Norwegian, if I wanted him to. It was sung at my grandfather’s funeral, in Danish.

    @John Rixe #6

    Thank you for the Paul Christiansen arrangement! Luther College used to sing that one, too.

  7. helen: Norway still celebrates its independence day… Syttende Mai…. that’s independence from the Danes, about 200 years ago.

    It was the SWEDES, not the Danes, from whom the Norwegians declared their independence on syttende mai, the Seventeenth of May, 1814. The Norwegians were under Swedish rule–which, when you think about it, was really better for them.

    The Norwegians DECLARED their independence from Sweden in 1814. But, being a little slow on things, as Norwegians are, they were not able to actually ACHIEVE their independence until 91 years later, in 1905.

  8. This past Christmas Eve our choir sang a Norwegian song, “I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve” (Jeg er så glad hver julekveld).

    I wish we had more Scandinavian music in LSB. One of my favorite Swedish Christmas songs is Nu tändas tusen juleljus (literally, “Now Are Lit a Thousand Christmas Candles”). We sing it every year at our Swedish Julfest here in St. Louis.

  9. @Charles Henrickson #11

    A thousand Christmas candles are lit now
    On Earth’s dark round
    And thousands upon thousands also beam
    In the sky’s dark blue ground

    And all over town and rural tonight
    The joyful message of Christmas sounds
    That born is the Lord Jesus Christ
    Our saviour and God

    Thou star above Bethlehem
    O, let your gentle light
    Come shining in with hope and serenity
    Into every home and house

    In every poor dark heart
    Send a mild ray
    A ray of light of God’s love
    In sacred Christmas days

  10. @Charles Henrickson #10
    It was the SWEDES, not the Danes, from whom the Norwegians declared their independence on syttende mai, the Seventeenth of May, 1814.

    If you say so, Swede! When I was first introduced to Syttende Mai, I learned “Danes” … from the Norwegians! [If you go back to around 1300, Queen Margrethe I of Danmark had both Norway and a good chunk of Sweden in her realm.] So one way or another, many of the Christmas hymns and carols have the same roots.

    (My first year at Luther, the Nordic Choir had Jeg er sa glad… as a tour piece. We heard it round the dorm from October to April!) :)

  11. @Charles Henrickson #11 & @John Rixe #12 :

    I was first introduced to this simple, pretty song back in the late 70’s/early 80’s when a contemporary Christian singer named Evie Tornquist Karllson recorded it on one of her albums in English — here are her translated lyrics:

    We light a thousand candles bright
    Around the earth today,
    And all the beams will shine across
    The heavens’ grand display.

    Yes, over land and sea tonight,
    The joyful message brings
    The birth of Him, our Lord and Christ,
    Our Savior and our King.

    Dear brightest star o’er Bethlehem,
    O let your precious light
    Shine in with hope and peace toward men
    in every home tonight.

    In all our hearts, so cold and dark,
    Please send your warmth sublime,
    The warmth that comes from Jesus’ love
    This blessed Christmastime.

    Here’s Evie singing this song:
    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6L8b7x8eFms&w=420&h=315

    I used it in the 80’s and 90’s with my choirs as the song sung while the candlelight candles were being lit in the nave of the church. Very pretty “lead-in” to Silent Night.

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