Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 6: Adeste Fideles


If you have kids who play piano or guitar in your house, or if you yourself do, you might have one of those books of sheet music for Christmas and holiday songs. If so, one of the songs in that that book might be Adeste Fideles (better known to some as Oh Come All Ye Faithful). And if that is the case, if you go get it now (we’ll wait!).  If you look at the page with that song it will probably list the writer of Adeste Fideles as John Francis Wade.

So here’s the thing: your book is very, very wrong.

John Francis Wade was an 18th century Englishman. He lived in England for the first half of his life, before taking up Catholic nationalist politics and joining the failed Jacobite coup of 1745. Following the final defeat of his fellow absolute monarchists at the Battle of Culloden, Wade fled to France where he lived out the remainder of his days, working primarily as a writer of hymns.

Wade recognized that if any of his works would stand the test of times it was Adeste Fideles, which was easily the most popular and recognized in his own lifetime. Because of this he republished it several times in different countries to ensure his legacy as a composer would remain intact. Because of both his political leanings and his zeal for being recognized as the song’s creator, some scholars in the past believed that Adeste Fideles was a message by Wade to his fellow Jacobites, and that the baby in the nativity was meant to be Bonnie Prince Charlie wrapped up in camouflaged swaddling clothes. Some even go so far as to suggest that within the floral imagery of the song’s lyrics lay a secret coded messages regarding a future possible rebellion.

And while all of this makes for a good Dan Brown-esque story, it is nothing short of bunk. The truth is that despite his wishing to take credit for composing Adeste Fideles, Wade absolutely did not write it.

For one thing, there are multiple copies of Adeste Fideles that predate Wade’s birth. It is likely that the song has had many different hymn writers and evolved over time — a kind of Catholic intramural folk song, if you will. Fragments of its lyrics can be found on documents going as far back as the 13th century. There is strong evidence that points to its final evolution being crafted a century before Wade’s claim by none other than King John IV of Portugal — or if not him, at the very least someone inside his court.

John IV was known as “The Musician King,” and with good reason.  He used his monarchy to assemble what was thought of at the time as the largest and most comprehensive musical library ever. He created a music school in Vila Viçosa where he trained a generation of Portuguese music teachers, and then sent those teachers out throughout Europe to train other countries’ noblemen in the intricacies of Apollo’s art.

Adeste Fideles remains part of the English Hymnal, and for most of its history has been a number sung boldly by choirs and individual artists alike. Still, I find myself preferring more subtle and intimate interpretations.  My two favorite recordings are short instrumental solos, played on guitar and piano by Bruce Cockburn and Marcus Roberts, respectively.

And for those wanting a thoroughly modern yet still bombastic version, Weezer has your back:

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