Behind the Music: Christmas Carols

(Photo by Selma Komisky)

Behind the Music: Christmas Carols

By Bonny Lou Dady

As I sit here, writing, I’m listening to Christmas music. So many of the songs bring back memories of my childhood…especially the classics! Have you ever wondered how they came to be? Some of the carols and songs have very interesting histories….

The oldest known Christmas song was a Latin Hymn, “Jesus Refulsit Omnium,” meaning, “Jesus Illuminates All.” It was written in the fourth century by a monk named St. Hilary of Portiers. This hymn was written after the first known Christmas celebration in 336 A.D. People have been writing music to express the joy of Jesus’ birth ever since!

My all-time favorite, and one of the most famous of all, “Silent Night,” will be 200 years old this Christmas. “Silent Night” made its debut on Christmas Eve 1818 in Oberndorf, Austria. Some say it was written because the old church organ broke down just before Christmas and they needed a song that could be sung to the accompaniment of a single guitar. The true story is that “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” was written as poem in 1816 by a Catholic priest, named Joseph Mohr. Two years later, he asked his friend, Franz Gruber, to help him put it to music. The two men performed it (with Gruber on guitar), and backed by a full choir, on Christmas Eve 1818. More than 40 years later, an Episcopal priest, John Freeman Young, translated it into English. It has since been translated into more than 140 different languages.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written by Charles Wesley, a preacher, who was also the brother of John Wesley. Charles Wesley wrote the original poem in 1739. A few changes were made to the original language over the years to reflect more modern terminology, but the message is still the same. Early versions were sung to several different popular tunes at a much slower and somber tempo. The song we know today has a melody from German composer, Felix Mendelsson. It was an English musician, William H. Cummings, who matched the poem with Mendelsson’s melody from a secular cantata. It is doubtful that either Mr. Wesley or Mr. Mendelsson would have approved, of course, but what we have is a wonderful, beloved Christmas carol that has been enjoyed by generations!

“Jingle Bells” is one of the most popular non-religious Christmas songs, but it was originally known as “The One Horse Sleigh”—a song written to celebrate Thanksgiving.  James Lord Pierpont wrote it in the early 1850’s and performed it in many venues across the country. It was renamed “Jingle Bells” when the song was finally published in 1857. On December 16, 1965, “Jingle Bells” made history. It became the very first song to be broadcast from space! The crew of Gemini 6 sang an improvised version of it after they reported seeing Santa Clause. The two astronauts had snuck a harmonica and some bells on board before the flight! It was quite a surprise to Mission Control!

“Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” tells the story of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It was inspired by the writer’s pilgrim journey to the Holy Land in 1865. Phillip Brooks was a distinguished and learned preacher who taught at Yale University. He has also an outspoken advocate against slavery. In 1865, Pastor Brooks journeyed on horseback from Jerusalem, all the way to Bethlehem. While there, he participated in the Church of the Nativity’s five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration. This experience had such a profound impact on him that he wrote the beautiful hymn we still love to sing today.  The first time it was sung publicly was three years later by the children’s choir at his church. Millions of children and adults have sung it since then.

Hopefully this Christmas season you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy some of these and other wonderful carols and songs. Music has been a part of Christmas celebrations all over the world for centuries now. The message of Jesus’ birth and the hope and salvation He brought us never gets old!