Where’d That Come From?
Every Christmas season, we pull out the CDs or connect with Pandora or turn to the station on the radio to hear Christmas music – the heart of the season. But did you ever wonder where they came from? Or, who wrote them and why? Christmas music goes back in time and back to many other parts of the world. It goes back to other cities, other languages, other churches, and just other people trying to offer a message of hope or describe an experience for a reason and for a season. But for every carol or song, there is a backstory – the story behind the music. Following are the backstories of four popular Christmas carols/songs we all know and love. Enjoy!
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem
This religious carol tells the tale of the birth of Jesus, and was inspired by a pilgrim’s moving Christmas Eve experience in the Holy Lands.
Phillip Brooks was a distinguished man of faith and intellect. A Boston-born Episcopalian preacher, he’d earned a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Oxford, taught at Yale University, and publically advocated against slavery during the Civil War. But he’s best known for penning “O Little Town of Bethlehem” after a life-changing journey.
In 1865, Brooks rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he participated in the Church of the Nativity’s five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration, complete with hymns. Returning home, this experience proved so profound that he channeled it into the song sung in churches to this day. Its first public performance was held three years later, performed by the children’s choir of his church on December 27th.
O Holy Night
A parish priest in a small French town commissioned a local poet and wine commissionaire, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, to write a poem for the village’s Christmas Eve mass. Cappeau read through the birth of Christ in the gospel of Luke en route to Paris and finished the poem O Holy Night by the time he reached the city.
Cappeau turned to his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to compose the music to the poem, and three weeks later, the song was sung in the village on Christmas Eve. Initially, Cantique de Noel (the song’s French name) was widely loved by the Church in France, but when leaders learned that Cappeau was a socialist and Adams a Jew, the song was uniformly denounced as unfit for church services. But the common French people loved it so much, they continued to sing it.
The song came to the U.S. via John Sullival Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War. Moved by the line in the third verse, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease,” he published it in his magazine and quickly found favor in the north during the war.
Even though it was banned in France, the song was still popular among the people. On Christmas Eve in 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian War, a unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked into the battlefield, and started singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the song’s first line in French.
After singing all three verses, a German solider emerged and started singing, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” the beginning of a popular hymn by Martin Luther.
Fighting stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day. Soon after, the French Church re-embraced O Holy Night.
Joy to the World
At this point in history, most songs sung in European church services were the Psalms in the Old Testament. Though Isaac Watts loved the Bible, he felt that these songs felt “unnatural” to sing in their modern-day English translations.
After one Sunday service, 15-year-old Isaac complained about “the atrocious worship.” One of the deacons challenged him with, “Give us something better, young man.” He went home and penned his first hymn, and the love of hymn writing stuck with him the rest of his life.
In 1719, his book “Psalms of David Imitated” was published, not as a new paraphrase of David, but as an imitation of him in New Testament language. Watts’ perspective was the Psalms bursting forth in their complete fulfillment. Joy to the World is the “imitation” of the last half of Psalm 98.
Watts transformed the old Jewish psalm of praise for historic deliverance into a song of rejoicing for the salvation of God that began when the Jesus came “to make his blessing flow far as the curse is found.”
Music is from George Frederick Handel, and some scholars say it resembles his greatest work, Messiah.
Though one of the most popular non-religious Yuletide tunes, “Jingle Bells” was not originally written for Christmas time at all. Penned by James Lord Pierpont in 1850s Savannah, Georgia, the song originally titled “The One Horse Open Sleigh” was intended to celebrate Thanksgiving. The local Unitarian church where he’d later play the song on the organ boasts historical markers declaring it the birthplace of “Jingle Bells.” However, some sources insist Pierpont was belting out the memorable melody as early as 1850, when he still lived in Medford, Massachusetts. Debate still rages about the true birthplace of the song.
“Jingle Bells” was renamed in 1857 when its lyrics and notes were first published. Decades passed before it rose to prominence, and the writer died having never known of its popularity. Yet it made history on December 16, 1965, becoming the first song broadcast in space. The crew of Gemini 6 followed reports of seeing Santa Claus with an improvised version of “Jingle Bells,” which included bells and a harmonica that they had snuck onboard. Mission control responded to the surprise serenade with, “You’re too much, 6.”
Article Written By: Kim Shattell