The story behind the songs at Christmas time

It’s the moment when the phrase captures you…”O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel” as you’re standing in the coffee aisle at the grocery store. It’s the CD where you listen to the whole thing and not just cherry pick your favorites off iTunes because this is Bing Crosby. It’s the neighbor’s little boy dressed up in his dad’s bathrobe as he tilts back his head and belts out We Three Kings. It’s the recognition that regardless of our church attendance record, most of us know the words to Silent Night’s second verse.

It’s the realization that the whole month of December (don’t even get me started about the debate on when the proper time to unleash the Christmas music appears on the calendar) comes with a soundtrack. Most of the Christmas carols or holiday songs are so familiar that it takes awhile before we realize that few of the “religious” carols are from this century and that even the holiday standards are mostly from the middle of the last century.

Behind the lyrics of the songs we know so well, and even sing robustly if not so well, there are urban legends worthy of Mythbusters and true stories of great poignancy. There are songwriters trying to change the world by relieving poverty and battling injustice and others just trying to celebrate their belief that those topics were addressed by God Himself in the events in a stable/cave.

It seems only fitting to start with the stories of some of our favorite carols- songs with a joyful tone which celebrate the birth of Christ.

Silent Night, Holy Night

Let’s get one of the most confusing stories out of the way first. The popularity of Silent Night, Holy Night is undisputed but the status of the organ at its first performance is murky at best. What’s known is that the lyrics were written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, the music by his friend Franz Gruber, and the first performance was done to the accompaniment of a guitar.
Some accounts have the organ in need of repair while others point to the fact that Austrian Christmas Eve masses were frequently full of folk music. For all the parents who have wondered about the placidity of the baby Jesus in the midst of the hubbub, a translation of the original German reveals that everyone is asleep except for the parents who appear to plead with the divine baby to sleep.
The other story most often associated with this carol is from World War II. Stories circulate that just before midnight on Christmas Eve, in a frozen forest in Europe, several of the American soldiers began to sing the carol’s lyrics “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright” only to hear from the opposing army the words sung back in German.
In the midst of such bloodshed and violence, what must it have felt like to hear the notes linger in the darkness?

Joy to the World

What’s interesting about this carol is that it was one of those never intended to be linked exclusively to Christmas. Isaac Watts was a Reformed believer in England in the 1700′s. During that time, it was believed that only Psalms should be sung in worship. This was easier said than done since the musical timing in English was off for them to be easily sung. Challenged by his father to do better, Isaac eventually wrote over 600 hymns including several which we still sing today, such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

It was the concepts he found in Psalm 98 that inspired Isaac to write Joy to the World and which today provide even the non-musically gifted among us a reason to sing- and loudly- during this Christmas season even though a close examination of the lyrics uncovers little to mark it as a Christmas song.

Away in a Manger

Like so many of these carols, the original songwriter’s name of this perennial favorite has been lost to the mists of time. For a long time Martin Luther was credited with writing the song as a lullaby to his children. The truth is no less tender as it seems that it was actually written in the U.S. not Germany as a part of a birthday celebration, but for Martin Luther, not Jesus. It appears that it was written in 1883 and sung as part of a children’s play to celebrate Martin Luther’s 400th birthday. Since the festivities would have taken place on November 10th, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that the mention of Jesus’ birth soon morphed this Luther birthday tune into a song forever associated with Christmas.

 

Holiday Songs

Religious Christmas carols are not the only songs popular during this season. ASCAP.com gives us the top Christmas songs of the decade…don’t fear, there’s no grandma/reindeer accident among them.

Winter Wonderland

This song has topped the charts for years and it is one of the oldest having been composed in 1934 by Felix Bernard with lyrics by Richard B. Smith. Plenty of us have mused over the meaning of the song’s bridge where the couple seems quite cheerful while declaring their unmarried state to Parson Brown but also their willingness to marry apparently at the spur of the moment.

This casual matrimonial attitude was addressed in the more “family-friendly” 1953 version where the couple pretends that the snowman is a circus clown so that no Parson Brown needs to inquire after their intentions. In this unknown couple’s defense, parsons or Protestant ministers were often circuit riders and would have indeed been available to perform a wedding without a six month pre-marital countdown. A subsequent verse also confirms that they are quite pleased with their decision to wed as it appears to qualify  under the “plans that we’ve made” that they are willing to “face unafraid.” Just another winter romance. 

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

Rejoice with me at the inclusion of a song that is finally about Christmas but that’s about all that can be said about its origins. Sources have singer Mel Torme and Bob Wells attempting to write in the middle of a heat wave. “Chestnuts roasting…Jack Frost nipping…Yuletide carols…Folks dressed up like Eskimos.” All the images that we associated with one of the most performed Christmas songs were originally just doodles to get the songwriters in a cooler mood. After a short time, the rest of the lyrics were written and the music complete for the song made famous by the Nat King Cole Trio in 1946- a recording that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame nearly thirty years later.

Jingle Bells

Not to be outdone in terms of scope creep, even the infamous “Jingle Bells” was not originally a Christmas song. It’s commonly accepted that the song was written by James Pierpont in the mid 1800′s but it was for a Thanksgiving program. What gets a little confusing is where James was when he wrote it since both Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia claim it was in their fair town.
One interesting note is that on December 16, 1965, astronauts aboard Gemini 6 told Mission Control that they had sighted a UFO piloted by a guy wearing a red suit and then regaled them with Jingle Bells on a harmonica accompanied by sleigh bells. Wonder how they smuggled that carry-on bag aboard?

Classics in the Making

There have been some songs of more recent vintage which may become tomorrow’s classic. Here are some of the contenders and their stories.

Do They know It’s Christmas

Written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in the mid-1980′s, the original recording featured such 80′s heavy hitters as Phil Collins, Boy George, Bono, and George Michael in support of what would become Band Aid. Written in response to the devastating famine in Ethiopia, Bob Geldof announced on BBC television that all the proceeds would be dedicated to charity but the British government initially refused to waive the normal sales tax or VAT. Intense public pressure led to them ultimately donating it back to the charity. Geldof is quoted as saying that he had hoped to raise about £70,000. The song has raised millions of pounds and became the best selling single in UK chart history.

Breath of Heaven

The original lyrics were written by Chris Eaton during a time when his marriage was in shambles and he was unable to even read the Bible. In an attempt to recapture the beauty of his relationship with Christ during a time of emptiness, Chris sat at a piano and began to play. The original lyrics had no Christmas connotation but declared God as harvest and golden sun before the now familiar chorus “Breath of heaven, hold me together, be forever near me” crashes in.

It was not until a year later that Amy Grant, pregnant with her daughter Sarah, asked if she could re-write the lyrics to reflect the birth of Christ from Mary’s perspective and the current version was born.

Mary Did You Know

In the mid-1980s, Mark Lowry was probably better known as a comedian and as a member of the Gaither Vocal Band than as a song writer. Depending on the source, the song was written either for an Advent program or for a Christmas pageant at the request of Mark’s pastor but all agree that the lyrics were inspired by questions he would have posed to Mary. Several years passed before Buddy Green provided the current music and voila…we’ve got ourselves another entry in the countdown to classic carol inclusion.

Our Community Sings

Heaven Came Down

Within the South Florida faith community, Christmas songs are written each Christmas for pageants, cantatas and even for worship services. Clay Hecocks, Worship Pastor for Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, points to Psalm 33:3 as an imperative for worship leaders to be singing (and writing) “new songs” even during the Christmas season. Heaven Came Down, the latest Christmas project from Higher Praise contains several original songs including the title track,

Heaven Came Down and Jesus What Can I Give You. “We want to honor the fruitful tradition of so many of these carols but we also want to present a fresh, relevant expression of our faith. Heaven Came Down reflects the simplicity of the message of Christmas,”  he states.

Will You Remember

John Jones, Director of the annual Christmas Pageant of First Baptist Fort Lauderdale, explains why a song about the Last Supper is one of his favorite songs of the season.
“One of our favorite original songs of the Christmas Pageant revolves around the Lord’s Supper scene. Christmas may have begun at the manger but it can’t be fully told without sharing the whole story of Christ. One of the most intimate moments of the relationship between God and man is at the Last Supper as Jesus and the disciples reflect on their shared experiences and Jesus foreshadows the events of the cross. Will You Remember asks the listeners whether they are remembering Christ and stopping to ponder the work of the Lord in their lives.” Jones explains. 

Even before starting the research included in this article, I had the vague sense that my mental divide between “Christmas” songs and non-Christmas songs was an artificial one, an impression that was only strengthened as I discovered that the stories behind some of the songs had little to do with a season and a lot to do with a Savior. Will you join me in a rousing chorus of Silent Night?

More information about First Baptist’s 27th Annual Christmas Pageant is available at www.ChristmasTickets.com.

Information on Heaven Came Down, song charts, and individual MP3s is available at www.OceansEdgeMusic.com.

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