The Origin of Some of Your Christmas Songs

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My early childhood and formative years took place in New England during the 50’s. Some of my earliest memories of Christmas were wrapped up in the music. I loved those songs. We heard and sang them only part of the year and then they were gone. When the next year came around and the songs reappeared it was like greeting an old familiar friend.

In those days, the headquarters of the John Hancock Insurance Company were in nearby Boston. Each year they put out a small paper booklet with all the Christmas Carols in it. I remember singing from that book as a child. I went out singing Christmas Carols for the neighbors with my mother and some of her friends. Later, I did that on my own with some school friends. I loved those songs. I must admit, in those days, I never thought about where they came from.  After I got into radio I became fascinated not with the artist so much but the songwriters. I often wondered why a particular song was even written. What was the story behind any song that caused it to be written? So, what about the Christmas songs?

Although we’ve enjoyed singing them for years, have you ever thought about how the various Christmas songs came about?  Christmas carols you may have thought went back several hundred years are relatively new.  Still others have fascinating stories surrounding their origins.

Christmas carols go back to the time of Christ.  It is believed that the Apostles sang songs of praise based on the Psalms.  The word “carol” comes from the old French word caroler, which means to dance in a circle.  One of very earliest Christmas songs appeared in the 4th century.  St. Francis of Assisi introduced carols into church services in the 12th century.  The songs tended to be somber.

In the 1400’s during the Renaissance—the time of Michelangelo and DaVinci—the lighter, more upbeat songs began to emerge. The earliest known English carol appeared in 1410.  The Gutenberg press, famous for the magnificent bibles, also made for the wide distribution of carols to the masses during the period.

In the mid 1400’s, Christmas celebrations were strongly suppressed by the Puritans.  Actually, Christmas didn’t become a widely celebrated holiday until the 1800’s.  As a result, most of the Christmas carols we love today were composed then.

In England between 1649 and 1660, Oliver Cromwell, who believed Christmas should be a solemn day, banned the singing of carols. The Protestants; however, with the urging of Martin Luther, embraced the practice.  Many worshipers fled Europe for other parts of the world taking the music with them.  John de Brebeur wrote the first American Christmas carol in 1649.  It was called “Jesus Is Born.”

Dr. Edmund Spears, a Unitarian minister, wrote a poem in 1849.  A year later, Richard Storrs Willis, an editor and critic for the New York Tribune wrote a melody called “Carol” inspired by the poem. He had created “It Came upon A Midnight Clear”.   Although no one is completely certain, some research indicates that cowboy singer Montana Slim, whose given name was Wilf Carter, wrote “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.”

The tune “Greensleeves” goes back to the time of the original Queen Elizabeth.  By 1850, lyrics were added that were neither religious nor respectable but in 1865 William Chatterton Dix wrote “The Manger Throne”—three of those verses became “What Child Is This?”

“We Three Kings of Orient Are”, usually thought to be older than it is, was written in America in 1857 for a Christmas pageant in New York City.  An old Welsh melody is at the root of “Deck the Halls”.  Although Mozart used the tune in a piano and violin piece in the 1700’s the words written in America would not come for almost another hundred years.

The first two verses of “Away in a Manger” were originally published in 1885 in a Lutheran schoolbook.  James Murray published it in 1887 under the title of “Luther’s Cradle Hymn” leaving some people to think that Martin Luther had written it.  No one is certain who wrote the music but it too is believed to be American.

There is a bit of controversy surrounding one of our most famous classics.  Who among us has not heard the story of “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht)?  Folklore has the song being hurriedly composed on Christmas Eve in 1818 after it was discovered that hungry mice ruined the baffles of the church organ.  Joseph Mohr, the assistant minister, supposedly quickly wrote the words and Franz Gruber composed the melody in time for the midnight service.  That may only be folklore.  Some evidence indicates that an old manuscript, which has recently been discovered shows Gruber, wrote the music 2-4 years after Mohr had written the words.  No matter—it has remained a favorite for nearly two hundred years.

“Silent Night is such a powerful song that it actually stopped a war—for a while.  During World War I, the Germans, Americans and, British and French troops actually put down there arms and held an unofficial truce on Christmas Eve and serenaded and harmonized with each other with the haunting melody.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” was the result of Bishop Phillips Brooks being so impressed with seeing Bethlehem at night from the hills of Palestine.  He wrote the words in Philadelphia two years later in 1868. His organist, Louis Radner wrote the music for the Sunday school children’s choir.

“Jingle Bells” was written for a Thanksgiving program.  It was so popular that the children begged to sing it at Christmas.  It has been a holiday fixture ever since.  There is some controversy about this song too.  The composer, John Pierpont, is said to have written the song in Medford, Massachusetts sometime in the 1850’s.  He moved to Savannah, Georgia where he received the copyright in 1857. The controversy stems from where he actually wrote it.  Although he certainly wrote about his memories of growing up in New England some factions in Savannah have provided a good case to show he was in Savannah when he wrote it.  Either way, there are markers in each city commemorating the site where each believe the little ditty was written.

One of the more interesting stories surrounds the “Twelve Days of Christmas”.  When you listen to it—it may strike you as light and nonsensical.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  From 1558 to 1829, Catholics in England were forbidden to practice their religion.  It was law.  If you were caught, it meant automatic imprisonment and perhaps hanging or you could end up a head shorter.  The song was written as a memory aid for children to learn their catechism.  Each strange gift in the song held a serious meaning.

First, the “True Love” refers to God, not an earthy suitor.  The “Me” represents every baptized person.  The “partridge in the pear tree” was Jesus Christ.  Christ was portrayed as a mother partridge feigning injury to protect her nesting young.  Here’s what the other gifts mean:

2  Turtle Doves: The Old and New Testaments

3  French Hens: Faith, Hope and Charity

4  Calling Birds: The Four Gospels or Matthew, Mark , Luke &     John

5  Golden Rings: The first five books of the Old Testament or the

Pentateuch

6  Geese-a-laying: The six days of creation

7  Swans-a-swimming:  The Seven Sacraments

  • Maids-a-milking: the eight Beatitudes
  • Ladies Dancing: The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • Lords-a-Leaping: The Ten Commandments
  • Pipers Piping: The 11 Faithful Apostles
  • Drummers Drumming: the 12 points of Doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is an outright invention of 20th century commercialism.  He first flew onto the scene in 1939 as a promotional gimmick for Montgomery Wards.  They asked one of their young copywriters, Robert May, to come up with a story for their annual Christmas coloring book.  The original story was nothing more than an adaptation of the Tale of the Ugly Duckling.  The first name considered was Rollo but that was considered to be too cheery for a misfit.  Then it was Reginald but that sounded too British so he settled on Rudolph.  He tried the story out on his 4-year-old daughter. She loved it.  May’s boss was a tougher sell.  He was worried about that red nose.  He was concerned that people would think they were endorsing drinking and drunkenness.

May and a staff cartoonist rushed to the Lincoln Park Zoo and drew pictures of deer and colored the noses red.  The illustrations were approved and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was born.  The retailer gave away 2.4 million copies that year—6 million by 1946.

After WWII, Rudolph was hugely popular. There were many demands for licensing the character. Because May created it while working for the company, they held the copyright.  May found himself hopelessly in debt after the death of his wife from a lengthy illness.  He persuaded Sewell Avery, the company president, to turn the rights over to him.  He was financially set for the rest of his life.  The story was turned into a nine-minute cartoon in 1948 but Rudolph hadn’t peaked yet.

May’s brother-in-law was the songwriter Johnny Marks.  It was Marks who composed the words and music that we sing today. It almost didn’t get recorded.  Many recording companies didn’t want to tamper with the Santa Claus legend so they wouldn’t touch it.  Finally, cowboy singer Gene Autry stepped in and recorded it in 1949.  It sold 2 million copies that year.  It went on to be one of the best selling songs of all time–second only to “White Christmas”.  In 1964, Burl Ives narrated the TV classic we see each year.

Then there’s the Grand daddy of them all—“White Christmas”.  Irving Berlin wrote the song for a 1942 movie called “Holiday Inn” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.  The movie was about an inn that was only opened on holidays.  Berlin was commissioned to create songs for each holiday.  He later said that writing the Christmas song was the toughest of all.  Berlin performed the song for Crosby in 1941 and the crooner assured Berlin that it would be a hit.  That proved to be a gross understatement.

First performed for the public on Crosby’s NBC Radio show on Christmas night 1941, it went on to become the biggest selling single for 50 years. (Until Elton John’s tribute to Lady Diana, “Candle in the Wind”) “White Christmas” was the basis of a 1954 movie of the same name starring Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen and Danny Kaye.  Kaye wasn’t the first choice for the role.  Fred Astaire declined after reading the script, Donald O’Connor turned it down due to a back ailment.  It then fell to Kaye, who as it turns out, was a natural for the role.

The song also played a part in the end of the Vietnam War. An evacuation plan was put into motion to get the remaining Americans and loyal Vietnamese to safety.  The cue to begin the evacuation was a radio announcement saying it was “105 degrees in Saigon and rising” followed by “White Christmas”. When the song began—the exodus was on.

Each of these song’s writers felt a deep-rooted passion for the season and the many emotions it brings.  This year, when you hear these songs, you’ll know how they came to be. From my house to yours “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
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