Do You Know the Stories Behind These Christmas Carols?

Do you ever wonder about the stories behind our favorite Christmas carols or where they come from? What their backstories are? Or, who wrote them and why? Read on to learn about three favorite Christmas carols and why they were written.

Little Drummer Boy

“The Little Drummer Boy”

The Writer of the Lyrics

The woman who wrote “The Little Drummer Boy” was well-known for her songwriting abilities long before composing this Christmas carol. Twenty years earlier, Katherine David wrote the words for one of my favorite Thanksgiving hymns, “Let All Things Now Living,” set to the traditional Welsh tune, “Ash Grove.”

Katherine Davis wrote her first song when she was 15 years old. She continued to study music through her college years. Later, she then taught music for several years. Many of her musical compositions were written for choirs in the schools where she taught.

The Story behind the Christmas Carol

Although the history of “The Little Drummer Boy,” also known as “Carol of the Drums,” claims that the song came from an old Czech Christmas carol, in reality, however, there is very little evidence to support that claim. Katherine Davis wrote “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1941. The text tells the story of a poor young boy who wanted to visit the baby Jesus but had no gift to bring to honor the newborn King. Instead, in place of bringing a tangible gift, the young child offered the Christ-child the gift of his time and talents.

With the baby’s mother’s permission, the little drummer boy played his drum for the newborn King – and he played to the very best of his ability. So, this should be a lesson for all of us. Even though we may not have much to offer to God or others, when we freely and cheerfully offer our time and talents, we can be a great blessing to those around us.

This Christmas carol was first recorded by the Von Trapp Family singers in 1955, shortly before they retired. Since then, the song has been recorded hundreds of times, demonstrating its lasting popularity.

Listen here

Lyrics

Come they told me
Pa rum pum pum pum

A new born king to see
Pa rum pum pum pum

Our finest gifts we bring
Pa rum pum pum pum

To lay before the king
Pa rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum

So to honor him
Pa rum pum pum pum
When we come

Little baby
Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too
Pa rum pum pum pum

I have no gift to bring
Pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give our king
Pa rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum

Shall I play for you
Pa rum pum pum pum
Mary nodded
Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time
Pa rum pum pum pum

I played my drum for him
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him
Pa rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum

Then he smiled at me
Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum

Come they told me
Pa rum pum pum pum
A new born king to see
Pa rum pum pum pum

Me and my drum
Me and my drum
Me and my drum
Me and my drum
Rum pum pum pum

Once In Royal David's City

“Once in Royal David’s City”

In 1919 the organist at King’s College in Cambridge introduced a new processional hymn for the special Christmas service of Lessons and Carols. This new processional, “Once in Royal David’s City,” has been used as the processional for this service every year since then.

Although this Christmas carol may not be the most well-known carol, it is definitely a beautiful Christmas hymn, reminding us once again of the Christmas story and the Savior born in Bethlehem. So, let’s take a look at the story behind this Christmas carol.

The Writer of the Carol

Cecil Frances Alexander, who lived during the 1800s, wrote the words to this Christmas carol. She began writing poetry at a young age; several of the poems she wrote became hymns published in the Church of Ireland’s hymnbook. In addition to “Once in Royal David’s City,” another hymn credited to Mrs. Alexander is “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

Lyrics for Teaching Truth

Several of the hymns Mrs. Alexander wrote were intended to help children learn and remember The Apostle’s Creed’s catechism and teachings. She was concerned by the shallow teachings in many of the children’s songs and, subsequently, desired to teach truth and doctrine through music. This particular Christmas carol, “Once in Royal David’s City,” was first published in 1848.

Even though the words for “Once in Royal David’s City” emphasize the lowly and humble birth of the Christ, they also remind us that this Christ would become the Savior of the world. The text helps us realize that Christ understands our sufferings and struggles because of his humble origins and life.

A Great Melody Is Added

By 1868 this Christmas carol was paired with the melody most commonly heard today. This melody, called IRBY, was written by Henry John Gauntlett, an Englishman trained in law and music. Although Gauntlett wrote over 10,000 hymn tunes, the melody paired with “Once in Royal David’s City” is the one for which he is remembered.

Listen Here (This recording is very quiet at the beginning. Don’t give up on it, though, just be patient.)

Lyrics

Once in Royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.

O Come All Ye Faithful

“O Come All Ye Faithful”

Latin Language a Hidden Spy Code?

Could this Christmas carol have really been a spy’s secret coded message? Rumors exist to that effect, but they are probably not true. A Roman Catholic originally wrote the carol during the Jacobite rebellion in 1745. In case you need to brush up on your European/British history, the Jacobite rebellion was a failed attempt by Charles Edward Stuart to retake control of Scotland. The story behind this Christmas carol is a bit less dramatic.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” was originally written in Latin, thus leading to the rumors of secret codes. You may be familiar with its Latin name – “Adeste Fidelis.” John Francis Wade, a refugee from that Jacobite Rebellion, wrote the song, probably in 1743. Wade was either French or British; his history is a bit vague, so we don’t know for sure.

The lyrics of the carol tell the story of the birth of Christ and also encourage us to come and rejoice with the angels over the Christ child and his birth in Bethlehem. The song invites us to not only be joyful but also to worship and adore the newborn King.

Translation and Revision

Several years later, Frederick Oakley and William Brooke translated the Christmas carol into English. The melody and lyrics are credited to the original composer, John Francis Wade, with the translation and modifications by Oakley and Brooke.

Although this carol, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” is sung worldwide, it was once known as the “Portuguese Hymn.” Why was that? What did this song have to do with Portugal? Since the carol was regularly sung in the Chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London, it acquired the nickname of “Portuguese Hymn.”

This Christmas carol is one of the most widely recognized and popular of all our Christmas carols. Over time, even though some of the words have changed and stanzas have been added or eliminated, the joyful and celebratory spirit of the song has remained the same.

Lyrics

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem
Come and behold Him
Born the King of Angels
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord!

God of God, Light of Light
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb
Very God
Begotten, not created
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord!

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God
All glory in the highest
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord!

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning
Jesus, to Thee be glory given
Word of the Father
Now in flesh appearing
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord!

Listen Here

Often, we find that the stories behind the Christmas carols are quite interesting. Learning these stories can give us a better understanding of their meanings and intents. So, what is your favorite Christmas Carol? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in more Christmas carol history? Check out the following posts:

Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols

More Christmas Carols

What is the Impact of a Good Music Teacher?

What is the impact of a good music teacher? Can it be measured? All teachers have an impact on a student’s life. But I believe the relationship between a music teacher and a music student is unique. Music teachers have an incredible impact on the life of a student. Never underestimate that impact or the value of that connection.

I remember every private music teacher I ever had and all the ones my kids had. Each of those teachers had a different impact; each one was valuable in his own way to our musical advancement.

My Piano Teachers

The first piano teacher I ever had was my dad. While he was not an accomplished pianist, he knew enough to get me started on the piano and instill in me a love of good music. My dad started teaching me piano when I was six. We had an old, massive upright piano that he painted a pale pink. I used the old piano books he studied from when he was young. I may even still have a couple of those books!

My next piano teacher was a lady who lived across the street from my grade school when I was in 5th grade. One day a week, I would take my piano books to school, and after school, I would walk across the street to her house for piano lessons.

When I was in high school, I switched piano teachers. This new teacher challenged me to push myself harder, to tackle more challenging music. Under her teaching, I mastered the art of playing duple against triple rhythm. (eighth-notes in one hand, against triplet eighth-notes with the other hand). I think some people figure it out by feel, but not me. I had to use math to conquer this one! Common denominators and counting it all out. (Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, 3rd movement) I also remember her teaching me how to do glissandos. And scraping the skin off the back of some fingers in the process.

Mrs. Grubbe taught her lessons on an older upright piano in a small room in the back of her home. She always made me feel welcome. But when I was preparing for a competition or other special performance, she took me into her living room, walking across white carpeting (!) and allowed me to play my piece on her wonderful grand piano. I learned a lot about teaching piano from how she taught me.

My college piano teacher was wonderful. She was always calm and quiet but had a way of pushing me far beyond what I thought I could do. She understood about life sometimes conflicting with practicing, but she pushed me to practice in her own quiet way. And practice. And practice some more!

She mastered the art of reverse psychology, I think, and used that “against” me! I studied both flute and piano and had to decide which instrument to choose for my senior recital and major proficiency. At some point, she confronted me and told me I had to make a choice! And then, in her quiet way, she told me that I could do both, but that it would be very difficult. My choice was made. I did both. I appreciated Mrs. Barnes for the piano skills she taught me, for her role model as a wife, mother, and musician, and her sense of joy and humor.

As many children do, I started playing the flute in 5th grade, when beginning band was offered to any interested student. I don’t think it was a conscious decision on my part. It was more like my day telling me this is what you are doing, so choose an instrument.

My Flute Teachers

My first flute teacher was my beginning band instructor. I worked with him, primarily in group classes for at least the 5th and 6th grades. Perhaps even 7th and/or 8th grades because he did the middle school band as well. Mr. Hawes gave me a good foundation for my future flute-playing.

Sometime during middle school (I think), I took private lessons from a college student. My mom drove me 30-45 minutes one-way every other Saturday morning to get to these lessons. Maybe that is why these lessons, and this teacher, are a little vague in my memory! This is the only one of my teachers who I don’t clearly remember.

But then we found a teacher much closer to home, and I studied with him throughout high school. His house was on my way home from school, so I would stop in once a week for my lessons. I enjoyed working with him – a couple of his children were in band with me. One of my closest friends in high school also took lessons from him, which was great when it came time to work on duets for competitions!

I learned so much from Mr. Bolman – technique, tone production, musicianship. He worked with me through the challenge of flute-playing with braces. To this day, I remember him encouraging me to work through the awful tone quality I was hearing while trying to adjust to all the changes in my embouchure because of the braces. I can still hear him telling me that all the work I was doing to get a good sound with the braces would pay off in a big way when I got the braces off! And he was right. It just took me two years or more to get to that point!

And then there was college. My flute instructor in college was a gem. While he was not a proficient flute player himself, he understood the flute and what I needed to do to get the sound I wanted. And more than that, he understood music and musicality and musicianship! I loved my flute lessons with Dr. Budahl. From him, I learned how difficult it is to get through everything in a 30- minute lesson. Always too much music!

Dr. Budahl taught me so much more than music, though. He taught me about life, about priorities, about graciousness, and about loving God. I met him first at music camp when I was in high school. He was always cheerful, always working on music, always with a smile. And even though he is officially retired, he is still the same! When I have occasion to see him, his face still lights up with his smile. I am so thankful for his impact on my life.

My Children’s Music Teachers

I won’t list for you all my kids’ music teachers – we would be here far longer than you would like! But each one of them was perfect for them at the time. The cello teacher whose cello case was painted like a cow. He was a computer tech guy by day and was perfect for my techy son who was a reluctant cello student at the time. And his next cello teacher taught him to think about what he was playing and why he played it the way he did. (And who always served snacks at his recitals!) Thank you, Mr. Moore.

And our Russian violin teacher, the one who kept relocating further and further away from us, but was so worth the longer drive! Ada Ignatov inspired my girls to practice and devote themselves to the violin. And my sister Brenda, who started my girls on their violins/viola. Even though we only saw her a few times a year, she gave me ideas to work with them as they started.

And the brass teacher who suffered through the excruciating sounds of beginning trumpet and French horn students. My son and his French horn – starting out sounding more like an elephant with a bad cold blowing his nose. Joe Pluth, Dan Askins, Mr. Riffel – thanks so much!

Never Underestimate the Impact of a Music Teacher on your Student!

A Unique One-On-One Relationship

All teachers have an impact on the lives of their students. There is a different teacher-student dynamic because of the unique one-on-one relationship between a music teacher and his students. The connection is on a much more personal basis.

Music Teachers See and Relate to Real Struggles

Music teachers are mind readers. Not really, but since there is that special connection between music teachers and their students, music teachers are often much more sensitive to possible problems a student might be facing. Music is an art form, and as such, it can be very emotional. The emotional aspects of music allow teachers an insight into struggles a student may be facing. A good teacher can help a child face problems or situations, offer solutions, or direct them to someone who can give them the help they need. We are all good at hiding problems most of the time, but music sometimes allows them to surface.

Visibility of Vulnerabilities

We all have hidden vulnerabilities. Kids especially try to hide their deepest vulnerabilities. Music teachers can often pick up on those things and help students confront and overcome them.

Choose your children’s music teachers carefully – they will have a big impact on your child’s life. Let that impact be for the good of your child. Someday they will think back on their music teachers as I did for you earlier. What will they remember? What impact will that teacher have on your child?

Think back and remember your music teachers or your child’s music teachers. What do you remember most about them? What impact did they make on your life? Share your stories in the comments!

Check out some other articles about music teachers:

Choosing a Music Teacher

Best Gifts for Music Teachers

I Don’t Know What to Practice!

I don’t know what to practice! How many times have you heard this phrase recently? Or maybe you are the one guilty of saying this. I get it – if you or your child hasn’t had a lesson in a while, you feel like you are sick of practicing everything your teacher assigned you. Here are some ideas for what your child can practice when he doesn’t know what to practice.

Scales

First and foremost – practice scales! I can’t emphasize this enough – practice scales! All you keyboard players, practice your scales hands apart and hands together. Make sure you use the correct fingering. Play scales in contrary motion and parallel motion. Other instrumentalists, you need to practice scales also! If you are going to continue in music, you must know your scales – major, minor (all three kinds!), chromatic scales. Scales in every key!

Past Pieces

Practice music you already learned, music from the past. How can you play it better? What can you do to make it more expressive and more musical? Learn to play something from memory. Go back and work on those tricky passages again to see if you can make them better, smoother, cleaner. Review pieces you played last month, or last year.

Something New

Try learning some new music on your own. Maybe you have a piece that you always wanted to learn but never got to it in lessons. Have you found an arrangement of your favorite song that you want to learn? Go for it! Approach this new piece the same way you would start new music from your teacher. Be sure to check the key signature, time signature, accidentals, tricky rhythms. Learn something new just for fun.

Arpeggios

Do you know what an arpeggio is? Think of a chord but played just one note at a time. That’s the basic idea of an arpeggio. You find arpeggios all over your music, so practicing them in advance will give you a head start on future music. Keyboardists, you need to be sure you practice arpeggios with correct fingering!

Compose Some Music

Try composing some original music. Wouldn’t your teacher be surprised if you come to your next lesson with some original music to play for her? Think of a little theme or melody, play around with it, add some variety to it – see what you can do! And then, take the challenge further and try to write it out with the correct notes and rhythm. Who knows – you might discover a new passion!

Did I Mention Scales?

Let me reiterate – practice your scales! Scales are foundational to all music! Did you know that most of those long tricky passages you see in more difficult music come from scales? So work on those scales until you no longer need to think how to play them, and you will be ready to face those complicated passages head-on.

OK – Go practice! No more excuses! I’ve just given you lots of ideas of what to practice.

Need some more help or ideas with practicing? Check these posts.

How to Help Your Child Practice

When Your Child Doesn’t Want to Practice

Practice Like a Pro