Do You Know the Stories Behind These Christmas Carols?

Learn the Stories Behind the 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

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