War Time Christmas Carols

War time Christmas carols seems like an oxymoron. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men…and war? Doesn’t make sense, does it? Did you know that two of our favorite Christmas carols are associated with three different wars? Keep reading to find out these two carols and how they are related to war.

White Christmas

How does a Russian-born, Jewish immigrant, with no musical training, manage to write the best-selling Christmas song of all time?

What does this Christmas carol have to do with the end of the Vietnam War?

What makes a great song?

  •         Memorable melody
  •         Meaningful lyrics
  •         Resonance, relevance, mood, empathy
  •         Timing – Timing is everything!

Have you ever heard of Israel Baline?

Israel Baline, originally from western Siberia, emigrated to the US with his Jewish family when he was quite young.  Jobs were hard to find; everyone in the family needed to work to earn money to survive. Young Israel (Izzy) tried to earn some extra money by singing new songs in taverns, vaudeville theaters, and even on street corners. Yes, Israel had a good ear for music and could sing well but he had no real musical training. He taught himself some basics of playing piano but never learned to write music. He did learn, though, what made a good song, and what his audiences liked to hear in a song. That may have been the most important thing he learned about music.

But who is this Israel Baline? Why have you never heard of him? Blame it on the publisher of his first song. When Israel’s first song was published, the printer made a mistake. Instead of printing I. Baline on the music, the composer was listed as I. Berlin – Irving Berlin. Have you heard of him? I think so – In addition to “White Christmas,” he also wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “God Bless America.”

“Holiday Inn”

In 1940 Irving Berlin agreed to write the musical “Holiday Inn” for Paramount Films. “White Christmas” was one of many songs Berlin wrote for the musical. But he never thought that song would be the favorite song of the show. “White Christmas” contains all the characteristics of a great song. The melody is easy to sing, easy to remember. The lyrics have meaning. The song  was relevant to the listeners, expressed a certain mood, resonated with the audience – but all for a reason different from what Berlin intended. That’s where timing comes in.

History meets new Christmas Song

December 7, 1941 – An important date in US history – the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Soon America was at war. Americans were signing up for the armed forces and heading off to war. December 24, 1941 – just a few weeks later, Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” on his well-known radio show. Although originally written as satire, when Crosby san “White Christmas” his audience took an entirely different meaning from the song. To the listeners at the time, the song expressed a sense of nostalgia, a yearning for home, a longing for the way things used to be.  

Listen to the original version, sung by Bing Crosby.

Christmas Carols as Secret Code

What does “White Christmas” have to do with the end of the Vietnam War? In March and April of 1975 the US military was preparing for the final evacuations of embassy personnel from Saigon. The evacuation instructions contained the text of a secret code that would be broadcast to notify personnel of the timing of the evacuation. The code broadcast over Armed Forces Radio read like this: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising.” This announcement was followed by the playing of “White Christmas.” Several non-US personnel had others sing the song for them in advance of the announcement to be sure they would recognize the song when it was played.

“White Christmas,” originally written as a satire in a musical, went on to become one of America’s most-loved Christmas songs. Although it was written by a Jewish Russian immigrant with no musical training, the song causes us to reflect on Christmases past, and remember family and friends when we are separated from them. And snow – don’t forget the beautiful snow! At least at Christmas we can fondly remember snow.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

White Christmas

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North  [Not all versions contain these lyrics]

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Did you know that one of America’s famous poets wrote a Christmas carol?

Or was it an anti-war protest piece?

Or was it just a longing for peace after several personal tragedies?

Personal peace, spiritual peace, or national peace?

One of America’s Famous Poets

The poet who wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” “Evangeline,” and “The Cross of Snow” also wrote a poem entitled “Christmas Bells.” This famous American poet – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow lived during the 1800s and suffered several personal tragedies. His first wife died after they had been married only six months. After several years Longfellow remarried and had 18 wonderful years with his wife Fanny. A tragic fire in their home in 1861 cost Fanny her life. Longfellow himself was so injured in the fire that he was unable to attend his wife’s funeral. His poem “The Cross of Snow” was written to commemorate her life – 18 years after her death.

Holidays become Difficult

Longfellow fell into a depressed state after Fanny’s death. Christmas was especially difficult for him. His journal entries reflected his thoughts. In 1862 he wrote the following: “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” A year after Fanny’s death his journal reflected, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” He also wrote “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

War becomes Personal

In 1863 Longfellow’s son Charley joined the Massachusetts Artillery and went off to fight in the Civil War. By November of that same year Charley was severely injured and Longfellow brought him home to begin the long process of healing. That Christmas (1863) Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells,” which later became the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Longfellow had a difficult time listening to the Christmas bells chiming about peace on earth and goodwill among men while at the same time dealing with his own despair, tragedy, and his nation being at war with itself. Where is the peace? He looked around and saw hate, despair, all mocking the idea of peace. But as the bells continued to ring, he was reminded that God is not dead or asleep, and that there was still hope for both personal and national peace. The poem he wrote included two or three verses directly referencing the Civil War. When the poem was set to music several years later those verses were omitted from the carol.

What about the Melody?

Speaking of the music…Sometime in the 1870s a melody written by John Baptiste Calkin was paired with Longfellow’s poem to give us the carol we know as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” This is probably the most familiar version of the carol. In the 1950s Johnny Marks (famous for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) wrote another melody for the same carol. You have probably heard them both. Here are links to both of them:

Calkin Melody

Johnny Marks Melody

Which one do you prefer?  

Image by Krishan Michael from Pixabay

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace of earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
*(Stanza directly relating to Civil War – omitted in the Christmas Carol)

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
*(Stanza directly relating to Civil War – omitted in the Christmas Carol)

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Two wartime Christmas carols. One reminding us of memories and home, the other offering hope in the midst of despair. Both familiar parts of our Christmas celebrations. Which is your favorite?

Interested in more of the stories behind Christmas carols? Check these other posts :

The Stories behind the Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols – The Stories You May not Know

Christmas Carols – Questions and Controversy

More Carols, More Questions

More Christmas Carols, More Questions

Let’s take a look at some more Christmas carols. These are all familiar carols, and quite old. But how old? And some contain some odd references. What do ships have to do with Christmas? And what, really, is “figgy pudding?” Read on!

We Three Kings
We Three Kings

We Three Kings

Have you ever been to a Sunday School Christmas program? Some are well-done, some are cute, and sometimes there is one that no one wants to remember! How about a college Christmas performance? Hopefully it is a better performance than the one local church grade school kids presented. In either case, I don’t think much original material is used. And even if there was an original song presented, I doubt it would become a sensation, be used for over 150 years, and be known around the world. That is the story of this Christmas carol.

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. wrote “We Three Kings” for a Christmas pageant in 1857, probably in New York City. This was really the first Christmas carol written in America that gained such widespread popularity.  (It was written before “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Away in a Manger.”) Another unusual fact about this carol is that Hopkins wrote both the words and the music for the song.

“We Three Kings” is based on the account in Matthew 2:1-12 about the wise men following the star and coming to see Jesus. The biblical account does not say how many wise men there were, but because it lists three gifts,people have assumed there were three wise men. The first verse of the carol introduces us to the fact of the wise men, their journey, and the star they were following. Each of the next three verses focuses on the three gifts: gold, frankincense,and myrrh. Each of the gifts signifies some aspect of Christ’s life and purpose on earth: Jesus as king, Jesus as God, and Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. The final verse uses the resurrection to summarize each of the previous verses, “Glorious now behold Him arise,
KING, and GOD, and SACRIFICE.”

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In
I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In

I Saw Three Ships

Surely you have heard this Christmas carol. It is a lively, upbeat, joyous song. But what on earth does it mean? “I saw three ships come sailing in … on Christmas Day in the morning.” Ships? Sailing in to where?What do ships have to do with Christmas? Guess what – No one knows! It certainly does not refer to actual ships coming to Bethlehem – Bethlehem is landlocked. No seas there! People have debated these questions for years. They came up with several theories. Here are a few:

  • Ships refer to camels – “ships of the desert”
  • Joseph of Arimathea was a ship owner and made his money in the tin trade between Cornwall, England, and Phoenicia. Legend says that on one of his trips the Christ Child and Mary, his mother, with him to Cornwall as passengers.
  • Joseph of Arimathea brought Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the sister of Martha, with him by ship to the south of France. They were carrying a chalice that caught the blood of Christ shed as he hung on the cross.
  • The ships refer to ships that carried the relics of the three wise men (the Biblical Magi) to the Cologne Cathedral in Germany in the 12th century.
  • Another theory is that the song relates in some way to King Wenceslas because his coat of arms displayed “Azure three galleys argent.”
  • Some even say the ships refer to Columbus’ voyage and his three ships.
  • Or perhaps they are references to the Trinity, or the three Wise Men, or even “faith, hope, love.

The two most popular theories seem to be the ones referring to the “ships of the desert” and the relics of the Magi.

Whatever the interpretation, this song is a very old carol,probably dating back to the Middle Ages. Most likely this song was sung by wandering minstrels as they traveled through the English countryside. The lyrics were associated with the Cornwall and Glastonbury areas of England. This is in the far southwest area of England – associated with Celts and legends of King Arthur. The legends of Cornwall tell tales of Jesus Christ coming to Cornwall, of his love for the metal workers there. The legends also talk of Joseph of Arimathea being in the tin trade and making several voyages there to Cornwall.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

First, let’s clear up a couple terms. “Hark” means to listen, to hear. “Herald Angels” are angels making an announcement or proclamation.Think Medieval Times, castles, herald trumpets announcing the arrival of someone important. Originally the first line contained another word – “welkin.” That word meant the realm of heavenly creatures. We can be thankful that word was changed.

This is another old Christmas carol, written in the first half of the 1700’s. Charles Wesley, an English Methodist leader wrote the words to this song. Over his lifetime he wrote over 6,000 hymns, all with the purpose of teaching poor and illiterate people sound Biblical doctrine. And, like his other hymns, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” contains much doctrine. You could call it “theology in song.”

The song begins with the announcement of the angels to the shepherds concerning the birth of Christ. (Luke 2) It proclaims the reason for Christ’s coming to earth – reconciliation. The second verse refers to the deity of Christ – the everlasting Lord, incarnate Deity, our Emmanuel. The third verse continues to explain the purpose of Christ’s coming – to give life, light,healing, redemption, the second birth. Charles Wesley certainly did a thorough  job of telling the reason for Christmas!

Wesley wished for a somber and serious melody to accompany the words to his song. But the melody we associate with Wesley’s words is far from that! About 100 years after Wesley wrote the words, Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata celebrating the 400th anniversary of the invention of the movable type printing press (Gutenberg). William Cummings, an English musician and singer, took a chorus from Mendelssohn’s cantata and paired it with Charles Wesley’s words, giving us “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as we know it today. The pairing of Wesley’s words with Mendelssohn’s words made this a festive and popular carol.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas
We Wish You a Merry Christmas

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Let’s start with another question – what is a figgy pudding?Is it anything you would want to eat today? Evidently, figgy pudding = plum pudding = Christmas pudding = staple of very British Christmas meal. And while they originally may have contained figs, most Christmas puddings do not. Nor do they contain plums. “Plum” was a Victorian-era word that referred to dried fruits in general, and especially raisins. And “pudding” was not a custard-type dessert. It refers to any dessert. Christmas pudding is a heavy, dense, steamed cake full of dried fruits, brandy, spices, citrus peels. A genuine Christmas pudding must age for weeks, so it is usually made about five weeks before Christmas, steamed for hours, left to age, steamed again, doused in brandy, and set on fire.

Now, back to the song. No one knows who wrote the song or the music, but it seems to date back to England during the Middle Ages. The song refers to carolers going from house to house, singing and requesting treats from each house. Some referred to these carolers as “waits” because they would sing and then “wait” around for some reward for their efforts.

Another question about this carol concerns the greeting “a happy new year.” I did a bit of research into when January first became the first day of the year. And there is even debate about that – it depends on where you were at the time. In 45 B.C. Julius Caesar redid the calendar and made January 1 the beginning of the New Year. But that fell out of practice during the Middle Ages.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII set up a new calendar (again) with the first of the year being January 1. But England and its colonies did not adopt that new calendar until 1752. Was the phrase in this carol, “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” part of the original song? Or was it added later? Again, no one really knows. So, just enjoy the song and its wishes, and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!  

Did you miss our discussions of other Christmas carols? Read them here:

More Christmas Carols, More Questions
More Christmas Carols, More Questions

Christmas Carols – Questions and Controversy

So many Christmas carols, so many stories! Some Christmas carols are very old, with long histories. Others are much newer. Some we thought were really old aren’t that old after all. Let’s look at four carols and learn their stories.

The First Noel
The First Noel

The First Noel

Long before printing presses, story books, and church hymnals came on the scene, stories and songs were passed from person to person, and from generation to generation by oral tradition. One person told a story, others listened carefully, learned the story, and told it to others. Mothers sang songs to their children, they learned the songs and taught them to their children, and so on. Possibly “The First Noel” came to us the same way.

And with the song came the question of the ages: “What on earth does ‘Noel’ mean?” Scholars speculate that the word came from the Latin term “natalis,” which relates to a birth. The term could refer to birthday, in this case, the birthday of the Christ child. Others think that it may come from the word “nouvelle,” referring to something new to tell about. New and exciting news. I suppose either term could work. “Noel” was the French version of the word, and “Nowell” is sometimes used in English.

“The First Noel” is a very old song – so old no one really knows who wrote the words, or what melody originally went with the words. Most likely the carol came from France, probably during the 1400’s. The song possibly came across to England by way of traveling troubadours (wandering musicians and performers). The carol became very popular to sing outside the church on Christmas Eve.

The song tells the story of the birth of Jesus, or at least, a version of the birth of Christ. It begins with the shepherds and the angels, moves on to the wise men, and finishes with an appeal to each of us to sing praises to God for this wondrous birth. The song also includes the reason for the birth of Christ by referring to the blood that He shed to purchase salvation for all of mankind.    Listen Here

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Winter Wonderland

“Winter Wonderland” is one of the more popular secular Christmas carols each season. The song expresses the joys of newly fallen snow, the brisk winter weather, and the fun of outdoor winter activities. Although it not intended as a Christmas song, it became a classic holiday song.

Richard Smith, a man from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, wrote the words for “Winter Wonderland.” For him this was a song of memories and desires – playing out in the snow, having fun with friends. You see, Richard Smith was quite ill when he wrote the words to this song. He suffered from tuberculosis for several years. During his recovery periods he frequently wrote jingles and ads for companies and entered contests. His memories of watching people play in the snow, and his wishes to join them, inspired the words to his poem, “Winter Wonderland.”

Smith showed his poem to his friend, musician Felix Bernard. Bernard liked the poem and set it to music in 1934. The song was first performed by Guy Lombard and his orchestra during the Christmas season of 1934. Richard Smith lived just a short time after writing his poem. He was only 34 when he died, but he fulfilled his dream of becoming a successful songwriter. His song “Winter Wonderland” is still one of the most popular songs of the Christmas season.   Listen Here

Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

1934 must have been a good year for writing Christmas songs. Both “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” were written that year. More than 70,000 versions of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” have been recorded. Even the movie “Elf” used a version of this song.

Haven Gillespie, a young man from rural Kentucky, had a dream. He dreamed of being a singer and songwriter. Gillespie left his job as a type-setter and printer in Cincinnati and moved to New York. He got a job as a printer at the New York Times. In his spare time, he worked at writing songs. His first real success came in 1926 with a romantic love song. After that he wrote several successful jazz lyrics.

According to his publisher, Gillespie had a good vocabulary for children’s songs. The publisher told Gillespie to write a Christmas song. But that year, Gillespie was not too excited about Christmas – his brother had just died, and he was still grieving that loss. So, Gillespie went for a walk to think. As he was riding home on the subway, he took out an envelope and scribbled down the words to the song. His publisher was thrilled.

Fred Coots wrote the music for the song. It’s first performance was on Eddie Cantor’s Thanksgiving Day program in 1934. The audience loved the song!  Ace Collins, an author who wrote Stories behind the Best-Loved Song of Christmas, said that this song was “one of the first songs ever intended to be released around the holidays.” “He [Gillespie] essentially created a genre.”   Listen Here

Away in a Manger
Away in a Manger

Away in a Manger

How did such a simple song as “Away in a Manger” become surrounded by confusion and controversy? Great question! And guess what? People still aren’t completely sure of the answer. Some people claim that Martin Luther, the German religious reformer from 500 years ago, wrote the words for “Away in a Manger.” Others claim there was no way Luther could have written the song. And who wrote the third verse? One man claimed someone wrote the third verse – twelve years after the publication of the song with the third verse!

The song was first published in Philadelphia in 1885, with two verses. The title listed was “Away in a Manger,” and no one received credit for writing the words. Two years later the song was again published in a song book; this time using the name “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” It included notation saying, “composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” So, the story grew, that Luther wrote the song. But what about evidence of that? And if Luther did not write the words, where did that claim come from? 1892 saw another publication of the song,  and again, Martin Luther received credit for the entire text of the song.

To this day the person who wrote the words of “Away in a Manger” remains unknown. Someone in the United States wrote the words during the last half of the 1800’s. And what about that connection to Luther? Since the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth had just passed, someone probably wrote the words for some celebration of this anniversary. Either that, or they used Luther’s name as a marketing gimmick.

Now, what about the music for the song? Can you believe there have been at least forty-one musical settings for these words? Forty-one! Today, however, most of us know just one or two of those settings. One is more popular in the United States and the other in Great Britain. William Kirkpatrick composed the melody more common in Great Britain, and James Murray wrote the one more popular in the United States. Kirkpatrick’s melody goes by the name of “Cradle Song,” and Murray’s tune is simply known as “Murray.” Listen to the two melodies. Which one do you prefer?

Listen Here – Kirkpatrick Melody

Listen Here – Murray Melody

Did you miss our previous discussions about Christmas carols? Check them out  here:

Christmas Carols – The Stories You May Not Know

Christmas Music – The Stories behind the Music

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