Christmas Carols – Questions and Controversy

So many Christmas carols, so many stories! Some Christmas carols are ancient, 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, storybooks, 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 passed it on 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 birth. The term could refer to a 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 an ancient 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 1400s. 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 Christ’s birth. 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

Winter Wonderland

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 was 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. Guy Lombard and his orchestra first performed the song 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 typesetter 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 song’s words. His publisher was thrilled.

Fred Coots wrote the music for the song. Its 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 song’s publication 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 songbook, 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 1800s. 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

Christmas Carols - Questions and Controversy

Christmas Carols – The Stories You May Not Know

Do you know where your favorite Christmas music comes from? Or why they were written? Read on, and learn the story behind these Christmas carols.

What Child Is This?
What Child Is This?

What Child Is This?

William Chatterton Dix, a manager at an English insurance company, fell quite ill. As he recovered from his illness, he had a personal spiritual revival. As a result, he wrote several spiritual poems. One of them, written in 1865, recounted the Christmas story. He titled this poem “The Manger Throne.” Later, parts of this poem were set to music and became the Christmas carol we know today as “What Child Is This?”

The carol begins with a question – “What Child is this?” Dix then included several references to the Christmas account given in Luke 2, especially angels and shepherds. Then he answers the first question with the glorious refrain that this baby is Christ, the King! The last verse refers to the gifts of the wise men and calls on all of us to come and worship this newborn king. It is interesting that he includes all social statuses in his invitation – from peasants to kings.

The melody used for this traditional Christmas hymn, “Greensleeves,” dates as far back as at least the 1500’s. It was a popular song during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare even referred to the melody by name in one of his plays. No one knows for sure who combined the “Greensleeves” melody with the words for this carol. Some believe that John Stainer, who first published the carol in 1871, was likely the one to match the words to the melody.

Listen Here

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Ding Dong Merrily on High

“Ding Dong Merrily on High” is a lively, joyful, and fun Christmas carol. It is another Christmas carol that combines an ancient melody with new lyrics. The words don’t really tell the Christmas story. Instead, they seem to tell us to be joyful because of the Christmas story. The first verse refers to the angels singing, and, just like the angels, we should be joyful also. The refrain, “Gloria, in excelsis Deo,” is in Latin. It means “Glory to God in the highest,” the very words the angels proclaimed to the shepherds when they announced the birth of Christ.

The melody for the song first appeared in a French dance book in 1588. It had nothing to do with Christmas! The original name of the tune, translated to English, comes out as “The Servants’ Hall Brawl.” Seems like it was a rather lively and raucous dance.

In the early 1900’s an English Anglican priest named George Ratcliffe Woodward wrote the words we associate with the melody. Woodward had a keen interest in collecting ancient songs and carols. He also spent much time writing music arrangements for the Anglican church. In 1924 he worked with a man named Charles Wood and the two of them published a book of songs for holidays, Cambridge Carol Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter and Other Seasons. Included in this book was the song “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”

Listen Here

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God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Another very old Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is a carol with a bit of controversy – what exactly does that title mean? And where does the comma belong? If the comma moves before the word “merry,” then what we get is a warning for some over-indulgent revelers to take it easy. Not really the intent of the song! What the title, and the first line of the song, indicates, instead, is a blessing or a greeting for others. May God keep you joyful, gentlemen. In fact, the phrase “God rest you merry” was a common greeting or expression at parting among friends 500 years ago. (A great example of why punctuation matters!)

Many believe that this carol, although not printed until the 1700’s, originated sometime in the 1500’s. In London, in the 1800’s, this carol was the most popular of Christmas carols. This was also the Christmas carol that Charles Dickens used in his story, “The Christmas Carol.” Some feel that this carol probably originated in London.

Both the author of the words and the composer of the music are unknown, although the melody seems to have originated in Cornwall.  The carol was first published by William Sandys in 1833. His book, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, brought about a revival of both the Christmas celebration and the singing of carols. Evidently, Queen Victoria was a great supporter of singing Christmas carols.

As is the case with many old texts, the words have been revised slightly over time. The words published in Sandys’ book had seven stanzas, another early version had eight stanzas. Most versions today have just four stanzas. And though the words of the carol may not be quite theologically correct, the sentiment expressed is a true one. As the angels, shepherds, and wise men each were joyful and amazed at the birth of the Christ child, we too should find joy in the birth of Christ and the hope that brings to a weary and sinful world.

Listen Here

We Need a Little Christmas
We Need a Little Christmas

We Need a Little Christmas

Are you familiar with the musical “Mame?” Neither was I. I had heard of it but had no idea what the story was about. The story takes place in the late 1920’s, during Prohibition and right before the stock market crash. The main character, Mame, was a prominent, wealthy socialite in New York City. During one of her wild infamous parties, Mame’s orphaned 10-year-old nephew arrives at her door. She decides to take him under her wing and teach him about the world. Unfortunately, her choices do not coincide with the boy’s late father’s will, so the child is sent off to a conservative private school.

When the stock market crashes Mame loses all her wealth. To ward off depression she declares that they need to have Christmas right now – even though it is barely past Thanksgiving. Decorate, celebrate, have a holiday right now – don’t wait for Christmas to get here. The song “We Need a Little Christmas” comes from this point in the musical. The musical was based on a book by Patrick Dennis, entitled Auntie Mame. The music and lyrics for the song were written by Jerry Herman. The musical opened in 1966.

The idea of the song “We Need a Little Christmas” is that as soon as we begin to celebrate Christmas, we will feel better. The sooner, the better! Some have said that the song marks the beginning of the “Christmas creep” – start Christmas decorating and celebrating earlier and earlier, until it begins before Thanksgiving. The song has nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas; it is all about how the season makes us feel. It sees the celebration of Christmas more as an escape from the realities of life, a postponement of the undesirable things we must face.

Listen Here

O Little Town of Bethlehem
O Little Town of Bethlehem

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks was the minister of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia during the mid to late 1800’s. As Christmas neared one year, he wanted a new song for the children to sing for the Christmas Eve service. As he thought about what they should sing, he remembered his earlier trip to the Holy Land in 1865. His tour of the Holy Land included a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. He remembered thinking about the shepherds of the Biblical account as he rode through the hills near Jerusalem. Those remembrances inspired him to write the words to the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The words of the carol began by painting a picture of Bethlehem – a small town, dark, quiet, stars shining in the night sky. The lyrics go on to tell of the birth of Christ – a light, shining in the darkness of this world. They go on to call on us to receive this newborn king as the Christ-child, the Messiah, our Lord Emmanuel.

After writing the poem, Brooks needed some music to go with his words. He turned to his church organist, Lewis Redner. Redner tried for several days to come up with a suitable melody for the words but was unsuccessful. Feeling discouraged, he went to bed the night before Christmas Eve. In his sleep he seemed to hear the perfect melody. He immediately woke up and wrote the melody on paper. As the children sang the song the next day they sounded like a choir of angels.

In the United States the melody that Redner wrote is the one most commonly used with the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Both the words and the melody were published together in in a hymnal for the first time in 1871. In England, however, the words are generally set to a different tune. Ralph Vaughan Williams paired the words with the British folk tune “Forest Green” for a hymnal published in 1906. This setting is the most used in Britain. Both melodies provide beautiful settings for the text.

Redner Version – Listen Here

“Forest Green” Version – Listen Here

Have you learned anything about Christmas carols? I hope so! What is your favorite carol? Let me know in the comments below.

Did you miss our last review of Christmas Carols? Check it out Here.

 

Christmas Music – The Stories behind the Music

I love Christmas music! Even though I always wait until after Thanksgiving to start listening to Christmas music. There is such a great selection of Christmas music to listen to! I think I have over five days’ worth of Christmas music on my iTunes. I also enjoy finding the lesser-known Christmas music to use in programs and services. Let’s look at the stories behind some of our Christmas music.

In the Bleak Midwinter
In the Bleak Midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter

Christina Rosetti wrote the words for this as a poem in 1872. This poem is probably her most well-known work, even though she wrote at least three collections of poetry and four devotional books.  Christina Rosetti lived in England in the 1800’s. Her father was an Italian professor at a prestigious college in London. Two of her brothers were artists. Quite the family! Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was a family friend.

Originally written as a Christmas poem for an American magazine in 1872, the words were not set to music until several years after Miss Rosetti’s death. Two melodies are connected with this poem. In 1906 the composer Gustav Holst set the words of the poem to the tune “Cranham.” This was the version published in various hymn books in the early 1900’s. In 1909 another composer, Harold Darke, wrote his own music for the Rosetti Christmas poem. His composition is unique in that he used variations on his melody for each verse of the poem. The words work well with both musical settings.

The words of the poem encourage us to consider the true meaning of the birth of Christ. While it is unlikely that the weather conditions at the time of Christ’s birth were icy, cold, and snowy, these lines of the poem may refer more to the conditions of people’s hearts at the time of the Nativity. The lyrics continue to talk about God’s greatness, and the amazing thought of his majesty being confined in a small infant. Even though angels announced his birth, only his mother and earthly father attended Jesus there in the stable. The final verse of the carol asks a question: What can I give to Jesus? Being the God of heaven, what can I possibly offer to him that He doesn’t already have? That would be of any value to Him? The only thing I can offer Him is my heart.

Listen to the Gustav Holst version: Listen Here

Listen to the Harold Darke version: Listen Here

Deck the Halls
Deck the Halls

Deck the Halls

This Christmas Carol started life in the 1500’s as a Welsh winter song relating to New Year’s Eve. The song is totally secular – no religious ideas or references in it at all. Enter Scottish writer and songwriter Thomas Oliphant. His habit was to take old melodies and write new lyrics to them. He didn’t directly translate lyrics but wrote new ones that kept the same mood and feel of the original song. While the old Welsh lyrics spoke of the coming New Year, Oliphant’s new words for the song related more to the coming of the Christmas season – the decorating and celebrating that was typical of Christmas.

The song was first published with Oliphant’s English words in 1862, in England. Some versions of the songs use the word “Yuletide” while others have that word changed to “Christmas.” The original title of the song, “Deck the Hall” morphed into “Deck the Halls” by 1892. It certainly is a lively addition to our collection of Christmas music.   Listen Here

Good King Wenceslas
Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas

Here is another secular carol with no mention at all of Christmas. Good King Wenceslas, also known as Vaclav the Good, was the Duke or King of Bohemia in the 10th century. The words to the song, written in 1853 by John Mason Neale, were based on the life of this king. Whether the events in the song actually happened is debatable, but Wenceslas was revered for his kindness to the poor. King Wenceslas ended up being assassinated by his brother.

The story told in the song refers to the Feast of Saint Stephen, celebrated on the day after Christmas. Although the words do not contain any reference to Christmas, they do portray the ideas of kindness, goodness, and generosity to others, especially the poor.   Listen Here

 

Go Tell It on the Mountain
Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain

What do slavery, a family who loved music, and a debt-ridden university have in common? The popularity of this Christmas carol! African-American slaves sang. They sang while they worked, they sang in their religious services. Their songs often expressed pain, suffering, hard times. But this song was different. This song expressed joy and amazement. It is one of a very few Christmas songs from the African-American slaves of the past.

The John Wesley Work family – at least three generations of them – worked at or near Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. They were an African-American family of musicians and scholars who took a keen interest in the songs of the former slaves. Since the slave songs were not written down the Work musicians set out to collect the songs, write them down, and arrange them for congregations and choirs to sing.

Fisk University, an historically black university founded in 1866, faced severe financial difficulties in 1871. In an effort to raise money the school sent a musical group on an 18-month tour. By the time the group made it to New York, in December, the musicians began singing some of the songs from their heritage – the slave songs of their parents. Go Tell It on the Mountain was one of those songs. This group has been credited with keeping the spirituals alive.

The words to this carol are based on the Nativity account in Luke 2:8-20 and focus mainly on the shepherds. They express the wonder and joy the shepherds felt as they heard the announcement by the angels of the birth of Jesus. Luke 2:17 states that after the shepherds came and saw the baby Jesus, they “made known abroad” all that they had experienced that evening. Go, Tell It on the Mountain!   Listen Here

O Come O Come Emmanuel
O Come O Come Emmanuel

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

This Christmas carol has a very ancient history. The source for this hymn originated in the 8th century as the “O Antiphons,” short phrases recited or chanted in the Roman church from December 17-23 each year. Each of these antiphons proclaimed a prophetic aspect of the coming Messiah. And each of these phrases began with the word “O.”

Sometime around 1100, someone took these antiphons and turned them into a poem – in Latin, of course. The first known printing of this poem happened in 1700. Enter John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest and hymnwriter in the first half of the 1800’s. He enjoyed translating early Greek and Latin hymns for all the different feasts of the Christian year. He translated and published this poem in 1851. Through the years various translators and editors altered the text, but by 1940 or so, the editors published the song with the text we sing today.

Where did the melody for this carol come from? For a long time, no one knew the answer to that question! The first publications of the song labelled the melody as coming from a French source. Finally, musicologists traced the melody back to a 15th-century funeral hymn processional for French Franciscan nuns.

The words to the carol remind us that Christmas is not just a time of celebration, but also a time to reflect and consider who Jesus really is. Each of the references to Jesus in the song are from prophetic passages in the Bible, several from the book of Isaiah. As we think through the words of the song, pondering on the greatness of this Messiah we should remember to “Rejoice!”   Listen Here

Come back next week to read about several more Christmas carols!

Christmas Music - the Story behind the Music
Christmas Music – the Story behind the Music