by Anne Batty
In melody and lyric, songwriters tell us a story, arouse our emotions and explore our beliefs. The carols of Christmas are a prime example, and it is these golden tunes of the season’s festivities that often engender the Christmas spirit in our hearts.
While we hear, hum, and sing them year after year we hardly ever take time to think about the significance of the words or the origin of these lovely compositions. And if we overlook the fact that someone actually wrote these wonderful melodies we might miss out on much of their meaning.
Something interesting to note is that in their earliest beginnings carols really had nothing to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas. Because the songs had such pagan roots, associated with fertility rites and pagan festivities, the church was very uneasy about them for a very long time. But as history notes, it was due to St. Francis of Assisi and his order that the religious folk songs called lauda and the pagan custom called wassailing (door to door songs to drive away evil spirits) were brought together to form the custom of caroling (originally meaning to dance to music).
As the Christmas season approaches this year, it might be the right time to enrich our traditions with a little more knowledge about the origins of these all too familiar holiday tunes.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
One of the most prolific songwriters of all time was the English leader of the Methodist movement Charles Wesley who wrote over 600 songs, this one being his most famous. First appearing in 1739 in his collection Hymns and Sacred Poems it was meant to be recited not sung in services on Christmas day. Eventually regarded as one of the four great Anglican hymns, many theologians agree that the entire Gospel of Christ is contained in this rendition.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
This song was actually written as a catechism for young Catholics to learn the basics of their faith. Jesus is represented by the partridge in the pear tree, while the two turtle doves symbolize the old and new testaments; the three French hens the virtues faith, hope, love; the four calling birds the four gospels; the five gold rings the first five books of the old testament (the Pentateuch or Torah); the six geese a-laying the six days of creation; the seven swans a-swimming the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the eight beatitudes; the nine ladies dancing the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit; the 10 lords a-leaping the Ten Commandments; the 11 pipers piping the 11faithful disciples of Jesus; and the 12 drummers drumming are the 12 points of the Apostles’ Creed.
It has been reported but not proven that one of the first carols most of us learned as children was written by Congregationalist minister/theologian, James Pierpoint. Composed in Boston in the autumn of 1857 as part of a Thanksgiving Sunday school program, it was considered by many to be just a “merry little jingle.” But proving to be a hit among the congregation, the children’s choir was asked to sing it every Christmas after that first performance. Originally entitled One Horse Open Sleigh, it is said by the Medford, MA historical society to have been inspired by the town’s very popular sleigh races.
The writing of this carol also began with a simple poem written in 1816 Austria by a young priest named Joseph Mohr. Taking the long way home from Advent services (Latin for coming - the expectant waiting and preparation for Christmas) one evening he paused on a hilltop overlooking his snow-covered village. In that quiet moment reveling in thoughts of Christmas, he was reminded of a poem he had written about the night the angels announced the birth of the Messiah to the shepherds on the hillside. Desiring to use it in his upcoming Christmas Mass he asked his organist friend Franz Gruber to compose a guitar and choir melody to accompany the lyrics for the midnight services. The two composers had no idea that this song would become the most recorded Christmas song in history.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
One of the oldest Christmas Carols, this melody contains many prophetic references and is used by many churches during the Advent season. Most likely written by a monk in the Dark Ages before 800 AD (a time in history when it seemed civilization had broken down and mankind was sliding into chaos, ignorance, pestilence and unending warfare) it contained seven verses chanted one at a time on the seven days leading up to Christmas. Its lyrics give a brief summary of the prophecies surrounding the birth of Christ, Emmanuel. It has been referred to by some as a Latin chant rather than a Christmas Carol.
The award winning song writing team of the ’40s/’50s Jay Livingston and Ray Evans were called upon to write the lyrics for the musical comedy The Lemon Drop Kid starring Bob Hope. Realizing the movie’s setting called for a different kind of Christmas song, while contemplating its direction one of the songwriters picked up and shook a small bell sitting on their work desk. Inspiration hit and they had a song that not only represented the holiday streets of America, it became an instant hit. The original title was actually Tinkle Bell, but at the insistence of its inappropriateness by their wives, the title was later changed to Silver Bells.
O Holy Night
Purportedly written on a stagecoach to Paris in 1847 by an anti-cleric, atheist, Frenchman/poet, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, this hymn, Cantique de Noel, was once deemed inappropriate and unwelcome in church services. Its text reflects on the birth of Jesus and tells of humanity’s redemption. While banned by the clergy the people of France loved it, and continuing to sing it in their homes they saved it from obscurity. Eventually rediscovered by the Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight, it was translated into English and before long the carol reached the USA becoming instantly accepted.
Away in a Manger
There is much controversy surrounding this song and the true author will most likely never be known. What is known is that it was probably written by an American in the mid-1800s. Although it was popular to tout it as Martin Luther’s cradle hymn and to tell tales of German mothers singing the tune to their sleepy babies, the Germans never heard of this tune until it reached Europe after gaining fame in America.
Most likely written in the 13th century by a commoner, researchers believe this composition was scribed when there were very few Bibles in circulation and most of those were in the hands of the upper classes. This would explain some of the incorrect scriptural references and why the language is not finely tuned. Probably passed on by peasants and sung in households for hundreds of years before publication, it was eventually allowed in the Church of England, soon becoming a worldwide favorite.
Joy to the World
In 1719, most songs sung in European Church services were from the Old Testament Psalms, this one being derived from Psalm 98. At age 15, hymn writer/theologian Isaac Watts loved the Bible and was appalled at the atrocious worship in his church, so he transformed this old Jewish Psalm of praise into a poem of rejoicing for the salvation of God. The melody is from George Frederick Handel and some scholars say it resembles his greatest work, the Messiah.
The Little Drummer Boy
Based on an old Czech carol, this song was written and published by pianist/composer Katherine K. Davis in 1941and first recorded by the Austrian Trapp Family Singers in 1953. It is a tune that has managed to charm its way into hearts worldwide, and although very sacred in character it has been a recording favorite of numerous pop singers around the world.
Most of the carols we sing at Christmas began with poetry that was eventually set to music. In these tales there is much to be learned. Perhaps the knowledge of these few will spark interest in the many, and in so doing add a new dimension to the holiday celebrations we all love so well.