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Stories Behind the Christmas Carols
By Mary Dawson - 12/02/2006 - 08:03 PM EST

We sing them every year! We’ve sung them all our lives! As Thanksgiving ushers in the Holiday Season, we begin to hear their familiar strains on the radio and in department stores. As the days of December pass, we hear them more frequently – in pageants, programs and even by carolers who keep their tradition alive. Wherever we hear them, we find ourselves singing along! The carols of Christmas are the golden threads of the Season’s festive tapestry that actually turn on the Christmas spirit in our hearts.

But, as with so many familiar things, carols are such a basic part of our lives and our Christmas history that we often take them for granted. We hum them and hear them year after year, but we hardly ever think about the significance of the words or the origin of the lovely melodies. We can actually overlook the fact that somebody wrote these wonderful songs, and as a consequence, we miss much of their magic. I hope you will join me for just a few moments as we explore the fascinating history of the carol as a genre of music and the stories behind just a few of our favorites.

In their earliest beginnings, carols really had nothing to do with Christmas – or even with Christianity, for that matter. The melodies were originally written to accompany an ancient dance form called the circle dance which was associated with fertility rites and pagan festivities in the medieval Celtic countries of Europe. As the Christian Church established itself in these areas, the familiar melodies and rhythms of carols found their way into Christian meetings and celebrations. But because the songs had such pagan roots, the Church was very uneasy about them for a long time. In fact, a Church Council in the mid-Seventh Century explicitly forbade Christians to sing carols, and the Church continued to frown on carols well into the Twelfth Century. (See, kids, the old fogies have always been against hip music!)

As the austerity of medieval Christianity began to soften, a kind of renaissance took place and carols merged with folk songs that were the Pop songs of the day – the songs that were whistled or sung by ordinary people. History credits Saint Francis of Assisi with bringing about a new interest in the feast of the Nativity and the Babe in Bethlehem. The priests in St. Francis’ order developed a style of religious folk song called a lauda. Laudas had happy, joyful dance rhythms that were so catchy and memorable that the song form soon spread across Fourteenth Century Europe. The religious lauda got mixed together with a popular pagan custom called wassailing, in which people sang from door to door to drive away evil spirits and drank to the health of those they visited. What evolved from the marriage of wassailing and the lauda was the custom of caroling, which is still so much a part of our Christmases some seven centuries later.

By the Seventeenth Century it was clear that everyone was having entirely too much fun! So the Grinch – otherwise known as the Puritan English Parliament – decided to abolish Christmas altogether! That’s right….not only did the carols get the axe, but the entire Christmas Holiday was eliminated. People who continued to celebrate the birth of Christ with happy and lighthearted carol singing were actually accused of witchcraft and risked imprisonment or death! It took several dark and gloomy decades before the prohibition against carol singing was lifted and people again began to write and sing carols freely. The popularity of the carol increased rapidly throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, and it was during this time period that many of our favorite carols were created.

Which brings us to our first fascinating Carol Story and to one of the most prolific songwriters of all time. His name is Charles Wesley – all you Methodists will recognize that name as it was Charles’ brother, John, who became the patriarch of Methodism. During Charles’ lifetime, he wrote over 600 songs (quite a catalog for any songwriter)! One of his most famous lyrics is Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, which many theologians say is the entire Gospel of Christ in one song. The melody for this familiar carol was composed by the famous Felix Mendelssohn almost a hundred years after Wesley wrote the text. How did the words and music come together? Here’s the scoop behind the carol…..

The little known fact is that neither Charles Wesley nor Felix Mendelssohn would have wanted this music to be joined with these words. Felix Mendelssohn, a Jew, had made it very clear that he wanted his music only to be used for secular purposes. Charles Wesley, on the other hand, had requested that only slow and solemn religious music be coupled with his words. However, in the mid Nineteenth Century, long after both Mendelssohn and Wesley were dead, an organist named Dr. William Cummings, joined the joyous Mendelssohn music with Wesley’s profound words to create the carol we know and love today! (By the way, if you hear a slight whirring sound as you sing this carol…..it is probably just the sound of both Mendelssohn and Wesley turning over in their graves as they hear us sing the words and melody together!)

OK, on to the next carol! We have all sung the fun but zany lyrics to the Twelve Days of Christmas, but – if you are anything like me – you have absolutely no idea what the crazy images have to do with Christmas. Is this just a nonsense song? Not hardly!! The roots of this carol go back to that very depressing Puritan era in England when English Catholics were not allowed to openly practice their faith. The Twelve Days of Christmas was actually written as a catechism song for young Catholics to learn the basics of the faith. The True Love in the song represents God and the various gifts He offers to believers. The partridge in the pear tree is very symbolic as well. Apparently mother partridges will act as decoys to lead predators away from their young. So, in the carol, the partridge represents Jesus. Some of the other symbolic images are as follows

Two turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments

Three French hens are the three eternal virtues, faith, hope and love

Four calling birds are the four Gospels

Five gold rings are the first five books of the Old Testament which give the story of creation and man’s fall into sin.

….and the images continue throughout the song!

Once you know the story behind the Twelve Days of Christmas, you will never hear the song again without being reminded of its deeper significance.

Now, we can’t ignore America’s contribution to our catalog of Christmas favorites! Did you ever wonder who wrote Jingle Bells? It’s one of the first carols we learn as children and is so much a part of our lives that most of us probably never even have thought about the fact that somebody really did write it! That somebody was James Pierpont and he wrote both words and music for the song which was to be part of a Thanksgiving program at his church in Boston back in 1857. Jingle Bells became such a hit that the children in his choir were asked to sing it over and over again every Christmas….and we have been singing it ever since!

Or how about O Little Town of Bethlehem? The writer of this carol was the influential American theologian of the Nineteenth Century, Bishop Phillips Brooks. Bishop Brooks wrote the beautiful words that we all know in 1868 in Philadelphia as he recalled a trip he had made to the Holy Land several years before. His organist, Lewis Redner, decided to write music for Brooks’ lyrics so that the song could be used by his children’s choir at Christmas. If anybody is still under the misconception that kids’ music is not as influential as more adult genres, consider the fact that both Jingle Bells and O Little Town of Bethlehem had their starts in kids’ Christmas programs!

And that brings us to one of the most beloved of all the carols – the lovely and elegant, Silent Night. The story behind this carols started way back in 1816 in Austria when a pastor named Joseph Mohr wrote the simple words as a poem. Then, as Destiny would have it, two years later on Christmas Eve, the organ in Pastor Mohr’s church broke down just before the Christmas Mass. Determined that the Mass should not be without music, Mohr gave the poem he had written two years earlier to his organist and friend, Fanz Gruber. Gruber immediately composed the melody and arranged it for two voices, choir and guitar – just in time for the midnight service.

But that was just the beginning of the impact of that simple song. The two writers of the carol thought they were simply doing something to get through a difficult situation with their church service. But almost two hundred years later, Silent Night is still the most performed and recorded Christmas song in history! In fact, there is a wonderful story about the song that comes out of World War I. On Christmas Eve fighting was actually suspended on many of the European fronts while people turned on their radios to hear Austrian opera star, Ernestine Schumann Heink, sing Stille Nacht. She was not only an international celebrity, but Ms. Heink was also a mother with one son fighting for the German Axis and another son fighting for the Allies. Her rendition of this beautiful song had the power to actually bring a few moments of peace to a very troubled world!

Such is the potential of a song and the challenge to us as songwriters. As you celebrate Christmas this year, let yourself experience and feel all the wonder of the Season….and then, let those feelings flow into your songs. Who knows? Maybe someday someone will be telling the story behind YOUR carol.


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