As Christmas approaches, there are certain songs that return every year to play in the Top 40 of the mind. These are songs that move from one to the next on the radio, in the elevator, over the speakers at the market, — in other words, almost everywhere you go. These are the songs that are the survivors of all the thousands of Christmas songs that have been written, sung, and recorded. Some have lasted over the decades, some for more than a century or two. What marks their longevity is that each has its own story. Some of these stories are sweet, some touching, some just ordinary. Here’s a short list of some of my favorites with a little history. They might be yours too.
Deck the Halls – This song is a carryover from the old British Yule festival, when people celebrated with Wassail Bowls and Yule logs. Its origin is Welsh and had already been around for a long time when Mozart included the melody in one of his compositions.
God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen – This old English classic has long since lost its providence in obscurity, even though it is thought to be from the 16th century. In 1846, it was published by E. F. Rimbault. We are reminded by historians that the word “rest” means “keep”, and the comma in the title is often misplaced. It makes a difference!
The First Noel – Here is another carol whose origin is obscured by history. It is claimed by both Engalnd and France. Although first published in England in 1833, scholars have been able to trace the song back to the 16th century in France. The word “noel” or nowell, comes from the Latin “natalis” meaning birth. It has come to mean the birth of Christ over the last few thousand years.
Joy to the World – Did you know that this favorite Christmas carol was written because of a challenge given to an 18-year-old Isaac Watts by his dad? You see, young Watts complained to his dad (a deacon in a Southhampton church) that church music was boring. So his dad challenged him to write something better. He used the 98th Psalm as inspiration, and in 1692 wrote this wonderful, upbeat song.
O Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fedeles) – Latin in origin, the roots of this hymn are clouded in Christmas mystery. Some scholars attribute it to St. Francis, some to St. Bonaventure. French monks used it in their midnight masses during the 17th century. The first person to write the words “Adeste Fedeles” appears to have been John Francis Wade in 1742, and it was called The Portuguese Hymn because its British debut came at the Portuguese Embassy. Around 1841, the carol crossed the ocean and Canon Frederick Oakeley translated it first to read Ye Faithful, Approach Ye. He revised it in 1852 to O Come, All Ye Faithful. This carol is thought to be the most universal carol – it has over 120 translations to its credit.
Silent Night (Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!) – This beloved carol was birthed out of necessity – the church organ at St. Nicholas in the tiny Austrian village of Oberndorf went on the blink the night before Christmas Eve 1818. Father Josef Mohr, the assistant pastor, visited with his organist (Franz Gruber) about the situation and showed him some lyrics he had written. Gruber read them, took them home, and two hours later, completed the melody for Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! That Christmas Eve, the church choir sang the carol, accompanied by Gruber on the Italian guitar. The following spring, Karl Mauracher met with Gruber to fix the organ, and was shown the piece and told the story. He asked for a copy of the piece, and from there, it spread all over the world, with no credit given its authors.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing – Written by Rev. Charles Wesley in 1739, this song is one of his most famous. Originally, the words were “Hark, how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings”, but were altered in 1753 to the words we know. A little over a century later, Dr. W. H. Cummings lifted the second movement of Mendelssohn’s For A Tercentenary of the Invention of the Art of Printing as the melody.
Away in a Manger – If you are looking for a mystery, here you go. The first two verses of this song appeared in a collection of Lutheran hymns entitled Luther’s Cradle Hymn. These songs were composed by Martin Luther for his children and are still sung by German mothers to their little ones. The confusion is that for 60 years, the public therefore assumed that these two verses were also written by Martin Luther. However, in the 1940s, Richard Hill proved that the author of these verses (and thus, the song) was actually music editor James R. Murray of Cincinnati, Ohio. The carol is unknown in Germany.
Jingle Bells – J. Pierpont wrote One Horse Open Sleigh for a Boston Sunday school choir in 1857. It is arguably the first pop Christmas song, and he managed to do the impossible: it never mentions Christmas!
White Christmas – The most popular modern Christmas song ever, this song was written in 1942 by Irving Berlin for Bing Crosby to sing in Holiday Inn. It won the Oscar for best song that year, and has sold more than 100 million copies since.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – This popular song was written by Johnny Marks for the reindeer with the henna-hued honker created by his brother-in-law/author/copywriter Robert L. May. May received the copyright to Rudolph in 1947, and wrote a book based on his exploits. In 1949, Gene Autry recorded it, and the rest is history.
Frosty the Snowman – Following on the heels of the success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins decided to see what would happen with a snowman that comes to life. The result was this happy tune in 1951.
The songs of Christmas, whether from the 13th century or this year, are as popular today as ever although tastes have definitely changed. Whether we love the ancient Yuletide carol or rock out makes little difference. What matters is that the magic of Christmas’ greatest hits still offer some honest-to-goodness joy today. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!