December 30, 2018
(adapted from Stories Behind the Best-Loved Hymns of Christmas– Collins)
O Come, O Come Emmanuel #154 (Green Hymnal)
This is the oldest Christmas carol still sung today. It dates to the 9th century. It is unknown who was the writer of the words, a monk or priest who wrote the words before 800 A.D. It had a Latin text with seven verses which represented different biblical views of the Messiah. It was sung the last seven days before Christmas, one verse each day. For people of the Dark Ages, few read or had access to the Bible, and this song was one of the few examples of the full story of how the New Testament and Old Testament views of the Messiah came together in Jesus’ birth.
The song owes its worldwide acceptance to James Mason Neale, a Church of England priest whose views of an exuberant and joyful faith were viewed as dangerous and radical. Because of this, Neale was exiled to a pastorate far from England, (and even stoned and beaten by a crowd for his beliefs) in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Africa.
In a radical move for a priest of the Church of England, and over the objections of his superiors, Neale began an order of Anglican nuns, the sisterhood of St. Margaret, to feed the poor, take care of orphans, and minister to prostitutes. Though his group cared for thousands of people in need, his decision brought death threats to Neale and the women in the Sisterhood.
Neale came across “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in a Latin book of Catholic chants. He translated the chant into English. Neale’s translation of the lyrics, coupled with the Latin tune, was first published in England in the 1850’s.
Angels From the Realms of Glory #189
The writer James Montgomery was the son of Irish Moravian missionaries. When his parents went as missionaries to the West Indies, Montgomery was sent to a Moravian community in Ireland. When he was seven, he was in seminary in Yorkshire England. At age ten, both his parents died in the West Indies. James soon flunked out of seminary and became a baker’s assistant for a short time. By the age of 20, Montgomery was a homeless vagrant whose only interest was writing. In his early 20’s the Sheffield (England) Register hired him to write stories for the paper. At age 23 when the newspaper’s owner was run out of town for writing radical editorials about Irish freedom, Montgomery took over the paper. He continued to write fiery editorials in favor of Irish freedom, but also became an advocate for the abolition of slavery. Twice his editorials landed him in prison.
On Christmas Eve, 1816, readers discovered a very different editorial, one that brought people together, not one that drew sharp lines between people. “Nativity”, the poem that would later become “Angels From the Realms of Glory”, told the story of angels proclaiming the birth of a savior for all people, English and Irish, rich and poor, Anglican and Moravian.
The poem would have been forgotten except for Henry Smart, a member of the English establishment, the very people Montgomery wrote against. In 1836, the blind Henry Smart heard a reading of Montgomery’s poem, and composed a tune to go with it, 20 years after the poem had been written. Both men lived to hear the radical poet’s work performed in the Anglican churches of England.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing #185
This song was originally written in 1737 by Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism. However, his college friend George Whitefield finally published the song, but Wesley was incensed.
Whitefield, a former bartender turned preacher, was often at odds with Wesley. Though much more charismatic than Wesley, Whitefield was not as well-educated as Wesley. When Whitefield published Wesley’s song, he changed the words, without consulting Wesley, to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Wesley never mentioned the angels singing in his earlier version, and he was incensed because nowhere in the Bible did angels sing about the birth of Jesus. Yet, because Whitefield changed the first line of Wesley’s hymn, most people believe the angels sang. As long as he lived, Wesley never sang Whitefield’s rework of his song.
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear #191
In 1849, a Unitarian minister in Wayland, Mass., was writing his Christmas Eve message, but he was a troubled man. The debate over slavery and the poverty he saw in his own community, had all but broken his spirit. Dr. Edmund Sears, then 39 years old, had been educated at Union College in Schenectady (NY) and at Harvard Divinity School. He was known as a force of caring in his community. He jotted down a poem that Christmas Eve he called “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”. While he wanted them to celebrate Christmas, he also wanted his congregation to reach out to the poor and to address the nation’s social needs. His poem was printed in 1849 on December 29th.
The composer of the music was Richard Stovis Willis, a Yale graduate who studied in Germany under Felix Mendelssohn. In 1848, Willis had returned to the U.S. and became the music critic for the New York Tribune. He had earlier written a tune called “Carol” which he discovered fit perfectly with Sear’s words. The combination of music and words was first published in 1850 with the title “Study No. 23”. A decade later Willis republished the song in a shorter version, which became the famous carol.
Joy to the World #179
Isaac Watts was born in 1674, the son of a revolutionary Protestant church figure. He grew up worshipping at Southampton, England, Above Bar Congregational Church. Most British children who showed Isaac’s intellectual potential would have been assigned to Oxford or Cambridge, but because he was not a member of the Church of England, Isaac was sent instead to the Independent Academy at Stoke, England. Isaac Watts questioned everything and, although he did well in his studies, he left the Academy at age 20 and returned home. He found the church music dull and monotonous in the congregational church and his father challenged him do something better.
This challenge initiated a creative burst that did not end until Watts had composed more than 600 hymns and hundreds of other poems. Through his hymns, he became very well known throughout England. Elizabeth Singer, a young woman deeply impressed by Watts’ writing, wrote him and became his biggest fan. She even proposed marriage to him in a letter, and when he wrote back accepting her proposal, she raced to him. But she later wrote: “He was only 5’ tall, with a shallow face and a hooked nose, prominent cheekbones, small eyes, and a deathlike color.” Unable to look at Isaac and see the man beneath, Singer immediately went back home and never saw him again. Watts poured himself into his writing and never again sought the companionship of a woman.
It was while studying Psalm 98: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth,” that Watts was inspired to write his most famous song. Thus, “Joy to the World” originally had nothing to do with Christmas.
O Holy Night #187
In 1847, Placide Cappeau was the commissionaire of wines in a small French town. He was shocked when the parish priest asked him to write a poem for Christmas mass. In a dusty coach traveling a bumpy road to Paris, Cappeau wrote a poem “Cantique de Noel”. Moved by his poem, he decided it needed music, so he turned to one of his friends, Adolph Charles Adams for help, who had studied music at the Paris Conservatoire. Although Adams was Jewish, he could not help but be moved by the beautiful poem. Three weeks after giving Adams the poem, it was performed at midnight mass on Christmas Eve and was wholeheartedly accepted as a beautiful Christmas song.
But when Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adams was Jewish, the song, which had become one of the most loved Christmas songs in France, was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the French Catholic Church.
The song was first translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister, in Mass, who grew physically ill each time he had to preach and eventually locked himself in his room for long periods of time. Unable to continue his ministry, Dwight founded a journal of music. He read “Cantique de Noel” in French and loved it, but especially because he was an ardent abolitionist.
He strongly identified with the verse: “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease!”.
Adams had died and Cappeau and Dwight were old men on Christmas Eve, 1906, when inventor Reginald Fessenden spoke into a radio microphone and the first ever radio broadcast occurred. In it, Fessenden read the Christmas story, heard by astonished Morse code operators, and then finished this first-ever broadcast by playing on his violin “O Holy Night”.
Silent Night #186
In 1817, 25-year-old Joseph Mohr was assigned to be the assistant priest at St. Nicholas Church in Obensdorf, Austria. In 1818, during a particularly cold winter, Mohr was making last minute preparations for Christmas Eve mass- but he discovered that the organ would not play. The harsh cold had damaged it and he could do nothing to get it working again. Pulling out of his desk a poem he had completed two years earlier, Mohr rushed to the home of schoolteacher Franz Gruber, the organist, just hours before the midnight mass was to begin.
In a distressed tone, Mohr described the problem with the organ and said: “We need a song we can sing for midnight mass using a guitar. Can you write some music to go with my poem?”
A few hours later, just in time for the midnight mass, Gruber brought the music to the church, and he and Mohr taught it to the church choir. The organ repairman who came a few weeks later to repair the organ, Karl Mauracher, heard the story of this beautiful carol, and took the song with him, teaching it to church choirs in each church where he repaired the organ. From these churches in Austria and Germany, this carol moved around the world.
Away in a Manger #203
In I887, American hymn writer James R. Murray entitled the tune to “Away in a Manger” as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” Murray further stated that Martin Luther had not only written “Away in a Manger,” but had sung it to his children each night before bed. As the song spread across a growing America and
people began to sing it at home, in churches, and at schools, they often envisioned legions of German mothers rocking their babies to sleep each night with the strains of “Away in a Manger.” Ironically, not only did German mothers of this era not sing “Away in a Manger,” they had never heard it until the song arrived in Europe from its country of origin, the United States. Where Murray got his misinformation on Luther remains a mystery; yet because of his outstanding reputation as a writer and publisher, the story stuck.
In truth, the first two verses of “Away in a Manger” were no doubt written by an anonymous American sometime in the mid-1800’s. The song was probably passed down orally for years before it was picked up by Murray. By the time it was first published, no one knew the identity of the
composer. Throughout the next two decades the popularity of “Away in a Manger” grew, as did the myth surrounding Luther’s authorship of the piece. Illustrations were drawn and stories were told depicting Luther singing the song to German children. As the real author never came forward to dispute the growing legend, the facts of the carol’s origination became more and more diluted. Soon after WWI, a new songbook gave a man named Carl Mueller credit as the musical composer of the song. Where the Boston publisher came up with Mueller’s name is another unanswered question. Carl Mueller did not write the music to “Away in a Manger”; in fact, many believe that he didn’t even exist.
The First Noel #229
“The First Noel” is one of the oldest Christmas ballads still sung today. Though it first appeared in print in 1833, the song goes back at least three hundred years prior to that. The exact place and time of its origin are in doubt, with both France and England claiming it as a part of their heritage. In England, and sometimes in America, the spelling of noel is altered and the old carol is known as “The First Nowell.” In France it is always spelled ”Noel.” What noel or nowell means in both languages is the same- a joyful shout expressing the exhilaration at the birth Christ. Yet while the song’s anonymous writer obviously knew enough about language to use this all-encompassing term to begin the chorus, he wildly missed the mark on several scriptural points in this song.
“The First Noel” is one of the few surviving early Christmas standards that can genuinely be earmarked as a folk song. Whoever was responsible for writing this carol was obviously incredibly enthusiastic about Christmas and fully understood the wonder of Christ’s birth, but didn’t have a full grasp on the Scriptures that told the story of that birth. During the Middle Ages this was often the rule rather than the exception. When “The First Noel” was written, there were very few Bibles in circulation. With no ready Bible to guide him, the writer drew from the stories he had been told about the events of Christ’s birth. Most he recounted accurately, but he erred when he depicted the shepherds following the star to Christ’s birthplace. The Bible does not mention the star with the shepherds, only with the wise men.
During the Middle Ages, English peasants had adopted the Viking custom of the Yule log. When those who embraced this custom became Christians, they adapted the Yule log to Christmas.
The log was brought into the home on Christmas Eve and was lit. It was hoped that the log would burn for the entire twelve days of Christmas, its embers dying January 6, the day the wise men arrived with their gifts for Jesus. If the log lasted that long, it was a sign that the household was blessed.
Both “The First Noel” and the Christmas Yule log tradition found their way to France around the fifteenth century. Supposedly the song was introduced to the French people by British minstrels. Like the English, the common people of France embraced the music and the message. They also gave it their own twist: Children in this country often sang this carol as a round.
In England, “The First Noel” was sung each year by many peasants as they lit the Yule log. Therefore, this became the song that started the entire Christmas season. Especially for children, this carol meant the beginning of the most wonderful time of year. For the first three hundred years of its existence, “The First Noel,” like all other carols, was not a part of religious services. New songs, even if they embraced a story from the Scriptures, were not allowed in most churches. Because the clergy disdained carols like “The First Noel”, these songs truly became the holiday voice of the people. Many of the holidays’ most beloved songs would have been lost if common folks had not passed them down from generation to generation.