Carol Stories

1.O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the night that our Savior is born.

On Christmas Eve in 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between France and Germany, a unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked into the battlefield, and started singing, the song’s first line in French. Then a German solider emerged and started singing a German carol, “From Heav’n Above”, that we will introduce a little later. Fighting stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day.

The song had been written in 1847. A parish priest in a small French town commissioned a local poet, Placide Cappeau, to write a poem for the village’s Christmas Eve service.. Cappeau turned to his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to compose the music to the poem, and three weeks later, the song was sung in the village on Christmas Eve.

The song was immediately popular but denounced by the church when it found that Placide had left the church to join the socialist movement, and that Adam was a Jew, but it remained popular with the French people.

The translation into English was made in 1855 by an America, John Dwight. He was against slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War, and was moved by this line in the third verse:  “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease.”  John had been ordained as a pastor, but discovered that his great passion was for music, and he became American’s first music critic, and published a magazine, “Dwight’s Journal of Music.” He published the song in his magazine and it quickly found favor in the north during the war.

In 1906 a man named Reginald Fessenden was the first to send a voice over the radio, He read the Christmas story, then played O Holy Night on his violin.

2. Hark the Herald Angels sing, Glory to the Newborn King

That actually was not the original first line! Charles Wesley, brother of the John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, had written it in 1737 as a poem to be read on Christmas, and his first line was “Hark how all the welkin rings.” Welkin was an old Engllsh word for “the heavens.” For the next phrase, he had written “Glory to the King of Kings.”

The words were changed 20 years later by a traveling evangelist named George Whitfield, a student of John Wesley and one of the men who led the great revival in colonial America called “the first great awakening.” Samuel did not agree with the change because the Bible  does not say “newborn king” but rather says “Glory to God in the Highest.”(Luke 2:14). Whitfield also removed some verses and made other verses longer.

In 1855 an organist in England named William Cummings found a melody written by the famous German composer Felix Mendelssohn and discovered that the poem fit perfectly with that melody, so ever since we have sung it with Mendelssohn’s melody. The irony is that Mendelssohn had originally written the melody back in 1840 for a different poem, one to celebrate the anniversary of the invention of printing by Gutenberg. So the line where we sing “joyful all ye nations rise” originally had the words (in German) “Gutenberg you German man.” Felix realized that after the anniversary, people want might to put different words to the tune, and in a letter he wrote that he didn’t mind if people did that, as long as the words weren’t religious. He died in 1847, and Cummings probably did not know about that wish.

Felix’s grandfather was a famous Jewish rabbi and philosopher named Moses Mendelssohn. Felix’s dad became a Lutheran, so Felix was raised in that church. In fact, Felix’s Symphony number 4 was written to commemorate the Lutheran reformation, and includes in it the turn of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

3. From Heav’n above to earth I come, to bring good news to ev’ryone

Martin Luther adapted this from a folk song so his children could perform it at home on Christmas eve. One child would be the angel, and sing the first few verses, and then the rest would sing the response to the message. The original folk song was “from far off lands I come to you,” and in it a boy would ask a riddle to a girl and she would try to answer it. 

Note the deep devotion expressed in some of these response verses: “welcome to earth O noble guest;” O Lord, you have created all, how did you come to be so small;” and “O dearest Jesus, holy child, prepare a bed soft, undefiled,  a holy shrine within my heart, that you and I need never part.” (translation from Lutheran Worship, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House 1982, hymn 38.)

4 Joy to the World

The writer of the poem, Isaac Watts, grew up in a church in England that did not sing hymns but only Psalms translated into English as rhyming lines. (this is called metrical psalmody). His creative contribution was to use the Psalms as inspiration, but to add New Testament concepts to them. During his lifetime he wrote 600 of these Psalm-based hymns, and so is called “the father of English hymnody.” 

Joy to the World was based on Psalm 98, “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” He published it in 1719 in a book containing many of his other poems. Watts was an amazing person. was learning Latin at age 5, Greek at 9m French at 11, and Hebrew at 13. He wrote books on theology and philosophy, reflecting Calvinist theology.

The melody was put together in 1836 by an American, Lowell Thomas, using fragments from tunes in Handel’s Messiah, which had been written in 1736. The first line of music is simply the scale, sung from the top down (do-ti-la-so-fa-mi-re-do). This approach is used in the Messiah in the aria “Lift up your heads O ye gates.” Lowell had led his church choir as a teen, and continued studying music while engaging in his career as a banker, He was a Sunday School teacher and organist at his church.

Note the reference to the salvation brought by Jesus in verse 3 “no more let sins and sorrows flow.” The last verse proclaims God’s sovereignty: “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.” The word “prove” here means to reconfirm by experience.

5. O Come all ye faithful.

Many know that this song was originally written in Latin, (adeste fidelis) but it does not come from medieval times. It was written in 1743 by an Englishman who taught at a Catholic school. When King Henry VIII removed the church of England from the control of the pope in 1546, many English Catholics fled to France. A school was set up for those refugees in the city of Douay. English Catholics in that city translated the Bible into English, which is why the English version used in the catholic church for many years was called the Douay/Rheims version (Rheims was a nearby city). Years later, John Francis Wade came to teach at that school and wrote the song in Latin. Additional words were added by a French priest during the French revolution (1790’s).

The tune had been written earlier, around 1675, by John Reading, an organist in England’s Winchester cathedral. However, the tune was called “Portuguese hymn” because an English nobleman first heard it sung at the Portuguese embassy chapel in London. In 1795 the tune and words were published together in America, and the words were finally translated into English in 1840.

Notice the deeply theological content in the hymn. Verse 2 calls Jesus “Light of Light eternal, Son of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” Verse 4 calls Him the “Word of the Father.”

6. Away in a Manger. 

The words were published in 1887 by James R. Murray who called the tune “Luther’s Cradle Hymn, Composed by Martin Luther for his children and still sung by German mothers to their Little Ones.” It however does not go back to Luther, but maybe to German Lutherans in Pennsylvania. It had been published in 1885 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America It may be by an anonymous author of the 1800’s and therefore passed down orally before it was first printed. It was not translated into German until 1934.  

Murray was a musician in the civil war, and started writing popular songs during that time. He worked as a music editor and music teacher. When he came across the song story about Luther may have been told to hum by the person who gave him the song, and apparently it already had the melody that starts with two high notes and works downward. The other common melody for this song, that starts with an upward jump, was, composed by an American William J. Kirkpatrick in 1895.

The third verse is a prayer, Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay close beside me forever and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear chidren n thy tender care, and take us to heaven to live with thee there.” (translation from Lutheran Worship, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House 1982, hymn 64.)

7. Oh Come Oh come Emmanuel

The most widely acknowledged guess is that these words were written by and monk or nun in the 800’s, the time of Charlemagne. In the early 19th century, an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale was reading an ancient book of poetry and hymns and found this unknown Latin poem, which was complete with music accompaniment. Neale knew 20 languages, including Latin, and was able to translate this song into English. He lived in the Madeira islands near Africa, where he had established an orphanage, a school for girls, and a ministry to reclaim prostitutes. Neale first played this hymn for the people he served, thought to be the lowest of society. He published it in 1851, and it has remained in popular use ever since.

In medieval monasteries, each verse was sung on a different day leading up to Christmas, sung at Vespers (evening worship) just before the singing of the Magnificat (Mary’s song of praise from Luke 1:45). A verse connected with a song n this way was called an “antiphon,” which simply means that groups took turns singing. Each verse starts with the word “O,” and so they are called “the O antiphons.” 

Each verse emphasizes some truth about Jesus:
He is Emmanuel, (also spelled Immanuel)  which means God with us.(Isaiah 7:14)
He is wisdom from on high (compare Proverbs 8).
He is the Lord of mjght who had appeared on Mount Sinai.

He is called the “Rod of Jesse’s stem” because Isaiah had prophesied (Isaiah 11:1) that a shoot would arise from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was King David’s father, and the line of David  become a stump when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and ended Israel’s independence, after which they could not have kings. The “shoot” (rod) was the promise that a Messiah would come to resume the line of kings from David and his father Jesse.

He is called the “Key of David” in Isaiah 22:22.
The term “dayspring from on high” is from Malachi 4:2 quoted in Luke 1:78-79.
Jesus is called “desire of nations” because the prophecy was that all nations would be blessed through him (Genesis 

8. O Little Town on Bethlehem

The writer of the poem actually had ridden on horseback along the path into Bethlehem, and was inspired by the beauty of the town as the sun was setting. At the time he was an American Episcopalian pastor in Philadelphia named Philips Brooks, regarded by some as the greatest American preacher of the 19th century, called “Prince of the Pulpit.” His church organist , Louis Redner, who was also a real estate agent, asked him to write a poem to be set to music, so Brooks wrote this hymn the night before Christmas in 1868 and it was sung the next morning.

After 1869, Brooks served at Trinity in Boston. At 6 feet 6 inches, his preaching “stemmed the tide of the unitarian movement.” He was fond of children, and kept toys in his office so children would stop by to see him. 

Verse 4 expresses our personal devotion to Jesus: “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to use we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today … O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.”

9.  Angels from the Realms of Glory. 

The poem was written by an Irishman born in Scotland, James Montgomery, and published by him in 1816. 

His father was an Irish Moravian missionary, and he was raised without them in a Moravian community in Ireland. He flunked out of seminary, became a baker’s assistant, then a vagrant. He spent his time writing odes, so was paid to write for a newspaper (Sheffield Register), and took over the paper when the owner was arrested for writing editorials about Irish freedom. He continued writing about freedom, was involved in the abolitionist movement, and was arrested twice. He later became interested in the Bible, and so his poem surprised newspaper readers because it was about unity rather than the expected fiery rhetoric. (There was a verse about social justice, but it is usually omitted in today’s hymnals). He left newspaper work in 1825 to promote foreign missions. In all, he wrote 400 hymns.

The tune was written by Willem Smart, an organist of a Presbyterian Church in London, who also edited hymn books and composed an opera. He began losing his eyesight from age 18, and was totally blind at 52, after which he wrote this tune, originally sung with the words of the doxology “Glory be to God the father…”). Smart introduced hymns in harmony to the church of England.

10. Silent Night.

Josef Mohr (whose father was a soldier) was the assistant priest of the Church of St. Nicholas at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg, Austria. After an evening Christmas program on December 23rd, Mohr took a longer way home that took him up over a hill overlooking the village. Reveling in the silence of the wintry night, the Christmas play he had just seen made him remember a poem he had written a couple of years before, and decided those words might make a good carol for his congregation the following evening at their Christmas Eve service. The next day, he went to see the church organist, Franz Gruber, who was also the village teacher. He was son of a poor linen weaver, who had studied violin and organ. He had only a few hours to come up with a melody accompanied by guitar (The organ had ceased functioning). On Christmas Eve 1818, the little congregation heard Gruber and Mohr play their new composition. The carol spread across northern Europe, and in 1834, singers performed Silent Night for King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who then ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas Eve. In 1827 the song was brought to the United States, in New York City’s Trinity Church, translated into English by John F. Young.  It is now sung in more than 300 different languages around the world.

11.The Messiah, the overture by G. F. Handel with the Hallelujah Chorus. I am grateful that a friend has sent me this link to its background story. In the article, the phrase in light-colored print takes you to a list of all the Bible verses used in The Messiah.

12. Benjamin Britten, a 20th century British composer, wrote a concert piece called Ceremony of Carols

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