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Where Our Favorite Christmas Carols Come From

Posted: 12/22/2012 7:13 pm

Written by Ron Clancy, this story first appeared in Guideposts magazine, a monthly publication, founded by Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, that provides hope, encouragement and inspiration to millions. Download a condensed version of 'The Power of Positive Thinking' absolutely FREE.

I was six when I fell in love with Christmas carols, especially American Christmas songs. That year, the nuns in the Philadelphia orphanage where I lived took me to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The crowded chapel, the altar crèche, the scent of balsam trees--it was intoxicating!

But something else thrilled me even more: the music--soaring, majestic religious carols filled me with peace, joy and hope. It was a feeling, a deep spiritual warmth, I'd never experienced, living as I did, without a family, without a sense of belonging.

That night, I felt part of something--something much bigger than me. Where did such beautiful music come from? The question stayed with me all my life.

ron clancyFinally, in my sixties, I needed an answer. I decided to travel 4,000 miles, across seven states in nine days, to find the true stories behind those songs that held such deep meaning for me. I'd collected rare recordings of carols for decades--even compiling them into three richly illustrated book/CD boxed collections.

"I'm going to ask you the biggest favor of my life," I said to my wife, Renate, one September night after dinner. She knew better than anyone the influence Christmas carols had on me.

"I want to visit the places where American carols originated. I want to get a feeling for what might have inspired their composers."

I was asking a lot. We both worked--me up at 3:00 A.M. to deliver 230 morning newspapers daily, she as a schoolteacher who often worked till 6:00 P.M. It meant she would have to take over my delivery route, and then head straight to her elementary school. Bless her, she said yes right away.

Savannah, Georgia
Jingle Bells

I piled a suitcase, a still camera, a video camera and a tape recorder into my sturdy Volvo and headed from my home in North Cape May, New Jersey, to Savannah, Georgia, 13 hours and 760 miles south. My destination was the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah, known to just about every Savannan as the Jingle Bells Church.

It was there in 1857, while serving as the church's musical director and organist, James Pierpont finally copyrighted One Horse Open Sleigh, the Christmas carol now known as Jingle Bells, which he had composed in Medford, Massachusetts, at least seven years earlier.

What a beautiful church, I thought. The stately stone edifice was recently renovated. I tried to imagine Pierpont sitting at the organ, playing his spritely song to the congregants every Christmas Eve. The man led a complicated life. He moved to the South and fought for the Confederacy, while his brother, John, served as a Union Army chaplain. He died impoverished though his nephew was the great financial titan, J. Pierpont Morgan, said to have more money than the U.S. Treasury.

I would like to have stayed in Savannah a few days more, but the road beckoned. I phoned Renate at the end of the day. "Honey, I'm in heaven," I said.

St. Helena Island, South Carolina
Mary Had a Baby

"You're headed to South Carolina tomorrow, right?" she asked.

"Yes, to St. Helena Island," I said, "just fifty miles north."

St. Helena Island, one of South Carolina's sea islands, is home to one of Christmas's most precious treasures, the carol Mary Had a Baby. Composed there somewhere in the early 19th century, it's one of the few surviving slave-written carols.

The line that never fails to move me is its last one--"People keep a-comin' an' the train done gone."
There's no agreement on its meaning, but the interpretation I like best is this one: Trains represented an escape to freedom. And though this particular train had gone, with faith surely they'd find another opportunity.

No one knows for sure the plantation where it was written, and today the Coffin Point Plantation is the only one on the island that remains. At one time it occupied 1,120 acres and housed 63 slaves. I found the three-story manor house, white with red-roof shingles, down a quiet back road, near the sea.
Built in 1801, it's a private home now. No one was there. I backed off the veranda and stood on the ample lawn. I sang the song softly to myself and thought of what the peace of Christmas must have meant to a slave.

Murphy, North Carolina
I Wonder as I Wander

The next morning I drove six and a half hours, from St. Helena Island, to Murphy, North Carolina, in the Great Smoky Mountains.

In 1933, I had read, the renowned folklorist and folksinger John Jacob Niles happened to be visiting the tiny Appalachian village, intent on collecting and recording traditional songs.

In his unpublished autobiography he wrote of a revivalist preacher's daughter, who "stepped out to the edge of [a] little platform attached to [her father's] automobile. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. But in her untutored way, she could sing.

"She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song."

Niles, enthralled, asked her to repeat the song and the lyric. She sang it seven times, Niles paying her 25 cents each time.

After the seventh take, he wrote, he had "three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material-- and a magnificent idea." From that he composed the haunting carol I Wonder as I Wander.

Niles's carol is one of my favorites. Murphy was exactly as I had pictured it--the main street ran two blocks. There was an old bank, a drugstore and a town hall where I met the mayor Bill Hughes.

"Sure, I know the song," he told me. "Everyone here does." He stood up from his desk. "Come on with me," he said, and led me down the street. "This is where Niles stood when he first heard the girl sing," he said, indicating a spot by a fountain.

I thought of Niles's lyrics, so simple yet so profound. Great beauty needs no adornment, I thought.

Concord, Massachusetts
The Little Drummer Boy

After a full day of travel to All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan, the source of inspiration for the Alfred Burt family carols, I headed east to Concord, Massachusetts, to visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where composer Katherine K. Davis is buried.

In 1941, Ms. Davis wrote The Carol of the Drum, known today as The Little Drummer Boy. Davis taught music at Wellesley College. She penned more than 600 songs. It is said she based her famous hymn on an old Czech carol. In a long-ago interview, she said the song "practically wrote itself."

But it wasn't an instant hit. In fact, 17 years passed before she got a phone call one day from a friend. "Kay, your carol is on the air, all the time, everywhere on the radio!" she said.

"What carol?" she asked, surprised.

Harry Simeone and Henry Onorati had turned it into a top hit, with a new title and some minor changes. Simeone even had claimed authorship. Davis eventually proved she was, in fact, the songwriter.

Wayland, Massachusetts
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

The First Parish in Wayland, a Unitarian Universalist church in Wayland, Massachusetts, a scenic town outside of Boston, was my next stop. It was there Edmund Hamilton Sears, author of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, served as minister.

What I love so much about the carol is that Sears wrote it as a prayer for peace more than as a carol. The Mexican War had just ended and the Civil War was on the horizon when he penned it Christmas Eve 1849.

A year later, his friend, the soon-to-be New-York Tribune music critic Richard Storrs Willis, set Sears's poem to music.

Cambridge, Massachusetts
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

After a visit to the nearby Edmund Hamilton Sears Chapel, I set out for Cambridge. I had an appointment to see Dr. Jameson Marvin, director of choral activities at Harvard.

"Did you know," I asked, "that a number of Harvard professors wrote carols? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Christmas Bells, the basis for I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

"Christmas Eve, 1863, he was grieving over the death of his wife in a home fire, and of his son, who had been wounded in battle. The professor was awake late, in a desperate mood, when he heard the peal of church bells. Christmas had come.

"He sat down and penned his now-famous poem. Its last lines, famously, were, 'With peace on earth, goodwill to men.' Longfellow's mood had changed."

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
O Little Town of Bethlehem

From Cambridge I drove to Philadelphia, to The Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. I wanted to pay homage to Rev. Phillips Brooks, the rector who wrote the poem O Little Town of Bethlehem, after returning from the Holy Land in 1866.

Brooks had traveled there following President Lincoln's assassination, and the deaths of so many of his parishioners in the Civil War. He was struck by how peaceful it was in Bethlehem.

"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight," went his lyric--a message that he yearned for a similar peace in his homeland.

New York, New York
Do You Hear What I Hear? and White Christmas

I saved New York City for last. First I hoofed it to the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 50th Street, and inside what was then the Beverly and is now the Benjamin Hotel.

Pianist Gloria Shayne was playing in the hotel's dining room. Composer Noel Regney was instantly smitten. The two married and in 1962 together wrote Do You Hear What I Hear? as a hymn to peace in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not originally a Christmas song.

My final stop was 17 Beekman Place, in Midtown East, for decades Irving Berlin's home. The composer of the classics God Bless America, Easter Parade and Puttin' on the Ritz believed his best song was White Christmas.

Christmas had always been a sad day for Berlin. He lost a son Christmas Day 1928, and over time grew increasingly reclusive. In 1983, when he was 95, carolers gathered outside his home and serenaded him with his wonderful song.

His maid invited them all inside. Berlin greeted them and told them how touched he was by their gesture. Carolers continued to serenade him through 1988, the last Christmas of his life, and still gather to sing outside his home--now the Luxembourg House, the country's United Nations consulate.

I was back in Cape May the next day sweeping Renate into my arms.

"Thank you," I said. "This was the Christmas present of a lifetime."

Written by Ron Clancy, this story first appeared in Guideposts magazine, a monthly publication, founded by Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, that provides hope, encouragement and inspiration to millions. Download a condensed version of 'The Power of Positive Thinking' absolutely FREE.

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  • Away In A Manger (Unknown, 1885)

    Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head. The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay, The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay. The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. I love thee, Lord Jesus! Look down from the sky, And stay by my side until morning is nigh. Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay. Close by me forever, And love me I pray. Bless all the dear children, In thy tender care. And take them to heaven, To be with thee there.

  • The Holly And The Ivy (Unknown, 1710)

    The holly and the ivy, When they are both full grown, Of all trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown: O, the rising of the sun, And the running of the deer The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir. The holly bears a blossom, As white as lily flow'r, And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, To be our dear Saviour: <em>Refrain</em> The holly bears a berry, As red as any blood, And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, To do poor sinners good: <em>Refrain</em> The holly bears a prickle, As sharp as any thorn, And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, On Christmas Day in the morn: <em>Refrain</em> The holly bears a bark, As bitter as the gall, And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, For to redeem us all: <em>Refrain</em> The holly and the ivy, When they are both full grown, Of all trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown: <em>Refrain</em>

  • Ding Dong Merrily On High (Johan Tabourot, 1589)

    Ding dong! merrily on high, In heav'n the bells are ringing: Ding dong! verily the sky Is riv'n with angel singing. Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis! E'en so here below, below, Let steeple bells be swungen, And "Io, io, io!" By priest and people sungen. <em>Refrain</em> Pray you, dutifully prime Your matin chime, ye ringers; May you beautifully rime Your evetime song, ye singers. <em>Refrain</em>

  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Charles Wesley, 1739)

    Hark! the herald angels sing Glory to the new-born King! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled! Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies; With the angelic host proclaim Christ is born in Bethlehem! Hark! the herald angels sing Glory to the new-born King! Christ, by highest heaven adored; Christ, the everlasting Lord; Late in time behold him come, Offspring of the Virgin's womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity, Pleased as man with man to dwell; Jesus, our Emmanuel! <em>Refrain</em> Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth. Risen with healing in his wings, Light and life to all he brings, Hail, the Sun of Righteousness! Hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace! <em>Refrain</em> Come, Desire of nations come, Fix in us Thy humble home; Rise, the Woman's conquering Seed, Bruise in us the Serpent's head. Adam's likeness now efface: Stamp Thine image in its place; Second Adam, from above, Reinstate us in thy love. <em>Refrain</em>

  • It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (Edmund Sears, 1849)

    It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold! "Peace on the earth, good will to men, From heaven's all gracious King! The world in solemn stillness lay, To hear the angels sing. Still through the cloven skies they come, With peaceful wings unfurled, And still their heavenly music floats, O'er all the weary world; Above its sad and lowly plains, They bend on hovering wing. And ever o'er its Babel sounds, The blessed angels sing. Yet with the woes of sin and strife, The world hath suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled, Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not, The love song which they bring: O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing. For lo! the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold, When, with the ever-circling years, Shall come the Age of Gold; When peace shall over all the earth, Its ancient splendors fling, And all the world give back the song, Which now the angels sing.

  • Silent Night (Joseph Mohr, 1816)

    Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace. Silent night, holy night, Shepherds quake at the sight, Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavely hosts sing alleluia; Christ the Saviour, is born! Christ the Saviour, is born! Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love's pure light Radiant beams from thy holy face, With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth. Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

  • 12 Days Of Christmas (James O. Halliwell, 1842)

    On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me A partridge in a pear tree. On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Ten lords a-leaping, Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Eleven pipers piping, Ten lords a-leaping, Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree. On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Twelve drummers drumming, Eleven pipers piping, Ten lords a-leaping, Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree!

  • O Holy Night (Placide Cappeau, 1847)

    Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining It is the night of the dear Savior's birth! Long lay the world in sin and error pining Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! Fall on your knees Oh hear the angel voices Oh night divine Oh night when Christ was born Oh night divine Oh night divine Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming Here come the wise men from Orient land The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger In all our trials born to be our friend. 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 Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name.

  • Good King Wenceslas (John Mason Neale, 1853)

    Good King Wenceslas looked out On the feast of Stephen, When the snow lay round about, Deep and crisp and even. Brightly shown the moon that night, Though the frost was cruel, When a poor man came in sight, Gathering winter fuel. Hither, page, and stand by me. If thou know it telling: Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling? Sire, he lives a good league hence, Underneath the mountain, Right against the forest fence By Saint Agnes fountain. Bring me flesh, and bring me wine. Bring me pine logs hither. Thou and I will see him dine When we bear the thither. Page and monarch, forth they went, Forth they went together Through the rude wind's wild lament And the bitter weather. Sire, the night is darker now, And the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart, I know not how. I can go no longer. Ark my footsteps my good page, Tread thou in them boldly: Thou shalt find the winter's rage Freeze thy blood less coldly. In his master's step he trod, Where the snow lay dented. Heat was in the very sod Which the saint had printed. Therefore, Christian men, be sure, Wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor Shall yourselves find blessing.

  • Once In Royal David's City (Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848)

    Once in royal Davids city, Stood a lowly cattle shed, Where a mother laid her Baby, In a manger for His bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ, her little Child. He came down to earth from heaven, Who is God and Lord of all, And His shelter was a stable, And His cradle was a stall: With the poor, and mean, and lowly, Lived on earth our Saviour holy. For He is our childhood's pattern; Day by day, like us, He grew; He was little, weak, and helpless, Tears and smiles, like us He knew; And He cares when we are sad, And he shares when we are glad. And our eyes at last shall see Him, Through His own redeeming love; For that Child so dear and gentle, Is our Lord in heaven above: And He leads His children on, To the place where He is gone.

  • The First Noel (Unknown, 1800)

    The first Noel the angel did say Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay; In fields as they lay, keeping their sheep, On a cold winter's night that was so deep. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel. They looked up and saw a star Shining in the east beyond them far, And to the earth it gave great light, And so it continued both day and night. <em>Refrain</em> And by the light of that same star Three wise men came from country far; To seek for a king was their intent, And to follow the star wherever it went. <em>Refrain</em> This star drew nigh to the northwest, O'er Bethlehem it took it rest, And there it did both stop and stay Right over the place where Jesus lay. <em>Refrain</em> Then entered in those wise men three Full reverently upon their knee, And offered there in his presence Their gold, and myrrh, and frakincense. <em>Refrain</em> Then let us all with one accord Sing praises to our heavenly Lord; That hath made heaven and earth of naught, And with his blood mankind hath bought. <em>Refrain</em>

  • O Come, All Ye Faithful! (John Francis Wade, 1751)

    O come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem; Come and behold him, Born the King of angels; O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, O Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord. God of God, Light of Light, Lo! he abhors not the Virgin's womb: Very God, Begotten, not created; <em>Refrain</em> Sing, choirs of angels, Sing in exultation, Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above; Glory to God In the highest; <em>Refrain</em> See how the shepherds, Summoned to his cradle, Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze; We too will thither Bend our joyful footsteps; <em>Refrain</em> Child, for us sinners Poor and in the manger, We would embrace thee, with love and awe; Who would not live thee, Loving us so dearly? <em>Refrain</em> Yea, Lord, we greet thee, Born this happy morning; Jesus, to thee be glory given; Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing; <em>Refrain</em>

  • I Saw Three Ships (Unknown, 1700)

    I saw three ships come sailing by on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day. I saw three ships come sailing by on Christmas Day in the morning. And what was in those ships all three on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day? And what was in those ships all three on Christmas Day in the morning? The Virgin Mary and Christ were there on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day. The virgin Mary and Christ were there on Christmas Day in the morning.

  • We Wish You A Merry Christmas (Unknown, 1640)

    We wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Good tidings we bring to you and your kin; Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year. Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer:<em> Refrain</em> We won't go until we get some; We won't go until we get some; We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here: <em>Refrain</em> We wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

  • Joy To The World (Isaac Watts, 1719)

    Joy to the world! the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven, and heaven and nature sing. Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns; Let men their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat, repeat the sounding joy. No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessing flow far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found. He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love, and wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders of His love.

  • Lighting a Christmas Tree in Bethlehem

 

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