Stories of Favorite Christmas Carols and Hymns

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Day 1)
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is one of the oldest Christmas carols still sung today! It contains many prophetic references and that is why it is used so often at Advent.

The original author is unknown, but "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" was probably written before 800 A.D. It became known as the song of the "Great O's" and contained 7 verses in Latin which were sung or chanted one at a time on the 7 days leading up to Christmas. The lyrics give a brief summary of the prophecies surrounding the birth of Christ, Emmanuel.

In the 1800's, an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale came across this tune--referred to as a Latin chant rather than a Christmas carol--and translated it into English. His first translation actually began, "Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel". Several years later, 2 of the 7 verses were cut and the song we now sing became popular throughout Europe and America. (All seven verses are available at the link above so be sure to read them!)

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (Day 2)
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (Am I the only one who thought this was called "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear"? Hehe.) Like many of the Christmas carols we sing, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" is a song which came to be known as it is today through a series of interesting events that involve not one, but two contributors. Unitarian minister Dr. Edmund Sears was trying to create an uplifting Christmas sermon for his congregation in 1849. Sears was a man who served the poor and needy and urged his fellow Christians to do the same, yet he wanted to pen a message that would share the "light of the world" with both his flock and those they served.

Inspired by Luke 2:8-9, he wrote the rough draft of a Christmas poem. Then, he combined it with a poem he had written years earlier. Sears presented the finished poem to his congregation and also had it published in a magazine (of which he was also editor), hoping to spur the community on to good works in the name of Christ.

The second part of the story belongs to a composer and music critic by the name of Richard Storrs Willis. How he came across the poem is unknown, but Willis combined the words with a song he had composed earlier called, simply, "Carol". This adaptation became the Christmas carol we know today. In both World War I and II, American soldiers sang this song during the holidays--as much for its celebration of Christ's birth as for its message of peace on earth and service among mankind.

O Come, All Ye Faithful (Day 3)
O Come, All Ye Faithful For hundreds of years, the popular Christmas carol "O Come, All Ye Faithful" was attributed to an unnamed cleric from the Middle Ages. Other stories say that Saint Bonaventura wrote it. But when an English scholar found seven signed manuscripts of the song, the true story of English Catholic Priest John Francis Wade emerged.

Wade was a cleric from the mid 1700's whose work included researching and restoring copies of historical church music. He had left England during a time of great conflict between Catholics and the Church of England. Wade made France his home and shared beautiful copies of music written in calligraphy-like script to churches all over that country.

Around 1750, Wade finished his own composition in Latin, a melody called "Adeste Fideles" and a year later published it with completed music and lyrics.

But, in 1841, when a Frederrick Oakley translated Wade's song from Latin to English, the credit to Wade was left out! Time and again, Wade was forgotten until hundreds of years later when the English scholar Maurice Frost found those original manuscripts!

"O Come, All Ye Faithful" is one of the oldest and most popular Christmas songs. It gained popularity at the turn of the century when Christmas caroling becamee a holiday tradition in communities around America. Since then, it has been translated into 150 languages, made the top ten on the music charts, and been remade countless times.

O Holy Night (Day 4)
O Holy Night was written by a Frenchman named Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure in 1847. Placide was the commisionaire of wines in his small town and was known for writing poetry. Although he was not a regular at church, his parish priest asked him to write a poem for that year's Christmas mass. Cappeau was honored and soon completed his poem, "Cantique de Noel".

However, after the inspiration of writing his poem based upon the Gospel of Luke's account of Christ's birth, Cappeau decided to that his poem was worthy as a song as well. He asked his friend Adolphe Charles Adams, who had written scores for both opera and ballet, to assist in writing the music. The completed song was presented to the priest and parish and received wholehearted acceptance. Soon, it became widely known throughout churches in France.

Years later, though, Cappeau left the church to join the socialist movement. Around the same time, news that Cappeau's friend, Adolphe, was a Jew found its way to the Church and "Cantique de Noel" was suddenly deemed inappropriate, unfit for service and banned from the Church altogether. Although it was no longer welcomed in church services, however, the people of France still sang the Christmas song in their homes and saved it from obscurity.

Then, in the mid-1800's, a Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight found and translated "Cantique de Noel" into English. Dwight had left the ministry because of severe anxiety and panic attacks. He became reclusive but continued to serve musicians by finding new musical pieces and reviewing them in a journal he privately published. Falling in love with the lyrics of "O Holy Night" as he translated it, Dwight published the lyrics in his journal and in several songbooks and the carol took off in America.

The last marvelous part of the story occurs in 1906 when a former chief chemist for Thomas Edison made the first voice radio transmission. Inspired by the Morse code transmissions of Marconi, Fessenden was determined to speak words to the world, not merely dots and dashes. On Christmas Eve of 1906, Fessenden achieved his goal and the first words were spoken through airwaves: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed..." He read from the Gospel of Luke as amazed radio operators listened to the story of Christ's birth! And afterwards, Fendesson picked up his violin and played the first song heard on radio: "O Holy Night"! The broadcast ended and one of the world's favorite Christmas songs took flight!

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (Day 5)
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus Charles Wesley wrote more than 6500 hymns, including "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" which is included in the United Methodist Collection of Hymns. It is one of 18 Christmas "praise hymns" written by Wesley and his brother, John.

No story behind this song that I know of. It just fits the Advent season and is a hymn that I hadn't heard of and would like to learn! Here are the words:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israelís strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Who Is He in Yonder Stall (Day 6)
Who Is He in Yonder Stall? Here is a Christmas hymn that you may not have heard before! It is by a composer named Benjamin Russell Hanby, who is also the writer of a famous Christmas tune, "Up On the Housetop"! But the song we will listen to today is a wonderful story of who the Christ child came to be, briefly highlighting some of the most important moments of His life.

Hanby lived in Ohio for most of his life and was a father, minister and abolitionist. His home in Westerville, Ohio (5 minutes from our former Columbus home!) was a stop on the Underground Railroad. A popular ballad he wrote while living there called "Darling Nellie Gray" is supposedly based on the true story of a freed slave who stopped at Hanby's home as he was looking for work to pay for his girlfriend's freedom. The slave died of pneumonia before he could free her, but she is immortalized in the song.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Day 7)
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen Much of the religious music from the church in the 15th century was written in Latin and sung in somber tunes that did not evoke much enthusiasm or joy. But in their own circles, peasants wrote their own songs with lighter music and more uplifting religious subjects. These folk songs became some of the most loved Christmas carols.

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was a lively tune that was sung and danced to; it was probably the most popular early Christmas carol. It's lyrics were closer to the actual Biblical account of Jesus' birth than many of the songs sung in church! In the 19th century, the song was published under Queen Victoria's reign for the Anglican church and soon became popular around the world.

However, the words that were sung long ago (before publication) held a different meaning than they do now! In the Middle Ages, the term "merry" did not mean simply "happy". "Merry" was used to describe armies, soldiers, and rulers--it meant "great, strong, mighty"! Also, the word "rest" in the song's title did not mean to take a nap! It meant "make". So now we have "God Make You Mighty Gentlemen". And now for the final piece of the puzzle! In the original title, there was a comma after the word "merry" (mighty). Now we get the full impact of the original name to our Christmas carol: "God Make You Mighty, Gentlemen"!

The unknown author wanted to convey the power of the message behind Christ's birth and how salvation becomes our strength. He must have wanted us to wish one another a Mighty Christmas as well as a Merry one!

O Little Town of Bethlehem (Day 8)
O Little Town of Bethlehem In 1859, Phillips Brooks graduated from Episcopal Theological Seminary and began his ministry as a pastor. He was a Harvard graduate as well, who had tried his hand at teaching Latin but had given up and turned to prayer and Bible study to find his way. In 1861, Brooks became pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. He was a master orator and his special love of children drew literally thousands to his congregation.

But by 1863, the country was in the middle of the Civil War and his fervor was beginning to wane. Every Sunday, he looked down at the widows and mournful faces and became weary of trying to find a message of joy or peace. Then, president Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Phillips Brooks was asked to preside over the funeral ceremony. He was not Lincoln's pastor, but was asked because of his fame as an inspirational speaker.

By 1865, poor Brooks needed a break so that he could regain his faith and renew his spirit. He left America for an extended visit to the Middle East. While there, he toured the spots of Biblical importance. On Christmas Eve in Jerusalem that year, Brooks felt the need to get away from the masses of people who crowded the village streets. He borrowed a horse and spent time wandering, lost in thought. Just as the sun was setting, he rode into the tiny town of Bethlehem and the clear sky became full of stars. Awed by the wonder of the scene and how our Savior came from such humble beginnings, his faith was inspired!

He returned to his congregation with high hopes that his experience would inspire his flock. But the words failed him and he grew desperate for a way to share how he felt. In December of 1868, he recalled his time in the Holy Land again. This time, the words flowed and soon formed a poem.

Brooks enthusiastically took his poem to good friend and church organist Lewis Redner so that the words could be set to music. Redner struggled at first and on Christmas Eve went to bed in discouragement--with nothing on the page. As he lied there, a melody finally came to him and just in time for the Christmas day service!

The song "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was presented at church and soon became extremely popular in Philadelphia and around the world. Phillips Brooks is known as one of the greatest preachers of the 19th century, but his inspired song is a large part of what makes him so well-loved.

Go Tell It on the Mountain (Day 9)
Go Tell It on the Mountain After the Civil War, an African American choir director in Tennessee named John Wesley Work was on a mission. His goal was to preserve the Spirit-filled songs of black Americans from the years of slavery which had mostly been passed on by oral tradition. Work was one of few educated African Americans in the South and he used his knowledge and perseverance to teach the lessons of the Christian life through these old songs.

Work's music influenced a nearby black college's choir and soon its Fisk Jubilee singers were taking the Negro spirituals with them as they traveled around the country and even to England to perform for Queen Victoria. John Work's labors to revive these spiritual songs influenced his own church and family as well. His son and brother both continued the work collecting, composing and singing these traditional African American spirituals. Frederick Works, John Works' brother, is credited with bringing attention to the song "Go Tell It on the Mountain", whose author was never discovered.

Unlike many of the mournful lyrics and somber tones of the typical spiritual, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" was a joyous exclamation about the true meaning of Christmas--a subject not often put into song by slaves. John Work II and Frederick Work left the words intact, but changed the music to a more upbeat tune suitable for the Fisk Jubilee Singers to present to their audiences. In the 1880's, the Singers took "Go Tell It on the Mountain" to America and the world.

But that's not the end of the story! In 1909, the song was published in Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations. John Work III, the third generation of the highly educated Work family, graduated from Julliard and studied history and music. He followed his father and grandfather in his devotion for documenting and preserving an important part of America's musical history. Sometimes he traveled across the country to interview elderly former slaves who had sung the spirituals themselves!

Sometime during the Great Depression, John Work III looked at "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and decided to expand upon the song. Whether he composed the new additional lyrics or found them through his research is not known, but the final product is the song we recognize today. It was published in 1940 and became more popular than ever. Through the dedication of the Work family, the words of an unknown slave were shared "over the mountain and everywhere"!

Angels We Have Heard on High (Day 10)
Angels We Have Heard on High The author of this wonderful Christmas song is unknown. The first people remembered to have sung "Angels We Have Heard on High" were the French of the 19th century. The use of Latin in the song's chorus gives the assumption that perhaps it was a Catholic monk or priest who was knowledgeable in both the Scriptures and the Latin language. And its chant-like melody gives us a hint that perhaps a monk wrote the tune. But if this was a chant, it was more joyous than most ever sung those many years ago!

Many mysteries surround the carol, though. It is attributed to the French, but there is historical evidence that at least portions of the song were sung in early Christian churches before Rome declared Christianity the state religion. It's chorus, "Gloria in excelsis Deo" means "Glory to God in the highest" and was a phrase commonly used in church masses from as early as 130 A.D. Pope Telesphorus at that time issued a decree that on the Lord's birthday, churches should hold special evening services with "Gloria in excelsis Deo" sung at the end of prayers or Scripture readings.

The truth is that we may never know just how old this Christmas song is, but what is important is its simple but joyous message about the birth of Jesus.

Mary, Did You Know? (Day 11)
Mary, Did You Know? A short "Story Behind the Song" article by Christianity Today.

What Child Is This? (Day 12)
What Child Is This?

Worship Carols of Christmas--What Child is This? This is an audio presentation by Woodrow Kroll of Back to the Bible. You can also sign up for free to read the transcript instead if you like.

Silent Night (Day 13)
Silent Night I won't try to retell the wonderful version of this story as told in the book I suggested above. However, if you can't find a copy in time, please visit this site for the history of "Silent Night": "Silent Night" and Christmas

Once in Royal David's City (Day 14)
Once in Royal David's City Cecil Francis Humphrey Alexander was the wife of an Irish bishop in the 1800's. She wrote a hymnal for children in 1848 called Hymns For Little Children which included this Christmas song. She was the author of about 400 hymns, including "All Things Bright and Beautiful". Mrs. Alexander also wrote poetry from a very early age. She published a poem called "Burial of Moses" in the Dublin University Magazine and it is said that Lord Tennyson called it one of the few poems by a living poet that he wished he had written!

We Three Kings (Day 15)
We Three Kings In 1857, John Henry Hopkins Jr. was faced with a difficult task--what to get for his nieces and nephews for the celebration of Epiphany! Hopkins was ordained as an Episcopalian priest, but chose to use his writing talent as a reporter instead of a clergyman. He was a brilliant scholar with a law degree who used his inspirational writing as a scribe for a New-York publication called Church Journal.

So, when Hopkins had to decide upon his gift for his brothers' children (he was a bachelor, by the way), he decided to write a tribute to the magi of the Christmas story. His gift would be personal, entertaining, AND meaningful! Using his imagination and knowledge of the Scriptures, Hopkins wove a simple but poignant story of the quest to find the Savior and the symbolism of the gifts they brought.

John Hopkins Jr. published "We Three Kings" in his own songbook called Carols, Hymns, and Songs". In the next century, many churches chose the carols and hymns which would be accepted into their hymnals and "We Three Kings" was, of course, readily included.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Day 16)
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing Charles Wesley, known as the founder of Methodism and writer of thousands of hymns, wrote a new Christmas composition in 1737. It was called "Hark! How All the Welkin Rings" and premiered in his church that year.

Soon, the song grew in popularity among the growing Methodist churches and Wesley wanted to have it published. He turned to an old college friend, George Whitefield. George and Charles were many times at odds in how they presented the gospel; Whitefield was more charismatic and because he was banned from the Anglican churches, was forced to preach in open-air revival-like meetings. (He is credited with influencing the revival movement that later exploded in America!) His approach to the Scriptures was more liberal than Wesley's, too. When Wesley saw the unapproved changes to his Christmas song when Whitefield published it, he was furious!

George Whitefield removed the term "welkin", an archaic Middle English word that meant "the vault of heaven" or the uppermost part of the sky. And instead of the heavenly host of Luke 2 simply praising God and giving Him glory, Whitefield had the angels sing their praises! Wesley never sang the new version of his song.

But the original melody for "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" changed decades later when an admirer--and performer--of Felix Mendelssohn's work, William Cummings combined the music of two men who would never meet. Cummings put the lyrics of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" by Charles Wesley to the melody of a song composed by Felix Mendelssohn which was written as a tribute to Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press and the first printed Bible! Once again, a song which has become treasured the world over was brought together through the creativity of many.

Mary's Boy Child (Day 17)
Mary's Boy Child composed by Jester Hairston on Harry Belafonte's To Wish You a Merry Christmas album (CD). I heard this on the radio yesterday and thought it was called "Hark Now Hear the Angel's Sing". And I had no idea who sang it! Listen at the link and read along...what a great Christmas song. (Sorry, this was the best audio of the entire song I could find. Scroll down to the second set of words for "Mary's Boy Child".) It was successful on the music charts in the 50's when it came out; Jester Hairston's lyrics and Belafonte's voice give just the slightest hint of a Negro spiritual. It's such a simple but heartfelt song!

Sorry, there isn't really a story to the song today, but here are a few links about the composer (who was also an actor!):
Justin Hairston Tribute   Hairston article (by same author).

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Day 18)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas This upbeat Christmas carol was introduced to the world by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in Saint Louis. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane were busy songwriters during the golden age of Hollywood. They composed songs for classic musicals like Girl Crazy and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. They were called on to write a song for Judy Garland's character in Meet Me in Saint Louis which would reflect the tender but sad moment between sisters who were moving to Saint Louis, leaving love behind. The original beginning says, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last; next year we will be living in the past." And the last lines read, "Someday soon we all will be together; If the Fates allow; Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow; So have yourself a merry little Christmas now."

Meet Me in Saint Louis was a film produced during the end of World War II and was to be Judy Garland's "break out" role that transformed her from a child star to an adult actress in the eyes of her fans. She spent a few years prior to the making of the movie visiting with and entertaining troops. She considered it an honor to boost the morale of the young men fighting for their country.

So, when songwriters Martin and Blane approached her with the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", she turned it down flat! The lyrics, she said, were too dismal and the nation needed to hear something more positive! They agreed and the version we know and love today is what they produced for Judy Garland. Later that year, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was released as a single. The world came to know and love this Christmas carol as a song of hope for the soldiers who longed to come home and for the Christmas joy families once shared to return as well.

Silver Bells (Day 19)
Silver Bells Jay Livingston and Ray Evans were an award-winning songwriting team of the 40's and 50's. They scored with hits like "To Each His Own" and "Another Time Another Place". (They also wrote the silly theme song for the t.v. show "Mr. Ed"!)

So it was no surprise that they were called upon to write the lyrics for an upcoming musical comedy starring Bob Hope, a remake of the film The Lemon Drop Kid. They set right to work and soon realized that the movie called for a different sort of Christmas song.

Until then, most Christmas carols--and Christmas films--were set in either Bethlehem or a country/rural atmosphere of some sort. But for The Lemon Drop Kid, Livingston and Evans needed to come up with a song that would reflect Christmas in the bustling city! Something that would capture not only the sights of a downtown Christmas, but the sounds as well. As they sat in their office, one of the songwriters picked up and shook a small silver bell--inspiration hit!

Before bringing the song to Bob Hope, however, they decided to try it out on Ray Evan's wife first. They did, and she immediately laughed! Puzzled, they asked her what was so funny and she referred them to the silly sounding chorus: "tinker bell, tinker bell, it's Christmastime in the city". "Tinker bell" was soon changed to "silver bells" and the song was complete. Bob Hope went on the make the song famous--and a later rendition by Bing Crosby helped to launch it even further! And Bob Hope continued to sing his "Silver Bells" to G.I.'s serving all over the world in his tours with the U.S.O.

Joy to the World (Day 20)
Joy to the World Isaac Watts grew up in Southampton, England in the late 1600's. He was the son of a radical free-thinker--also named Isaac--who was shunned by the Church of England and spent many a night in jail for his nonconformist ideas! Isaac, the son, grew up challenging authority in the same way his father did.

Because he was not a member of the Church of England, Isaac Watts was not allowed to enter Oxford or Cambridge even though he was a brilliant thinker. He studied at the Independent Academy at Stoke, Newington until the age of 20 when he left on his own to go back to live with his father.

While living at home, the younger Watts complained to his father about the dull and uninspired hymns of their church. Watts senior challenged him to come up with something better! And so he did.

At first, the hymns he wrote were not accepted by most and Isaac was even labeled a heretic for his "new" ways of thinking about faith. But, after years of earning his living as a tutor, Isaac Watts became the assistant of Dr. Isaac Chauncey (a third Isaac in our story!) at Mark Lane Independent Chapel in London. In three short years, Watts became the minister at age 26! His church grew rapidly and his position enabled him to finally publish some of his work.

While studying Psalm 98, Isaac was inspired to write a song based on the emotional experience of King David. He was touched by the words, "Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth and sing for joy and sing praises" and soon put his paraphrase into the song which would become "Joy to the World".

Isaac Watts' hymn was not readily accepted, however, because most British Christians did not like the idea of rewriting Scripture! Isaac persisted and continued to translate more of the Psalms into song with such titles as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "This is the Day the Lord Has Made". These and many more were published in 1719 in The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship. Whew! After many years and an iron will, his work began to gain acceptance.

However, the song we sing today has a different tune than Watts used with his version of "Joy to the World". He intended for the lyrics to be sung to the tune of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing". In 1836, Lowell Mason of New Jersey, an ardent student of classical German composers like Handel, wrote an upbeat melody he called "Antioch". He searched and searched for lyrics that would fit perfectly with his song and eventually came upon "Joy to the World" by Isaac Watts. The combination of Watts' words and Mason's music is the Christmas carol we love today. No one is sure how it became such a popular Christmas carol because the only lines linking it to the New Testament story of Christ's birth is "the Lord is come" and "let Earth receive her King". But in the early half of the 1900's, it became a regular on radio during the holidays and "Joy to the World" was soon a classic.

The Christmas Song (Day 21)
The Christmas Song Words by Mel Torme, first sung by Nat King Cole.

The following is an excerpt from Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins. Copyright © 2001 by Andrew Collins

One of the most famous modern-day Christmas songs was written on one of the hottest California days on record. "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"--the opening line of "The Christmas Song"--is, to many, one of the greatest moments in the history of music.

No one thought about it at the time, but it was the first American Christmas standard introduced by an African American (Nat 'King' Cole). Its success helped open the door for other African Americans to put their own spins on holiday classics. Thanks to "The Christmas Song," for the first time in the commercial marketplace, Christmas was not reserved for "whites only."

Mel Torme recalls what happened. His friend, lyricist Robert Wells, was trying to drive off the California heat with fans and positive thinking. The fans were doing little good, and the positive thoughts--which consisted of writing down everything that reminded Wells of cold winters in New England--were only making Wells warmer.

"When I arrived, I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil. They started, `Chestnuts roasting...Jack Frost nipping...Yuletide carols...Folks dressed up like Eskimos'. Bob didn't think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off."

It had been chestnuts that started Wells's strange train of thought. He had seen his mother bring in a bag of them to stuff a turkey for dinner. Wells was thrown back to the days when he saw vendors selling chestnuts on New York City street corners. Yet while Wells was after nothing more than an attempt to "think cold," Mel caught a glimpse of a song in the phrases he had written.

With the temperature in the nineties, they got to work on what was to become a Christmas classic. It took just forty minutes. The assigned movie title songs were pushed aside as Wells and Torme climbed into a car and drove away to show off their latest song.

Torme knew all the great singers who worked in Los Angeles. They all liked and respected Mel's work so when Wells and Torme dropped by Nat King Cole's home uninvited, it didn't seem out of the ordinary. It was just old, friendly Mel being Mel. After a brief greeting, Torme took a seat at King's piano. On the hottest day of the year, Mel played the new Christmas number. It might not have cooled anyone off, but Cole was deeply impressed.

Nat King Cole had begun his career as a jazz pianist and was one of the best. Yet by the 1940s, it was his smooth baritone that had mesmerized fans all over the world with a long list of well-loved songs including "Mona Lisa," "Nature Boy," and "Too Young"

From the moment Torme stopped in at Cole's Los Angeles home and played "The Christmas Song" on his piano, Nat loved it. Sensing the song was a classic, he wanted to record it before Torme could offer it to anyone else. Within days, Cole had rearranged the song to suit his voice and pacing, and cut it for Capitol Records. His instincts about the song's potential were right. Released in October of 1946, the song stayed in the Top Ten for almost two months. Nat's hit charted again in 1947, 1949, 1950, and 1954. "The Christmas Song" would ultimately be recorded by more than a hundred other artists--including Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Mel Torme himself.

Handel's Messiah (Day 22)
Handel's Messiah: An Appreciation and Explanation
"Messiah" Sampler Listen to parts of Handel's "Messiah", courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio.
Scores for Handel's Messiah All of the choruses are available except for "O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion".

There is a wonderful book called The Handel's Messiah Family Advent Reader by Donna Payne and Fran Lenzo which contains 28 stories, each prefaced by a portion of the words to "Messiah". It also includes a CD with the music! The stories share some of the history behind Christmas traditions.

Away in a Manger (Day 23)
Away in a Manger This popular Christmas carol has a most confusing history! For many years, "Away in a Manger" was attributed to Martin Luther, causing it to be widely accepted in some circles and rejected by others!

Some sources still claim that Luther is the composer (for example, in my research, Bob Jones University has a page on this carol and they give Luther the credit), however, it is now a common theory that James R. Murray found the untitled music. He printed the song with the title "Luther's Cradle Hymn" in his popular songbook, Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses and even stated that Martin Luther has written it AND had sung it to his children at bedtime!

We will probably never know who the first true author of the music is. Other versions of "Away in a Manger" were published in the late 1800's and it was credited to several men. Once, "Away in a Manger" was published in a songbook--one of many--which gave credit to a man named Carl Mueller who most likely did not even exist! Many times, particularly in the years of World War I, any credit to the German Martin Luther were shunned and more stories about the song's origin popped up.

What we do know is that the very first version was probably written by an American in the mid 1800's. Although it was popular to give Martin Luther credit and tell tales of German mothers singing the tune to their sleepy babies, the Germans had never heard of this song until it reached Europe after gaining fame in America! It is certainly possible that the song was handed down orally for several years before landing in James Murray's hands. Perhaps the person who passed it on to him told him the story of Martin Luther's "cradle hymn". We may never know the truth about the beginnings of this sweet Christmas song, but can be glad that even controversy caused it to be kept alive in hearts and homes around the world!

The First Noel (Day 24)
The First Noel "The First Noel" is one of the oldest Christmas folk songs sung today. The author is unknown, but both France and England make claims to its origins. The older title used in Britain was "The First Nowell".

This song was written as long ago as the 13th century! But what can be assumed about the composer is that he (or she) was common folk. Around the time that most researchers believe "The First Noel was written, there were very few Bibles in circulation and they were a possession of the middle and upper class. This could explain some of the incorrect Scriptural points of the song and why the language is not as finely tuned, so to speak, as the lyrics of a song by Wesley or other great hymn writers.

For example, the author of "The First Noel" says that the shepherds follow the star to Bethlehem rather than the magi as told in the Bible. And using a certain term for "donkey" may not have been suitable for a more polished writer, even if it was a common word! The song was probably passed on by peasants and sung in households for the hundreds of years before it was published. Churches rarely allowed any "new" religious songs to be used along their old stand-bys.

Finally, in 1833, an English lawyer who loved to collect French and English folk songs decided to publish "The First Noel" and his timing was perfect; the Church of England was beginning to allow new songs into their services. Because it was already well-loved among the people, "The First Noel" soon became a worldwide favorite.

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