About Christmas Carols

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Lesli NolenBy Lesli Nolen

Published December 2013

As far back as I can remember Christmas Carols have always been a big part of celebrating Christmas. I remember singing them in our elementary school plays, singing them at home while my mom played the piano and singing those favorite carols on a hay ride through town. I did some research and found that Christmas carols have been around for a long time, but haven’t always been as they are today.

The definition of “carol” is a song of praise or joy, especially for Christmas and can refer to a round dance often accompanied by singing. The word carol, or carole, is a medieval word of French origin. It is believed to mean a dance song or a circle dance accompanied by singing. Carols express religious joy and are associated most with the Christmas season.

Carols originated in the 14th and 15th centuries and were most popular in the religious song form. The themes often revolved around a saint, the Christ child or the Virgin Mary. It was considered art music. They made very elaborate arrangement for the carols and they were considered an important contribution to English medieval music.

But by the 16th century the popularity of carols diminished and they disappeared almost entirely. If it weren’t for a revival in the middle of the 18th century we might not have Christmas carols today. Many of the carols we know and love today were those written during this revival time.

Here are a just few popular Christmas carols and their origins with an interesting fact about each:

Frosty the Snowman
Author: This song was penned by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins and then recorded in 1950 by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys. The song is about a snowman that comes to life after some children find a hat and place it on his head. Frosty goes on to play with the kids before hurrying off, saying “Don’t cry, I’ll be back again someday.”
Interesting Fact: The song has been recorded by many artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Perry Como. In 1954 a short film based on the song was shown on WGN-TV and in 1969, a longer animated version was produced for TV by Rankin-Bass.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Author: Written by Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) who was also the pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. The lyrics of the carol appeared as prose in the Christian Register, a Unitarian weekly publication, in 1849. Ten years later, Richard Storrs Willis, an American composer and musician, created the melody for “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.”
Interesting Fact: Richard Storrs Willis is said to have been a student of German composer Felix Mendelssohn.

O Come All Ye Faithful
Author: Also known in Latin as “Adeste Fidelis,” this Christmas carol is credited to an English hymnist named John Francis Wade (1711-1786). The carol appeared in 1751 in his collection called Cantus Diversi. It also appeared in the Evening Offices of the Church (of England) in 1760. Later, the carol was translated to English by Frederick Oakeley and William Thomas Brooke and was published in Murray’s Hymnal in 1852.
Interesting Fact: The tune for this carol has been sometimes attributed to John Redding or to Saint Bonaventure. However, this is believed to be wrong because the musical score was first published in 1782 in “An Essay on the Church Plain Chant” by Samuel Webbe. The attribution to Redding is believed to have come from Vincent Novello, a famous organist, who referred to it as “Air to Redding, 1860.”

O Little Town of Bethlehem
Author: In 1865, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), an Episcopal clergyman, visited Bethlehem. His visit inspired him to write a poem in 1867. A year later, Lewis Redner, Brooks’ organist at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Penn., created the music which would later be known as the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Interesting Fact: The music for this Christmas carol is actually titled “St. Louis” by Lewis Henry Redner (1830-1908). It is believed that the carol was first sung by Holy Trinity’s Sunday school children’s choir.

Silent Night
Author: The German composition was originally “Stille Nacht,” by Josef Mohr (1792-1848), an Austrian priest. The tune was composed by Franz X. Gruber (1787-1863), an organist and school teacher. This Christmas carol was first performed at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria, on Christmas day 1818.
Interesting Fact: In 1995 a manuscript written by hand by Josef Mohr was discovered. The manuscript is believed to date to 1820 and it reveals that the lyrics were written in 1816 by Mohr, but the music was composed two years later by Gruber.

Jingle Bells, originally titled One Horse Open Sleigh
Author: James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893) wrote the song in 1857. The song was meant for a Thanksgiving program at a church in Savannah, Georgia, where Pierpont was organist. The song was so well accepted it was again sung on Christmas day and has since become one of the most popular Christmas carols.
Interesting Fact: On December 16, 1965, astronauts aboard Gemini 6, Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford, played a prank on Mission Control. They said they saw some kind of UFO stating that the pilot was “wearing a red suit.” They then played “Jingle Bells” on a harmonica (Hohner’s Little Lady model) backed by sleigh bells. Both instruments are now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and considered the first musical instruments played in space.

Winter Wonderland
Author: This carol was collaboration between composer Felix Bernard (1897-1944) and lyricist Richard “Dick” Smith (1901-1935).
Interesting Fact: The song was recorded in 1934 by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Later, Perry Como and The Andrews Sisters also made recordings of the song, expanding its popularity.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Author: Rudolph was actually the main character of a story written in 1939 by Robert L. May. In 1949, a song based on the story was composed by Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law. The song, which we now know as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” was recorded by Gene Autry. An animated movie narrated by Burl Ives in 1964 followed. The song became a phenomenal hit; selling millions of copies, inspiring recordings in various languages and producing a variety of products based on the lovable reindeer.
Interesting Fact: Marks is also the author of other Christmas carols including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The names of Santa’s reindeer came from the poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore in 1823.  They are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. The “ninth” reindeer, Rudolph, originated with the May book.

Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town
This carol was the result of musician John Frederick Coots and lyricist Haven Gillespies’ (1888-1975) collaborative effort. The song was written in 1932 and was first performed by Eddie Cantor in 1934. The carol became even more popular when it was recorded by celebrated performers like Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.    
Interesting Fact: In 1970, an animated film loosely based on the song and narrated by Fred Astaire, who was also represented as an animated character in the film, was released.

I hope you enjoyed these fun facts about Christmas carols. In closing, “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy New Year!!”  

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