Learn the stories behind Christmas carols

Published 7:30 am Sunday, December 12, 2021

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Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without singing the familiar carols that celebrate this special time of the year.

It’s difficult for me to select a favorite from the many joyous songs of the Christmas season.  Whether a centuries old classic like Silent Night or a song from recent years such as Mary, Did You Know?  – they tell us the story of Christ’s birth from different perspectives.

Composed in 1962, Do You Hear What I Hear? was written by a husband and wife team as a hymn of peace during the Cuban missile crisis when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war.

The fourth stanza emphasizes that message, “Said the king to the people everywhere. Listen to what I say!  Pray for peace, people, everywhere.  Listen to what I say!  The Child, the Child sleeping in the night He will bring us goodness and light, He will bring us goodness and light.”

Go Tell It On the Mountain, first published in 1907, originated in the Appalachian Mountains where two brothers spent time collecting and arranging the music they found in those hills.  One of the brothers, John Work, added the stanzas to the chorus that had long been sung throughout Appalachia.

Charles Wesley, who wrote over 6,000 hymn texts, penned the words to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.  The carol, published in 1739, tells us who Jesus is and what His coming means to each of us.

On Christmas Day 1863, our country was fighting a bloody Civil War.  Some six months earlier at Gettysburg, forty thousand men were killed, wounded or missing.  Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “There is no peace on earth.”  His son, Lieutenant Charles Longfellow, had been severely wounded in November 1862.  He wrote I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day which expresses despair that turns to hope that there will again be “peace on earth, good will to men.”

Isaac Watts based the words of his carol, Joy To The World, on Psalm 98 which reminds us to “sing to the Lord….rejoice and sing praises.”  The song does not specifically mention the birth of Christ, but celebrates the coming of the Lord as King to rule “the world with truth and grace” and how we should rejoice that His righteousness takes away our sins.

Scholars are not sure who wrote the Latin words to Adeste Fidelis, which we know as O Come All Ye Faithful.  In 1750, a calligrapher named John Francis Wade included the carol in manuscripts of hymns he sent to the English Roman Catholic College in Lisbon, Portugal.  Over 30 years later, it was sent to a Portuguese Chapel in London where it was sung.  Soon it became known around the world.

While visiting the Holy Land in December 1865, Phillip Bliss attended a Christmas Eve service at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, the traditional sight of Jesus’ birth.  Three years later while pastoring a church in Philadelphia, he needed a Christmas song for a children’s service.  Recalling his visit to the Holy Land inspired his writing of O Little Town of Bethlehem.

Listen to the inspiring messages in the words of these “old familiar carols” as you celebrate the birth of the Christ Child.