Vince LaBarbera
Freelance Writer
December 16, 2009 // Local

Christmas carols herald historical tone

Vince LaBarbera
Freelance Writer

By Vince LaBarbera

Singing and caroling at Christmas time is one of the oldest folk customs of the holiday season worldwide. The practice has been present, in fact, since the time when Christianity and the Christmas season were still in their budding stages. In the beginning, music compositions and songs at Christmas were in the form of chants and hymns. “Carol” originally meant “circle dance,” a derivative of the French word caroller, the interpretation of which means dancing around in a circle. The words and lyrics to accompany this festive dance were added later to the tradition — hence Christmas caroling.
Initially, the church looked down upon carols and carol singing as a pagan custom and they could not be included in religious services. However, throughout the countryside, simple folk songs and Nativity carols were written and began to gain popularity.

In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi introduced carols into the formal worship of the church during a Christmas midnight Mass in a cave in Greccio, in the province of Umbria, Italy. That night, the songs and music that accompanied this sacred and formal event were not hymns but carols. Ever since then, carols have caught on with the people and were at their prime in the Middle Ages, when they were nearly always a part of the mystery plays.

There was a time when wandering minstrels and waits, or watchmen that guarded the old-walled cities in the night, used to pass their time by singing carols and also sang them to the people passing by. They would go from home to home, singing carols and entertaining people, and maybe get a treat in return. Later, groups of musicians began singing carols and playing them for various events held during the Christmas season.

As religious observances in the United States and England were closely linked, the popularity of Christmas carols grew in both countries in the 19th century. Many Christmas traditions relatively recent such as Santa Claus and reindeer bear no relation to Christmas carols.

Today, carol singing has become an important part of the Christmas season, and a number of caroling events are organized throughout the world during the festive season, especially on Christmas Eve. The origin of several popular, religious Christmas carols follows:

“Silent Night”
“Silent Night” (German: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”) is a very popular Christmas carol. The original lyrics of the song “Stille Nacht” were written in German by the Austrian priest Father Josef Mohr and the melody was composed by the Austrian headmaster Franz Xaver Gruber. In 1859, John Freeman Young published the English translation that is most frequently sung today. The version of the melody that currently is sung differs slightly (particularly in the final strain) from Gruber’s original. The lyrics and melody are in the public domain.

The carol was first performed in the Nikolaus-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Oberndorf, Austria, on Dec. 24, 1818. Mohr had composed the words much earlier, in 1816, but on Christmas Eve brought them to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the church service.

In his written account regarding the composition of the carol, Gruber gives no mention of the specific inspiration for creating the song. According to the song’s history provided by Austria’s Silent Night Society, one supposition is that the church organ no longer was working so that Mohr and Gruber therefore created a song for accompaniment by guitar. “Silent Night” historian, Renate Ebeling-Winkler Berenguer says that the first mention of a broken organ was in a book published in the U.S.

Some believe that Mohr simply wanted a new Christmas carol that he could play on his guitar. The Silent Night Society says that there are “many romantic stories and legends” that add their own anecdotal details to the known facts, too numerous to report here.

The carol has been translated into more than 44 languages. It sometimes is sung without musical accompaniment. The song was sung simultaneously in English and German by troops during the “Christmas truce” of 1914, as it was one of the few carols that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew.

“Away In a Manger”
“Away in a Manger” was first published in 1885 and used widely throughout the English-speaking world. The song originally was published with two verses in an Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School collection, “Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families” (1885), edited by James R. Murray (1841-1905), where it simply bore the title “Away in a Manger” and was set to a tune called “St. Kilda,” credited to J.E. Clark. Other sources say the author of “Away in A Manger” is unknown and that the music was composed by William J. Kirkpatrick in 1895.

For many years the text was credited to the German reformer Martin Luther. Research has shown, however, that this is nothing more than a fable. In the book “Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses” (1887) it bears the title “Luther’s Cradle Hymn” and the note, “Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” A possible reason for the spurious attribution to Luther is that the 400th anniversary of his birth was in 1883. It is believed the words were either based on a poem written for this anniversary or were credited to Luther as a marketing gimmick. This song has never been found in Luther’s works.

Ironically, years ago, many Catholic churches avoided singing the carol because of its purported composer. Today, however, “Away in a Manager” often is the first carol all children are taught.

“What Child Is This?”
“What Child Is This?” is a popular Christmas carol written in 1865. At the age of 29, writer William Chatterton Dix was struck with a sudden near-fatal illness and confined to bed rest for several months, during which time he went into a deep depression. Yet out of his near-death experience, Dix wrote many hymns, including “What Child is This?” It later was set to the traditional melody of “Greensleeves,” a traditional English folk song and tune.
The “Greensleeves” tune is found in several late 16th century and early 17th century sources. There is a persistent belief that “Greensleeves” was composed by Henry VIII for his lover and future queen consort Anne Boleyn. However, Henry did not compose “Greensleeves,” which probably is Elizabethan in origin and is based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after his death.

The hymn “What Child Is This?” is used across the Western Christian church. A variation was used extensively in the 1962 movie “How the West Was Won” as the song “Home in the Meadow,” lyrics by Sammy Cahn, performed by Debbie Reynolds.

“O Come All Ye Faithful”
The popular Christmas carol, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” is based on the traditional melody of the Latin hymn, “Adeste Fidelis,” attributed to John Francis Wade, an Englishman. The text itself has unclear beginnings and may have been written in the 13th century by St. Bonaventure or King John IV of Portugal. Though it was more commonly believed the text was written by an order of monks — the Cistercian, German, Portuguese and Spanish orders have, at various times been given credit, or that the tune was written by one of Wade’s contemporary Roman Catholic Jacobites — it seems more likely that Wade probably was the author.

The original four verses of the hymn were extended to a total of eight, and these have been translated into many languages, many times, though the English translation by Frederick Oakeley is particularly widespread.

Before the emergence of J.F. Wade as the probable composer, the tune had been purported to be written by several musicians; from John Reading and his son, to Handel and a Portuguese musician, Marcos Antonio da Fonseca, who wasn’t born until after the tune was first published. There are several similar musical themes written around that time, though it is difficult to determine whether these were written in imitation of the hymn, the hymn was based on them, or they are totally unconnected.

The earliest existing manuscript shows both words and tune. It was published in the 1760 edition of Evening Offices of the Church. Wade included it in his own publication of “Cantus Diversi” (1751). It also appeared in Samuel Webbe’s “An Essay on the Church Plain Chant” (1782).

“The First Noel”
“The First Noel” (sometimes “The First Nowell” or just “Noel”) is a traditional English Christmas carol, most likely from the 18th century. In its current form it is of Cornish origin, and it was first published in “Some Ancient Christmas Carols” (1823) and “Gilbert and Sandys Christmas Carols” (1833), edited by William B. Sandys and arranged, edited and with extra lyrics written by Davies Gilbert. The melody is unusual among English folk melodies in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a variation on that phrase. All three phrases end on the third of the scale. The refrain, also unusual, merely repeats the melody of the verse. It is thought to be a corruption of an earlier melody sung in a church gallery setting. A conjectural reconstruction of the earlier version can be found in the “New Oxford Book of Carols.”

The word Noel comes from the French word Noël meaning “night,” from the Latin word natalis (“birth”). It may also be from the Gaulish words “noio” or “neu” meaning “new” and “helle” meaning “light” referring to the winter solstice when sunlight begins overtaking darkness. It is presently the idiomatic term for Christmas. In common with many traditional songs and carols the lyrics vary across books.

“Angels We Have Heard On High”
The words of this carol are based on a traditional French carol literally known as “Angels in our countryside.” Its most common English version was translated in 1862 by James Chadwick. The carol quickly became popular in the West Country, where it was described as “Cornish” by R.R. Chope and featured in Pickard-Cambridge’s Collection of Dorset Carols. There also is a Scottish Gaelic translation of the carol, which literally is known as “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

The song commemorates the story of the birth of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel of Luke, in which shepherds outside Bethlehem encounter a multitude of angels singing and praising the newborn child. It is most commonly sung to the hymn tune “Gloria,” as arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes. Its most memorable feature is its chorus: “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” (Latin for “Glory to God in the highest”) where the sung vowel sound “o” of “Gloria” is fluidly sustained through a lengthy rising and falling melismatic melodic sequence: Glo-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o! “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” is itself the name of an older famous hymn. The phrase also appears melismatically in the Latin version of the carol “O Come All Ye Faithful,” though somewhat less extended: Glo-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o. In England, the words of James Montgomery’s “Angels from the Realms of Glory” are sung to this tune, except with the Gloria in excelsis Deo refrain.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written by Charles Wesley, brother of the Methodist movement founder John Wesley. It first appeared in “Hymns and Sacred Poems” in 1739, under the topic of “Hymn for Christmas-Day.” The original opening couplet was “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.” The version known today is the result of alterations by various hands, most notably George Whitefield, Wesley’s coworker, who changed the opening couplet to the familiar one we know today. One of the tunes originally used for the carol also was used as a tune for “Amazing Grace.” Wesley himself, however, envisaged his lyrics sung to the same tune as his Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

The melody that now is almost always used for this carol often is cited as being based on a chorus composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, part of his “Festive Song” cantata. This cantata, with words by Adolf Prolz, was written, incidentally, to commemorate the printer Johann Gutenberg and the invention of his printing press.

Mendelssohn actually wrote two pieces called “Festive Song,” one as Op. 68 and another with no opus number. It is the second that is the source of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” as verified in the book “Mendelssohn,” written by W.S. Rockstro in 1895. Unfortunately, recordings of the work from which comes “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” are almost nonexistent.

This hymn was regarded as one of the Great Four Anglican Hymns and published as number 403 in “The Church Hymn Book” in the 19 century.

“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” is both a poem and Christmas carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Weston, Mass. It first appeared on Dec. 29, 1849, in the “Christian Register” in Boston. Sears is said to have written these words at the request of his friend, W. P. Lunt, a minister in Quincy, Mass. In 1850 Richard Storrs Willis, a composer who trained under Felix Mendelssohn, wrote the melody called “Carol,” a widely-known tune to the song in the United States. In the United Kingdom the tune called “Noel,” which was adapted from an English melody in 1874 by Arthur Sullivan, is the usual accompaniment.

“Joy to the World”
The words to “Joy to the World” are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 98 in the Bible. The song first was published in 1719 in Watts’ collection, “The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament,” and applied to the Christian state and worship. Watts wrote the words as a hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a Christmas song celebrating his first coming as a babe born in a stable. Only the second half of Watts’ lyrics are still used today.

The music was adapted and arranged to Watts’ lyrics by Lowell Mason in 1839 from an older melody which was then believed to have originated from Handel, not least because the theme of the refrain “And heaven and nature sing …” appears in the orchestra opening and accompaniment of the recitative “Comfort Ye” from Handel’s “Messiah,” and the first four notes match the beginning of the choruses: Lift up your heads and Glory to God from the same oratorio. However, Handel did not compose the entire tune.

As of the late 20th century, “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America.

“O Holy Night”
“O Holy Night” (“Cantique de Noël”) is a well-known Christmas carol composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to the French poem “Minuit, chrétiens” (Midnight, Christians) by Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), a wine merchant and poet. Cappeau was asked by a parish priest to write a Christmas poem. It has become a standard modern carol for solo performance with an operatic finish. In the carol, the singer recalls the birth of Jesus. It was translated into English by Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight, editor of “Dwight’s Journal of Music” in 1855, and lyrics also exist in other languages.

On Dec. 24, 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor, broadcast the first AM radio program, which included him playing “O Holy Night” on the violin. The carol therefore appears to have been the first piece of music to be broadcast on radio. It later appeared in an edition of carols by Josiah Armes, published by Oxford in 1936, subsequently increasing its popularity.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas”
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” probably is the most misunderstood part of the church year among Christians who are not part of liturgical church traditions. Contrary to much popular belief, these are not the 12 days before Christmas, but in most of the Western church are the 12 days from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany (Jan. 6; the 12 days count from Dec. 25 until Jan. 5). In some traditions, the first day of Christmas begins on the evening of Dec. 25 with the following day considered the first day of Christmas (Dec. 26). In these traditions, the 12 days begin Dec. 26 and include Epiphany on Jan. 6.

In the Middle Ages, this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. In Tudor England, Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William Shakespeare used it as setting for one of his most famous stage plays, titled “Twelfth Night.” Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels.

The traditional English carol originally was a secular love song, and sounds to be by a single woman, whose “True Love,” a man, sent her gifts. Initially, it probably was sung in the French language. The song was not created as a coded reference or memory aid to important articles of the Christian faith. In particular, from 1558 until 1829, Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their faith openly. At that time, according to some sources, the carol was adopted as a catechism song for young Catholics. For them, it had two levels of meaning: the original surface meaning as a love song, plus later hidden religious meanings. The hidden meanings parallel the verses of the Anglican catechism song “A New Dial” about the numbers on a sun-dial, and, in modern times, the religious connotations in the popular song “Deck of Cards.”

Nevertheless, the religious symbolism of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is as follows with A Partridge in a Pear Tree referring to Jesus Christ:
1 True Love refers to God
2 Turtle Doves refers to the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens refers to faith, hope and charity, the theological virtues
4 Calling Birds refers to the four Gospels and/or the four evangelists
5 Golden Rings refers to the first five books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch,” which gives the history of humanity’s fall from grace.
6 Geese a-laying refers to the six days of creation
7 Swans a-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids a-milking refers to the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing refers to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords a-leaping refers to the 10 commandments
11 Pipers Piping refers to the 11 faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming refers to the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.

“We Three Kings”
“We Three Kings,” also known as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” or “The Quest of the Magi,” is a Christmas carol written by Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who wrote both the lyrics and the music as part of a Christmas pageant for the General Theological Seminary in New York City. It is suggested to have been written in 1857, but did not appear in print until his “Carols, Hymns and Song” in 1863. Hopkins composed the song in Williamsport, Pa., where he was a pastor at Christ Episcopal Church (which still stands at the corner of Fourth and Mulberry Streets).

Aside from being a writer and editor, Hopkins also was a stained-glass artist and book illustrator.

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