For many of us, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without many of the carols that we sing or hear on the radio. I know I start playing Christmas music early on in the fall to try and make the season come a little faster, and last just a little longer. While caroling itself dates back to the middle ages, it had long ago died out with the end of the feudal system. By Jane Austen’s day, Friends and neighbors no longer tramped door to door begging Wassail and bringing good cheer. Here We Come a Wassailing, The Twelve Days of Christmas, The First Noel, Good Christian Men Rejoice and Greensleeves are all traditional Carols from the Middle Ages.
By the Regency Period, some hymns were sung in Christmas church services, but the majority of the carols we know today had not yet been written. Though Jane Austen and her family may have sung familiar words, the tunes might not be recognized by modern audiences. While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks at Night was written by Nahum Tate, in 1700 and first appeared in Tate and Brady’s Psalter in 1702. The now common tune was written by George Frederick Handel in 1728 and arranged in Harmonia Sacra, in 1812. Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) is commonly thought to have been written in France in 1710, though the first published version (words and music) would not be seen until 1760. It was translated into English by Frederick Oakeley in 1841.
Joy to the World was published by Isaac Watts in his 1719 hymnal, The Psalms of David. Though it was sung in churches from that time, its now “traditional” melody was not written until 1836. The Hallelujah chorus, written by Handel in 1741 as part of his Messiah Oratorio, was not yet singled out as a Christmas selection. Of the songs that were written, most appeared in poem form, only to receive their tunes during the Victorian era when a push was made to revive old traditions and carols and caroling once again became popular.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing was composed by Charles Wesley in 1739 as part of his Hymns and Sacred Poems. It was later amended by George Whitfield (1753). The tune that we sing today was written by Mendohlsson in 1840. Angels from the Realms of Glory was written by James Montgomery, for his Sheffield newspaper, the Iris, on Christmas Eve, 1816.
The tune, Regent Square, was written in 1867. Perhaps the most interesting history we have is the origin of Silent Night, written by Joseph Mohr, in Austria, in 1816. Though not translated into English until 1863, this carol remains one of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time. The story is told how the young priest of Oberndorf, a small town in the Tyrolean Alps, was alone on Christmas Eve when he heard a loud pounding on the door. He opened it to find a woman who gasped out, “Come, a child is born, and the young father and mother want you to bless their home.”
The Priest started out on a tedious journey up the mountainside, to a small cabin, miles in the distance. After many hours of climbing, he reached his destination and saw within the cabin a repetition of the Nativity scene. The young woman lay on a bed of boughs, and her newborn son lay in a roughhewn cradle made by his Alpine-mountaineer father.
The priest blessed the home and left the cabin to make his return journey to the village. His heart filled with song, because of the uplifting impressive scene. Keep his feet in rhythm he made his way down the mountainside. That Christmas night, he stayed up writing the manuscript that would become Silent Night.
Two years later, on another Christmas Eve in 1818, the organ at St. Nicholas Church was damaged due to severe flooding. Mohr knew that in order to have music at their Christmas service, he would have to come up with another form of accompaniment. It was then that he visited his friend Franz Gruber, the town Organist and Schoolmaster. He asked Gruber to compose a tune for his poem and in a few hours a song was born. That night the Oberndorf villagers gathered for their Christmas Eve Midnight Mass and heard, for the first time, Stille Nacht, “Silent Night”, sung by Mohr and Gruber, accompanied by a guitar. The carol was be published in 1820 and carried by Folk singers throughout Austria and Europe. It has been translated into over 120 languages.
Other stories tell how this song has continued to bring peace throughout the world. During World War I, soldiers lay in trenches on both sides of the battle shivering and thinking of home.
“Just before midnight on Christmas Eve (1914) the British noticed small lights being lit and held high in the air. Through binoculars it was noted that the German soldiers were holding up candles on the end of their bayonets, some even held up Christmas trees. Through the piercing silence the British heard a song in the air. One solo voice rang out. Slowly the voice was joined by others. Although the words were in German the tune was quickly recognized as "Silent Night, Holy Night" One by one the brave soldiers ventured out into the "no man's land" the small pieces of land that lay between the two opposing trenches. The men that just hours before were trying to kill each other were now exchanging photos of loved ones, dehydrated beef, some played ball and others just told stories. When Christmas had ended the men shook hands and went back to their own trenches. A German General stood on the edge of his trench and bowed toward his enemies. A British General saluted towards his enemies.”
Similar tales are told about the Christmas of 1944, during World War II. “Fighting was suspended on many fronts while people around the globe turned to their radios on Christmas Eve to hear opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heink sing "Stille Nacht". In addition to her status as an international opera star, Mme. Schumann-Heink was a mother with one son fighting for the Axis and another son fighting for the Allies.” Another soldier, years later, related how, “On 24 December 1944 I was spending my Christmas at a little place called Bastogne, Belgium, with the 101st Airborne Division. As many of you already know the story about the Battle of the Bulge, I won't go into all the details about how we were surrounded and outnumbered by the German Arm. It was a cold, bitter, dark night and around about midnight surprisingly quiet. All of a sudden, from the German position, we heard a single voice singings "Silent Night," in German. Soon more voices were added from the Germans. Suddenly, some American Soldier picked it up and before long most ofd us were singing along with the Germans. This went on for about 5 or 10 minutes and then stopped. A few minutes later we were back at each other, with guns blazing.” In the middle of the worst battle of WW2 there was Peace on Earth for a few minutes.
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