STORY BEHIND THE SONGS: The history of Christmas carols Part 2
Today, carols are sung around the world, spreading cheer and a joyous spirit — and the real meaning of Christmas. Where did these songs come from? Why and how were they written?
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
If only one Christmas carol could survive, it would have to be the most popular Christmas carol in the world, “Silent Night,” written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian pastor.
On Christmas Eve 1818, when the church organ broke, Mohr visited the home of church organist and schoolmaster Franz Gruber and showed him this poem. He asked Gruber to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so it could be sung at Midnight Mass.
Later that evening, at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, the carol was sung for the first time by the two men, backed by the church choir with Mohr providing accompaniment on guitar.
Since then, the song has been translated into more than 300 languages. In the mid 1800s, an Episcopal priest with Florida ties, John Freeman Young, gave us the English translation we sing today.
The carol also enjoyed great recognition as early as the First World War, when soldiers on each side of the frontline laid down their weapons on Christmas Eve and sang the carol across no man’s land.
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heavens all-gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
The lyrics of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” are based on a poem written in 1849 by Dr. Edmund Hamilton Sears, a minister in Wayland, Massachusetts, at the request of his friend, W. P. Lunt. Sears, a champion of the disadvantaged, wrote the poem while preparing his Christmas sermon.
First sung at a Sunday School celebration in 1849, the song has been enjoyed by millions ever since.
Around 1850, Richard Storrs Willis, a composer, editor and critic for the New York Tribune, wrote a melody called “Carol” to which the words were adapted.
The carol, with its message of peace on Earth, was sung during the holidays in World War I by American soldiers in the trenches of France and was a favorite at USO shows during World War II.
O Holy Night
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Another song that brought a pause in the midst of war, “O Holy Night” was composed by French composer and critic Adolphe Adam in 1847 and translated into English by Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight in 1855.
On a battlefield on Christmas Eve during the Franco-German War in 1870, as the two sides faced each other in their trenches, a French soldier stood up and began to sing “O Holy Night."
Surprised German soldiers did not fire. Instead, one of them stepped forward to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” — and for a brief time peace on Earth prevailed and goodwill was shared among men whose job it was to kill each other.
This Christmas carol also holds the honor of being the first piece of music to be broadcast via radio Dec. 24, 1906, when Reginald Fessenden transmitted the first radio audio broadcast from Brant Rock, Massachusetts. History was made again when ships at sea heard a broadcast that included a Bible reading and “O Holy Night” played on the violin.
Excerpt from "The Sounds of Christmas" by Pam Griffin available at cedarfort.com.