The history of Christmas carols Part 3

Pam Griffin The Destin Log

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play.

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of Peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Christmas Day, 1864, America was in despair, yet still hopeful for peace four months before the end of the Civil War.

The most popular American poet of the 18th century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was himself distressed by the war and authored a poem for the church he attended, Unitarian Church of the Disciples in Boston.

Two of the stanzas clearly refer to the ongoing Civil War, and the other five give the message God is in control and will cause right to prevail.

The verses were slightly rearranged in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin who also composed the tune.

The First Noel

The first Noel the angel did say

Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;

In fields as they lay, keeping their sheep,

On a cold winter's night that was so deep.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,

Born is the King of Israel.

A traditional English carol, “The First Noel” was probably written in the sixteenth century. Some historians believe it had French origins because of the word “noel” which comes from the Latin word Natalis, meaning birth or birthday. Others claim it a very traditional English song.

The song was first published in 1833 in William B. Sandys’ collection of Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by;

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

Christmas Eve, 1865. A giant of a man, six foot six and almost 300 pounds, rides horseback across the “Field of the Shepherds” on his way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to worship in the Church of the Nativity.

This young preacher, Phillips Brooks, was so moved by this experience, of watching the shepherds tending their sheep and looking up at the beautiful starlit sky, that, in 1868, he wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The new carol was for the children to sing in the Sunday school Christmas program at Holy Trinity, his church. in Philadelphia. Three years later, Lewis Redner, organist at the church, wrote the score.

O Come All Ye Faithful

O come, all ye faithful,

Joyful and triumphant,

O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.

Come and behold him,

Born the King of angels;

O come, let us adore him,

O come, let us adore him,

O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

The origins of “Adeste Fideles,” a Latin hymn of praise, were cloaked in mystery for many years until a priest, Dom John Stéphan, published “The Adeste Fideles: A Study On Its Origin and Development” in 1947.

At times, the lyrics had been credited to St. Bonaventure in the thirteenth century as well as others, including the Portuguese, the Germans, the Spanish, and the Cistercian monks.

However, after careful examination of manuscripts that dated to the 1700s, Stéphan concluded that the hymn and tune for “Adeste Fidelis” were both written, probably in 1743, by the same person — John Francis Wade.

A Catholic layman, Wade fled the Jacobite rebellion in England during the early 1700s and settled in Douay, France. When the persecution ended, the English refugees returned home and took “Adeste Fidelis” with them.

A century later in 1841, Rev. Frederick Oakeley, an Anglican minister, discovered the carol and, after a conversion to Catholicism, translated the song into the popular hymn we know today.

Excerpt from "The Sounds of Christmas" by Pam Griffin available at