I have been listening to a lot of Christmas music lately during this season (probably more than my husband would like). I love hearing old and new variations of classic Christmas hits! The other day while driving, I was listening to Silent Night, and it had me wondering- how did these songs come to be? What are their stories? I really feel the music I listen to, but when you know the stories behind the actual words, it makes the song even more meaningful.
I did a little digging around, and here are a few stories on some Christmas favourites:
This song was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith. Smith was inspired by a Pennsylvania park that was covered in snow, so he wrote the lyrics while he resided in the West Mountain Sanitarium (being treated for tuberculosis). It was first recorded in 1934 and the song became #4 on the Billboard charts in 1946.
This is regarded as a Christmas song, although it is never actually mentioned in the lyrics. It has been recorded by over 200 different artists in the past 80 years!
Jingle Bells was written in 1857 under the original title, “One Horse Open Sleigh”. James Pierpont wrote this at the then Simpson Tavern in Medford, Massachusetts (though some are still disputing this based on Pierpont’s timeline of being in Georgia at the time) It was inspired by the popular sleigh races during the 19th century, explaining the rhythm of the tune sounding like a trotting horse’s bells.
This song was used as a drinking song at parties and people would jingle their ice in the glasses as they sang!
It also was the first song in space- sung by Gemini 6 astronauts in 1965. It was part of a prank to Mission Control where they pretended to spot Santa Claus!
RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER
The character ‘Rudolph’ itself was created in 1939. Robert May (an ad writer)’s wife was dying of cancer, and May was left to care for their 4 year old daughter, Barbara. At work, May was asked to create a Christmas colouring book. He used his personal shyness and inspiration from ‘The Ugly Duckling’ to create Rudolph, the red nosed reindeer. He used his daughter as a sounding board, and eventually the story of Rudolph was released in book form in 1947. The popularity escalated when May’s brother in law, Johnny Marks, created the infamous song based off of May’s story.
This song was #1 on the charts January 7, 1950 and sold 1.75 million copies its first Christmas season!
This song was written by Fr. Joseph Mohr in 1818. It was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 in Oberndorf (a villiage in Austria). He was looking over the hill at the village below, and was in awe at the stillness and peace of the scenery.
The melody was composed by Franz Gruber and it is believed that the organ was broken just before the first performance of this song, so Mohr asked Gruber to create a guitar accompaniment. The lyrics to this song (the story of the birth of Jesus) have been translated into over 140 languages!
In 1914, during World War 1, it is believed that German troops began to sing this song, and British troops joined in. It began the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914- where soldiers ceased fire for the day and exchanged Christmas greetings.
O HOLY NIGHT
This song was composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 and written by Placide Cappeau. Cappeau was on a carriage ride reading the bible, and imagined himself a witness to the birth of Jesus. When the phrase “Fall, on my knees” is sung, I get chills knowing that the author was actually picturing his reaction to meeting baby Jesus!
This is personally one of my favourite songs- it has such a powerful sound and is quite moving.
An interesting fact: on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1906, Canadian inventor Reginald Fessendena broadcast the first AM Radio program, which included himself playing ‘O Holy Night’ on the violin.
I could go on forever as there are so many Christmas songs to write about!! It is one of my favourite parts of the Christmas season- it creates that magical and jubilant atmosphere!