What Brought Their Song? The Story behind These Christmas Carols

Joy to the World

Joy to the World, written in 1719, was based on Psalm 98:

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.
With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together.
Before the Lord; for He cometh to judge the earth; with righteousness shall He judge the world, and the people with equity.

The lyrics say nothing of shepherds, manger, wise men, or any other character in the Christmas story.
Isaac Watts did not write Joy to the World as a Christmas song. His theme was the second coming of Christ.
In 1839, 100 years later, Lowell Mason arranged this song into a melody many believe was written by Handel.

Research doesn’t substantiate why it was adopted as a Christmas carol. But as we prepare for Christ’s appearance, we can see the Babe in the manger Who came to deliver our world from the power of evil.

O Holy Night

In 1847, a parish priest in a small French town approached Placide Capeau de Rogquemaure to pen a poem for Christmas mass.
Placide, known more for his wine tasting ability than his dedication to the church, considered the request on his way to France’s capital city. By the time he arrived, he had written the words, but knew they needed a musician’s hand to present it.

He asked a friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, classical musician who studied in the Paris conservatoire.

Adolphe’s skill brought requests from London, Berlin and St. Petersburg for his orchestra and ballets.

But it was not the music that challenged him the most, it was the words. He was a Jew. The words of O Holy Night represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he didn’t see as the Son of God. But he persevered. His work pleased both poet and priest.

Three weeks later it was performed at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

The Church in France accepted O Holy Night into various Catholic Christmas services.

But when Placide Cappeau embraced the socialist movement, leaving the church, and church leaders found that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, church leaders denounced the song, by now a beloved French Christmas song.

Yet even as the church tried to bury the song, the common French people continued its song.

Ten years later, an American writer John Sullivan Dwight, brought it to America. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight felt the lines of the third verse: “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.” These words mirrored Dwight’s view of slavery in the South. He published O Holy Night in his magazine, where it found favor in the North during the Civil War.

In France two decades later, the song was still banned from church, but its people sang it at home. The story is retold of Christmas Eve, 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War. A French soldier jumped out of his trench with no weapon in his hand and looked to the sky and sang, O Holy Night. After finishing, a German soldier stood and sang, From Heaven Above to Earth I Come. The legend says that the fight stopped for twenty-four hours while the men observed peace in honor of Christmas day.

Perhaps this story was the catalyst for the French re-instating O Holy Night once again in the holiday services.

But the story does not end there.

On Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a 33-year old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, spoke into a microphone using a new type of generator. For the first time in history, man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

Radio operators on ships and wireless owners at newspapers heard for the first time man’s voice over the airwaves. They listened spell bound as the professor read Luke 2. It was a voice of an angel, a Christmas Eve miracle.

After reciting Luke 2, Fessenden played on his violin O Holy Night. It was the first song ever played over radio waves. The broadcast ended, but not before the music had found another medium to take it around the world.

Since 1847, when it was played for the first time, it has been sung in millions of churches around the world. It was become one of the most recorded and played spiritual songs.

Its message—requested by a priest, written by a poet who later left the church, given music by a Jewish composer, brought to America by the sinfulness of slavery—has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music ever created. It tells of the story of our Savior. Reprinted from "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" with permission of Zondervan. 


Silent Night

In 1818, On December 23, a roving band of actors arrived in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Alps, where they were to re-enact the Christmas story at the Church of St. Nicholas.

The St. Nicholas’ church organ wasn’t working. (Some say mice did the damage; other sources suggest rust.) So, the actors presented their drama in a home with guitar accompaniment.

The presentation stirred Josef Mohr, assistant pastor. Walking home, Mohr saw from the hilltop the majestic, silent wintry night, like the Christmas card scenes. Remembering a poem he had written a few years ago, he decided to use the poem for a carol for his congregation.

Approaching Franz Xaver Gruber, the church organist, the following day, he requested him to write the music for that evening’s Christmas Eve service. Without the organ working, they used a guitar.

Weeks later, Karl Mauracher, a well-known organ builder, arrived to repair the church’s organ.

After finishing, he asked Gruber to test the instrument. He played the simple melody used for the carol. Stirred by the simple message and melody, he took copies back to his own Alpine village.

Two well-known singing groups, the Rainers and the Strassers, heard it and added it to their repertoire, singing it across northern Europe.

In 1834, they performed it for King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas eve.

The Rainers brought the song to the United States twenty years later. They sang it in German.

In 1863, almost fifty years after its creation, it was translated into English.

Today this song is sung in more than 300 languages around the world.

We know it as Silent Night.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

In England, between 1558 and 1829, Catholics could not publicly worship. This song was written in England during this time. Some say the days represent symbols and hidden meanings to allow Catholics to continue to teach their children their beliefs.

Others say that this isn’t substantiated and that the meanings can also be used by Protestants.

“A New Dial” was another song written in 1625, giving meaning to this song.

The Twelve Days of Christmas begins with Christmas day and ends on Epiphany (January 6th).

“True Love” represents God, the true love of the world.

“Me” is any man or woman who receives these presents.

1-“Partridge in a pear tree” —Jesus died on the cross. Partridge trees were used in ancient times as symbols of a divine, sacred king.
2-“Two turtle doves”—Old and New Testament. Doves symbolized peace.
3-“Three French hens”—the three gifts of the Spirit: faith, hope and love. French hens represents God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
4-“Four calling birds”—four gospels.
5-“Five golden rings”—Pentateuch, Books of Moses
6-“Six geese a-laying”—Six days of creation
7-“Seven swans a swimming”—Seven gifts of Holy Spirit
8-“Eight maids a milking”—Eight beatitudes, Jesus’ teachings on happiness
9-“Nine ladies dancing”—Nine fruits of Holy Spirit
10-“Ten lords a-leaping”—Ten Commandments
11-“Eleven pipers piping”—Eleven faithful disciples of Jesus
12-“Twelve drummers drumming”—“Twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed.

How many gifts are there in total in The 12 Days of Christmas?
If you received all the presents, you’d have 364.
Day 1 -1
Day 2 - +3 = 4
Day 3 - +6 = 10
Day 4 - +10 = 20
Day 5 - +15 =35
Day 6 - +21 = 56
Day 7 - +28 = 84
Day 8 - +36 = 120
Day 9 - +45 =165
Day 10 - +55 = 220
Day 11 - +66 = 286
Day 12 - +78 =364

Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne

Emily Elliott (1836-1897), involved in rescue missions and Sunday School work, wrote this to explain the meaning of the Advent and Nativity to children. Taken from Luke 2:7, “But there was no room for them in the inn.” She contrasts the splendor of heaven with the poverty of Jesus’s birth. Even the animals had homes, where Christ had none, referenced from Matthew 8:20.

She brings us to look to heaven where Christ will say, “There is room at My side for thee.”

The final refrain presents the invitation: because we make room for Christ here on earth, there will be room for us in heaven.

Due to the irregular text, a special tune was required. Timothy Richard Matthews composed the music especially for this text. He was one of the leading organists of his day.

Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne brings the Nativity beyond Christ’s life, points to the Second Coming of Christ, and directs the singer to make a personal commitment.

What Child Is This?

William C. Dix, a successful insurance salesman in Glasgow, Scotland, was stricken with an illness at twenty-nine. Suffering extended periods of bedridden pain and depression, he “met God in a new and real way.” The words to this song came during that time.

Only through suffering could one adequately see stanza two, “Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding? ...Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me.” Yet William finds “Joy, Joy, the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.”

“Greensleeves” is a traditional English folk tune.

I write about what you---
women, wives and moms---
about your family, faith and future.
I write about what's hard, what helps and what heals.
I show you how it's done. And not done.
I hold your hand as you find what matters to the Savior.
And let go of those things that mattered to you, but not to Him.
I write about what Him.
               Sonya Contreras

Author of Biblical fiction, married to my best friend, and challenged by eight sons’ growing pains as I write about what matters.

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Christmas: Stories behind the Songs
Christmas: Stories behind the Songs, part 2