From the first carol sung by angels on the night Christ was born ... "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill" ... to the recent "Mary, Did You Know?" by Mark Lowry written in 1984 ... Christmas carols spread cheer and joy and the real meaning of Christmas.
But where did they come from?
• If only one Christmas carol could survive, it would surely have to be the most popular carol in the world ... "Silent Night," written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian pastor. Since that time the song has been translated into more than 300 languages. In the mid 1800s, it was an Episcopal priest with Florida ties, John Freeman Young, who 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.
• A traditional English carol, “The First Noel” was probably written in the 16th 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.
• "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" and its message of peace on earth, was written by Dr. Edmund Hamilton Sears, a minister in Massachusetts in 1849. It was sung during the holidays in World War I by American soldiers in the trenches of France and was a favorite at USO shows in World War II.
• Also bringing a pause in the midst of war was "O Holy Night" composed by French composer Adolphe Adam in 1847. During the Franco-German War in 1870, a French soldier stood up as he faced German soldiers and began to sing "O Holy Night." Surprised, the German soldiers began to sing "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come" — and peace on earth prevailed for a short time.
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, Mass. History was made again when ships at sea heard a broadcast that included a Bible reading and “O Holy Night” played on the violin.
• America was in despair on Christmas Day 1864, yet still hopeful for peace four months before the end of Civil War. Popular poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow authored a poem for the church he attended, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," with two stanzas clearly referring to the Civil War and the other five giving the message that God was in control and right will prevail.
• A giant of a man, six foot six and almost 300 pounds, young preacher Phillips Brooks rode horseback in 1868 across the "Field of the Shepherds" on his way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to worship in the Church of the Nativity. So moved by watching the shepherds tend to their sheep, he looked at the beautiful starlit sky and wrote "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
• Usually the first carol that children are taught, "Away in a Manger" was originally published in 1885. Some credit the lyrics to Martin Luther, however the author of the first two stanzas is usually considered American anonymous. It is certain Dr. John McFarland of New York City added stanza three in 1904.
• One of the newer Christmas songs that has touched the hearts of millions and is sure to become a classic is "Mary, Did You Know", written by Gaither Band singer and comedian Mark Lowry in 1984 as a monologue for a Christmas musical at his church. The idea came from his mother, who had told him "if anybody knew Jesus was virgin born, Mary knew it." The song gives a new viewpoint of the Christmas story by raising numerous questions about Mary and her knowledge of Jesus.
Source: "The Sounds of Christmas" by Pam Griffin, published in 2011 by Cedar Fort, Inc., and available at cedarfort.com.