Dec 25, 2015

Origins of Christmas Carols

In 1816, a Catholic priest wrote the poem Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! while stationed at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. When he transferred to St. Nicholas' two years later, he asked Gruber to help him write guitar music for the poem, which the two performed on Christmas Eve of 1818. Silent Night was translated into English more than 40 years later by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, who is responsible for the version Americans favor. The song has been translated into 142 languages to date.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, was written by James Gillespie. This tune was first performed on American singer Eddie Cantor's radio show in 1934. The inspiration came from a place of grief. Gillespie was a vaudevillian-turned-songwriter who had fallen on hard times, both financially and personally. Gillespie received a call to write a Christmas tune just after learning his brother had died. However, on a subway ride, while recollecting his childhood with his brother and his mother's warnings that Santa was watching changed his mind. He finished the lyrics in fifteen minutes, then called in composer John Coots to make up the music that would become a big hit within 24 hours of its debut.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was originally sung to several different tunes, including 'New Britain'. The up tempo it is sung to today came from German composer Felix Mendelssohn. More than 100 years after it was written, English musician William H. Cummings paired the carol to Mendelssohn's cantata Fetgesang. The carol was a poem written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. The original opening line as it appeared in his collection Hymns and Sacred Poems was "Hark how all the welkin rings," using a rarely used term for heaven. The Anglican preacher and friend George Whitefield tweaked the opening line to the one we know today.

Deck the Hall originally dates back to sixteenth century Wales, where its melody and much of the lyrics were copied from the New Year's Eve song 'Nos Galan'. Lines like "Oh! how soft my fair one's bosom/ Fa la la la la la la la la," were transformed into Yuletide wishes like "Deck the halls with boughs of holly/ 
Fa la la la la la la la la." This musical makeover was done by Scottish folk music scribe Thomas Oliphant. His version is not the one most commonly sung today. Now, lines like "Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel," have been changed to "Don we now our gay apparel." This variant became popular from revised music sheet printings made in 1881.

Jingle Bells was not originally conceived for Christmas time. It was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1850s Savannah, Georgia. The song originally titled 'The One Horse Open Sleigh' was intended to celebrate Thanksgiving. The local Unitarian church where he would later play the song on the organ boasts historical markers declaring it the birthplace of the song. However, some sources say Pierpont was singing the memorable melody when he still lived in Medford, Massachusetts. "Jingle Bells" was renamed in 1857 when its lyrics and notes were first published. Decades passed before it rose to prominence.