Do you hear what I hear?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 16, 2004

With Christmas right around the corner, ’tis the season for Christmas traditions and other things we’ve come to take for granted every year.

If you’re like most folks, you’ve caught yourself humming a Christmas carol or song from time to time. But did you ever stop to wonder how those little gems came to be?

Let’s start out with the simple little song &uot;Jingle Bells.&uot; Here’s a song, first of all, you can’t get out of your head once you hear it – that’s among the top of the most well-known Christmas tunes in existence today.

However, &uot;Jingle Bells&uot; was never intended to be a Christmas song. The song is considered today as a traditional song that anyone can record, but when James Pierpont wrote the words and set them to the catchy little rhythmic pattern of music, it was done for a Thanksgiving program that a group of children were putting on at his church in Boston, Mass.

Truth be known, it became a Christmas song all the way back in 1857 when it was written, but only because the song was so well received that the children were asked to perform it again at Christmas that very same year and… as they say, the rest is history.

Let’s take the song &uot;O Little Town of Bethlehem,&uot; one of my all time favorites.

This beloved carol was written by Bishop Phillips Brooks in 1868. It turns out, Brooks had visited the Holy Land in 1865 and upon his return to Philadelphia, made notes to himself to write down more descriptive recollections of his trip.

By 1868, as he sat down to put pen to paper to write his best recollections of Bethlehem, the words began to flow so much that he felt it rather poetic as he put his memories on paper.

Once written, he shared his work with Lewis Redner, the organist at his church. Redner felt the words could become the lyrics for a song, and began working up the music that was intended solely for his Sunday school children’s choir. They sung it, and well, as pointed out above, the rest is history.

Have you ever wondered who &uot;Good King Wenceslas&uot; really was? Actually, he was not king at all. He was the Duke of Bohemia, murdered by his brother, Boleslav, in 929 A.D.

John Mason Neale, and Anglican priest, wrote the song in 1853, setting the words to a spring carol that dated back to 1582.

The Duke… or as the song goes, Good King Wenceslas ruled from 922 to his death and was known far and wide as the most famous martyr and patron saint of all Bohemia.

But the song was never intended to be a Christmas Carol. It was actually written for St. Stephen’s Day – the day after Christmas. Nevertheless, it has become one of the best-loved tunes of the season.

You’re all familiar with the song &uot;Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!.&uot; Well, we must stop and realize just how lucky we are to have this song, because had the two people responsible for its existence been living when it was put together, it would have surely not been completed.

You see, Charles Wesley wrote the words to this familiar carol in 1739. The words were intended for music, but Wesley requested his words only be set to music if slow solemn music was used.

One hundred years later, in 1840, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a cantata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and the invention of printing, making it clear the music was solely intended for secular use.

It was in 1855, after both Wesley and Mendelssohn had passed away, that Dr. William Cummings put the words and music together – clearly against what both the author and composer had wanted.

There are some conflicting stories as to why and how the song &uot;Silent Night, Holy Night&uot; came to be, but one thing is for sure, the song is far more than just your run-of-the-mill Christmas tune.

The song was born in Oberndorf, Austria on Christmas Eve, 1818. Or, perhaps it should be more accurately stated that the song as we know it today was born in 1818. Joseph Mohr wrote the words to &uot;Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!&uot; in 1816 when he was a young priest in Mariapfarr.

In 1818, on December 24, Mohr visited a musician friend, Franz Gruber, and asked that a melody be composed to go with his poem. He also asked that a guitar accompaniment be put with the song. The two worked to prepare the tune so that it could be performed that evening at Midnight Mass.

Some speculate that the organ was not working on the night the song was performed and that the harmony of the two men singing is what catapulted the song into history. However, it is most probable that Mohr’s love for the guitar is why the song was performed with no organ. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long before the song became a Christmas favorite around the globe, making its way to the United States in the late-1830s or 1840.

It was only a few years ago that Gruber was marked as the original composer. A handwritten arrangement of the song was authenticated as from Mohr and in the top right corner, the musical credit is given to Gruber.

Gruber died in Hallein, where today one will find the Franz Gruber museum filled with many items dealing with the history of &uot;Silent Night,&uot; even a guitar believed to have once belonged to Mohr.

Mohr died penniless in Wagrain in 1848. Over the course of his life, he donated most everything he had earned to the poor. A school, less than 100 yards from his grave, bares his name.

Maybe the next time you sing one of your favorite Christmas carols or songs, you’ll take just a moment to ponder the origin and the people who created them.

One more little piece of trivial knowledge about Christmas songs – &uot;The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)&uot; was actually written in the summer of 1949 by a Jewish songwriter, Mel Torme. Go figure.

The next time someone tells you that Xmas is anti-religious, tell them the &uot;X&uot; actually is short for the Greek word Xristos, meaning Christ, and that all the rumors of it being used to take Christ out of Christmas is nothing more than an urban legend.

Here’s a final thought. Have you ever wondered why we use holly at Christmas? The use of mistletoe was believed to be a pagan ritual, so holly was used to decorate and it’s symbolic berries represented Christ’s blood while the thorny leaves represented the crown.

Now, go and celebrate with a little more knowledge under your belt. Merry Christmas.