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A closer look at classic Christmas carols

By Scott Harrup and Christina Quick

Angels We Have Heard on High

Were you able to go back some 300 years to a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in the mountains of southern France, you might encounter the lone shepherds who roam the hills with their flocks, leading often-solitary lives. But on this night a song joins them in a fraternity of celebration whose roots stretch back to the very first Christmas.

“Gloria in excelsis Deo,” a shepherd sings out from a hilltop. In the distance, another hears and answers with the same traditional tune.

“Glory to God in the highest,” the Latin phrase proclaims. It’s a message another group of shepherds heard, most likely in Aramaic, some 2,000 years ago on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. ... Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:8,13-15, NIV)

The French shepherds sang out the phrase using a traditional tune from the Middle Ages that became the refrain for the modern carol. The accompanying verses most often sung today were translated in 1860 by English Bishop James Chadwick from an old French carol, “Les Anges dans Nos Campagnes.” Many modern versions of the song use a 1937 arrangement by American organist Edward Shippen Barnes.

Barnes’ arrangement of the chorus focuses on the extended melisma in the word “Gloria.” Melisma is the singing of a syllable while moving between musical notes. In the Christian tradition it has a rich history in Gregorian chant.

And how appropriate a musical tool for such a chorus. God sent His Son to live and minister among us before dying in our behalf. With every extended “Gloria,” we are invited to remember how vast a debt of praise we owe our Heavenly Father and Savior.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Along with the Christmas carols dedicated to key points of Christian theology comes an annual cascade of secular Christmas tunes. One such song illustrates the ongoing tension between the true meaning of Christmas and the social behemoth the holiday can become.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” has been around awhile. The earliest printed version dates to 1780 in a children’s book Mirth Without Mischief. But it is believed to be much older, likely originating in France. An extensive detailed legend, with numerous variations, attributes biblical truths to each of the numbers in the song (One God, Two Testaments, Three Members in the Trinity, etc.), but there is no solid historical connection between the song itself and those symbols.

Taken at face value, the song celebrates gift-giving and holiday cheer. And there’s quite a list of gifts in the lyrics’ tally.

Enter PNC Wealth Management. The company began calculating the total value of the song’s gifts in dollars in 1984. Last year, after researching jewelry stores, dance companies, pet stores and other sources, PNC claimed the total list of 364 items would cost $78,100, up 4 percent from 2006’s $75,122.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in the song’s dubious religious history and current opulent price tag. If celebrating Christmas means the profound story of Christ’s birth becomes less clear than the growing tab on a credit card or bank account, something is definitely wrong. Sure, gift-giving can be a joyful and meaningful part of Christmas, but the real joy of the season comes when God’s greatest Gift is welcomed into one’s heart.

— Scott Harrup


O Holy Night

On Christmas Eve 1906, ships at sea along the U.S. East Coast received a Morse code message alerting them that an important announcement was about to be sent.

Men on board U.S. Navy and United Fruit Company vessels gathered around their radios, listening intently. Instead of the usual beeping sounds, they were astonished to hear a human voice crackling over the airwaves with words many recognized from the Gospel of Luke: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus …”

The voice was that of Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor and former associate of Thomas Edison. Perched in front of an asbestos-covered microphone near Boston, Fessenden delivered the first practical radio broadcast of the human voice. His earlier attempt in 1900 had only reached 1 mile. Fittingly, the message carried by this new electronic medium was the good news of Christ’s birth.

After reading from the Bible, Fessenden broadcast a wax cylinder phonograph recording of Handel’s “Largo.” He then picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” singing along on the final verse.

Sailors sat mesmerized as the strains of Fessenden’s music filled the night. Radio operators as far away as Norfolk, Va., picked up the transmission. To many, it must have seemed like a Christmas miracle.

Truly He taught us to love one another. His law is love, and His gospel is peace.

The words had been penned nearly three decades earlier by Placide Cappeau, a poet and mayor of Roquemaure, France. Cappeau’s friend, Jewish composer Adolphe Charles Adam, wrote the music.

Originally called “Cantique de Noel,” the song was translated into English and published in London in the 1850s. It was widely circulated in the United States during the Civil War, as abolitionists identified with the lines, Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother. And in His name all oppression shall cease.

The song’s popularity didn’t end with the war, however. Long after the issue of slavery was settled and radio broadcasts like Fessenden’s became commonplace, “O Holy Night” endured as a classic Christmas carol.

Today it invites a new generation of listeners to tune in to the most important message the world has ever heard: Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever. His power and glory evermore proclaim.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

It was Dec. 25, 1863, but in many homes across the United States it didn’t feel like a day of celebration. The Civil War that had ripped the nation asunder had torn apart countless families.

Only a few weeks before the holiday, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address to commemorate a field of battle where, by some estimates, more than 50,000 husbands, fathers, brothers and sons on both sides had fallen dead or wounded.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s son Charles had joined the Union Army that year, in spite of Longfellow’s objections. The fear of possibly losing his son (though Charles survived the war) created one of the darkest periods of the poet’s life. He was still mourning the death of his beloved wife, Fanny, who had died two years earlier from burns received in a household fire.

“How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not,” Longfellow wrote following the tragedy. “I am at least patient, if not resigned; and thank God hourly — as I have from the beginning — for the beautiful life we led together, and that I loved her more and more to the end.”

In a world of conflict and pain, Longfellow must have thought it strange to hear the merry sound of Christmas bells pealing in his hometown of Cambridge, Mass.

Reflecting on the seeming contradictions of peace and turmoil, he wrote “Christmas Bells,” a poem to which many who have experienced sadness at Christmastime can easily relate.

And in despair, I bow’d my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

For hate is strong and mocks the song,

Of peace on earth, good will to men …

By the final stanza, however, Longfellow’s melancholy tone turned suddenly hopeful as he considered Christ’s ultimate triumph over sorrow.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

In the 1870s, English composer John B. Caulkin added music to Longfellow’s poem to create the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Two stanzas alluding to the war were omitted.

What remains of Longfellow’s sentiments is a beautiful reminder of the assurance that can fill our hearts at Christmas. When the world appears to be coming apart at the seams, when families are separated, when peace is elusive and anguish threatens to overtake us, God’s promises remain. They take shape in the image of the Baby who came to suffer and die so hope could live.

Even when we’ve been shaken to the core, the joy of Christmas is not a contradiction, but a confirmation of all that is to come.

— Christina Quick

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