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
“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
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
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
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
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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