Songs of Christmas…Silent Night

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This is part 25 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

Well, it would seem that for years (most of my time in ministry) I have unknowingly be misleading congregations about this particular carol. I shared as truth what apparently is a legend that is based in a nice story but doesn’t seem to be rooted in a great deal of truth.

The legend says that Joseph Mohr, the assistant priest of a relatively new congregation, St. Nicholas, in Oberndorf, Austria discovered mice had eaten holes in the bellows of the church organ to the point it would not play for Midnight Mass and it was impossible to get the organ fixed on time. After praying, Mohr wrote out the words of a poem he titled, Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, translated it is “Silent Night, Holy Night.” After completing the poem he took it to Franz Gruber, the town school teacher and the church organist. Mohr asked Gruber if he could compose a simple tune that could be played on the guitar. It would be a song for two voices and a choir. Gruber was impressed by the poem and immediately went to work. When he completed the work (all this, according to the legend, happened on Christmas Eve, leading up to Midnight Mass), together Gruber and Mohr taught the choir and the great carol premiered at Midnight Mass in 1818 with Mohr singing tenor and playing the guitar and Gruber singing bass.

It is a sweet story and a story I have shared, I am not sure how many times in my 26 years in ministry, most recently last night. Thinking I knew this story, I didn’t even bother to do any research before Christmas Eve worship last night. Imagine my surprise when I started reading….

As I read Ace Collins account of the story, I found the legend I was telling as truth, probably wasn’t truth at all. Collins went on to say though the congregation was relatively young, the organ was quite old and in the cold, it just decided not to work and that it had little, if anything to do with the bellows.

I wasn’t going to just take Collins’ word for it. I had heard the legend too many times for me to just give up that this wasn’t true. But then, as I researched further, not only did I find no real evidence for mice eating the bellows, I also discovered that Collins’ version of things may well be a legend all its own.

The truth is, no one knows for sure why Mohr took the poem to Gruber for musical composition. We do know that Mohr loved guitar music, but that is hardly the musical instrument of choice for Midnight Mass in most locations. It also does seem that something was wrong as Mohr took the poem to Gruber for musical composition on Christmas Eve so haste was important. But, Mohr didn’t hastily write the words. All sources seem to be in agreement that he had written the words in 1816, two years before Gruber composed the tune. They performed the carol and it was well-received with the congregation asking about the song during Christmas of 1819.

Another known element is, an organ builder, Karl Mauracher, learned of the song and obtained a copy of the manuscript. He taught it to others and it began to grow in popularity. When the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, loved the song and had his choir sing it each year during Christmas. His interest contributed to the spread of the song throughout Europe. Another element helping the spread were Austrian family groups. One of these groups, The Rainers, performed the carol in New York in 1839. Thus gave the carol its start in its spread across the United States.

To date, there are more than 300 translations of the hymn from its original German. It is also the most recorded song in history. Bing Crosby’s recording of “Silent Night,” is, depending on who you ask, the second or third best selling Christmas song of all time trailing only Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and possibly Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

For many years, adding to the legend, it was common to give Bach or Beethoven credit for the Carol despite Gruber’s ability to produce an early manuscript. These debates finally seemed to have ended in 1996 when music historians authenticated an early manuscript, signed by Mohr were he wrote that the music was written by Gruber.

According to Collin’s writing, when Mohr discovered the organ would not play, he stopped and said a quick prayer and when he ended that prayer he remembered the poem “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” and dug through his things to find the original poem. Mohr believed God helped him remember his old poem.

When has God reminded you of a previous work?

Cindy and I want to wish each of you a very blessed Christmas. May the Spirit of the Christ-child be born again in you this Christmastide.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Night

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Xaver_Gruber

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Mohr

http://www.stillenacht.at/en/origin_song.asp

http://www.silentnight.web.za/history/index.htm

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-silent-night-holy-night

Songs of Christmas…O Holy Night

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This is part 24 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

I saved “O Holy Night” for Christmas Eve for a very special reason, at least its a special reason to me. Many of us would place this hymn  on Christmas Eve because it speaks so powerfully to the events that take place in the second chapter of Luke. But, many of the carols we talked about in this series have done that. “Mary Did You Know” is one that springs quickly to mind. Because it is a particular favorite of mine, I thought about using it today.

I changed my mind when I thought of a very special person to me, whose birthday is today. “O Holy Night” is not only my mother’s favorite carol, it is her favorite hymn. So I write this today as a part of my birthday gift to my mom. Happy birthday Mom.

Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was a poet in France and the Commissioner of Wines in the small French town in which he made his home. Not much of a church attender, Cappeau was more than a little surprised when his parish priest commissioned him to write a poem to use at Christmas Eve Mass in 1847.

As Cappeau was riding in a carriage in route to the capital, he was thinking about his task. The poem needed to be religious, of course and it also needed to be about Christmas, the birth of Jesus. By the end of his “Cantique de Noel” was complete.

To say that Cappeau loved his creation would be an understatement. He was moved by what he had written. He believed it needed to be more than a poem but a song. Cappeau was a poet, not a musician. He went and found his friend Adolphe Charles Adams.

Adams was a well known classical musician and composer. He had written both one act operas and ballets. He had become in demand in much of the world. Yet he was intrigued by “Cantique de Noel” and began to write. The tune he created was accepted by both the poet and the priest. Three weeks later the song made its debut at Christmas Eve Mass.

Initially the song gained wide acceptance. It found its way into many Christmas services throughout France. Then two things happened that reversed the song’s fortunes, at least for a time. First, Cappeau walked away from the Church and embraced socialism. Second, was the discovery that Adams was a Jew. He wrote the beautiful tune having no real knowledge of the holiday or the Savior it celebrated.

The carol was banned by the Church in France. But, as we have talked about over the past couple of days, the common Christian folks in France loved the song and continued to sing it regardless of what the Church had to say about it.

Mean while, “across the pond,” song writer John Sullivan Dwight not only discovered “Cantique de Noel” but truly believed it needed its introduction to the American audience. At the same time, the young abolitionist saw a kindred spirit in the words saying, “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.” With his translation, and a new English name, “O Holy Night” quickly gained acceptance in the United States, particularly in the North.

Legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench. Both sides stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and began to sing.

When the Frenchman finished, a German infantryman climbed out his hiding place and answered with, the beginning of Martin Luther’s “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The legend goes on to say that a 24 hour cease fire followed. It could be that this story had something to do with the French Church once again accepting the beloved carol.

In 1906 Reginald Fessenden stepped to a microphone on Christmas Eve and began to read the Christmas story from Luke 2. When he completed the reading he picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night.” Radio operators ran for their wireless sets and listened in amazement as something new was happening. Where once there had only been code now came out in voice and “O Holy Night” was part of the word’s first radio broadcast.

The Church in France tried to kill the song. It seems clear to me that the song took on a life of its own because it was of God, and God would not let it die. When have you seen God work to keep something significant alive?

Have a blessed Christmas Eve.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Holy_Night

http://www.hymnary.org/text/o_holy_night_the_stars_are_brightly_shin

http://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/movies/the-nativity-story/the-amazing-story-of-o-holy-night.aspx

 

Songs of Christmas…Angels From the Realms of Glory

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This is part 23 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

Our lives can talk a lot of twists and turns. Such would be the case for James Montgomery, an Irishman who spent most of his life living in England. Such was no small task in the England of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Montgomery was born in Scotland to an Irish Moravian pastor and his wife. By the time Montgomery was seven, his parents had left England, and him, to head to the mission field where they would die in the mission service.

When his parents left for the mission field, they left him in a boarding school. By the time Montgomery was 10 he was writing poetry, but that was the only thing he was interested in doing. He left school by the time he was 14 for academic reasons.

For the next several years Montgomery worked at times and was unemployed and homeless at times. He used much of his money to purchase pencil and paper.

Though no publisher was interested in his writing, the editor of the radical Sheffield Register could see Montgomery’s raw talent. Montgomery spent the next two years writing stories for the paper. The paper used much of its content to bring forward the struggle the Irish faced with the English. When the radical editor had to flee England under threat of persecution, Montgomery took over leadership of the paper and changed the name to the Sheffield Iris. But, if anyone thought the paper would change with the masthead change would be wrong. Montgomery continued to press on the Irish-English issue and also brought forward the evils of the slave trade in the paper. His writing resulted in two prison terms.

Those who supported Montgomery’s stands continued to scour the paper for more of his fiery editorials. On Christmas Eve 1816 Montgomery surprised his readers with his poem “Nativity.” The words of the poem sought more to unite than divide in saying that Jesus Christ came for everyone. Though the poem didn’t say as much, the implication was, Irish and English alike.

As Montgomery’s life continued he began to understand his parent’s calling to the mission field. He returned to his roots in the Moravian church and working hard in the support of missions.

Though “Nativity” was popular, it would have most likely faded away if not for the English composer Henry Smart. Smart was at odds with the Anglican Church clergy who saw the people in the pews as spectators in worship. Smart believed worship was something in which everyone should participate. The chants that were church music of the day did little to encourage this. Smart, following in the footsteps of the likes of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley helped to make great strides in church music. The common Christian loved the new music and began to demand it be part of worship.

By the time Smart was eighteen years old, he was going blind. By the time Montgomery published “Nativity” in the Iris Christmas Even of 1816, Smart probably was unable to read it. Yet years later, someone read him the poem and he put it to music. He gave it a new title and the world had a new Christmas carol to use in celebration of the days of Christmas.

For the England of the early 19th century, the alliance of Montgomery and Smart, an Irishman and an Englishman was an unlikely combination. There is little or no evidence indicating that the two actually collaborated together on the piece. Still God brought together these two men in an unlikely partnership.

How has God done the unlikely in you?

 Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_from_the_Realms_of_Glory

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-angels-from-the-realms-of-glory

Songs of Christmas – God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

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This is part 22 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” like “The First Noel” from yesterday is an old English folk song. The carol dates back to the 1500s or possibly even before. It is another anonymous writer who produced the hymn.

In the days “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” first came on the scene, the average church goer didn’t like church music. The lyrics were usually in Latin that the commoner didn’t understand and the tunes did nothing to get people excited. They might not have admitted it, but they really wanted something new. It showed in new music that appeared on the 16th century. One example beyond “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” where we can see this is in the work of Isaac Watts, writer of “Joy to the World” we have already discussed in this series.

Common folks would go to church and might even sing the Latin they did not understand. When they left the Church, they would sing and celebrate with their own music, music the clergy tried to avoid, but that the people loved. It was part of who they were. They might sing the songs of the Church but they would joyously dance to the songs that were their own.

Over time, the meaning of words evolved. In the carol, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” we find the words, With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call.” The word gay, in this carol is a synonym of the word happy or joyous. Today when we find the word in its most common use, there is an entirely different meaning. We can find other examples too.

In “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” the words “rest” and “merry” had different meanings in the 1500s than they have today. The word “rest meant to “keep” or “make.” The word “merry” meant “great” or “mighty.” When one referred to Robin Hood and his Merry Men, it meant Robin Hood and his great men, his mighty men. The word “Ye” translates to the word “You” today. Thus, the meaning of the first line of the carol would say, “God Keep You Mighty Gentlemen.” It would also seem that somewhere, over time, a comma was lost as well which would make the first line read, “God Keep You Mighty, Gentlemen.”

I do think it is important to note that not everyone agrees with this assessment. David Mikkelson, of Snopes.com fame says this story is false. On the other hand, Andrew Collins, a noted scholar in the area of hymns believes this assessment to be true. I tend to believe Collins. I would leave you to make your own assessment.

The hymn has been popular for many years. It was well known enough for Charles Dickens to refer to it in his Christmas Classic, A Christmas Carol in 1843. Dickens says, “God bless you merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.”

During the Victorian era the popularity of the carol continued among both Church of England Christians and English Christians from other Protestant faiths. As a result, as immigration happened into Europe and North America, this carol and other hymns popular among commoners were carried with them.

The earliest known copy of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was a broadsheet (a broadsheet was an inexpensive single sheet of paper used between the 16th and 19th centuries to record poetry and music) from 1760. The first time the tune appeared was in 1829.

The song continues to be one people still love to sing, perhaps 600 years or more from when English commoners first began to make it a part of their lives.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

Songs of Christmas…The First Noel

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This is part 21 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

We go from one of the newest carols in our series yesterday, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to one of the oldest today in the “The First Noel.” What is most interesting about this hymn isn’t the writer or even the era that produced the hymn, there are theories about both, but nothing definitive. What is most interesting is we have this hymn really because of tradition.

Not only do we not know who wrote the hymn, we really don’t even know what country produced the hymn as both England and France claim authorship. The spelling of the word Noel, in most of our most common uses would suggest France. In English speaking countries the word is often spelled Nowell. One reason I find that interesting is, I have lived all my life in the United States, but until the Christmas season, and the cantata our choir sang, at least that I can recall, I never saw the word Noel spelled any other way besides, Noel. In French the word is always spelled Noel.

Most scholars, however, do not believe the hymn to actually be of French origin, but English instead. Further, this was a folk song, a song of the people. The song was almost assuredly not written by clergy because there a Scriptural errors in the song. For example, when the angels appeared to the shepherds, the shepherds didn’t follow a star into Bethlehem to find the child, at least not in the Bible. The star was for the magi, not the shepherds. Yet the second verse of the song has the shepherds following the star. It is very unlikely that clergy would have made this error.

Additionally, the sentence structure would seem to indicate someone with little or no formal education. Many of the lines are just not what a trained lyricist like Charles Wesley.

The author of the hymn likely had no access to a Bible and because most Bibles were written in Latin and most common people illiterate a Bible would probably have had no real use in writing the hymn.

The hymn was first published in 1823 by William Sandys in his hymnal Carols Ancient and Modern. There is little doubt, however, that the carol is at least 300 years older. Today we most often sing “The First Noel” in a four part harmony arrangement by English composer John Stainer, published in 1871 in Carols New and Old.

The tradition that circles “The First Noel” actually has its roots in the Scandinavian tradition of the Yule Log. Once each year families would go out and chop down a tree, drag it back home, prune off the limbs and hollow out a section of log. They would then pack the log with spices, oils and other sweet smelling ingredients and burn it. They believed that families who burned the Yule Log would receive good luck for their household.

When Christianity came, the Yule Log became tied to Christmas. Eventually the wood of the log came to represent the cross of Jesus and the sweet ingredients, the blessed life of a believer. They lit the log on Christmas Eve and believed that if it burned through the twelve days of Christmas, the Christmas season, ending on January 6th. If the log lasted that long, the home would be blessed.

In England, “The First Noel” was sung by many peasants as they lit the Yule Log. Because of that tradition, “The First Noel” became the first song sung in the Christmas season.

For most of its history “The First Noel” was strictly a song of the people. Clergy of the era had a deep disdain for these carols, these folk tunes became the Christmas voice of the people.

What traditions surround your celebration of the birth of Christ?

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

Songs of Christmas…Do You Hear What I Hear?

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This is part 20 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

Right up front I want to say, this may be my favorite Christmas carol story. And, it comes from a pretty unlikely pair. Who would have ever thought a former Nazi draftee from France would team up with a Jew from Massachusetts to write a Christmas carol, but that is exactly what happened.

Noel Regney found himself drafted into the Nazi army, but he didn’t stay there long. He deserted and found his way to the French Underground where he joined in with the Resistance to fight off the Nazis. Regney became a double agent and even leading the Germans into an ambush where he was shot in the arm, but recovered.

What Regney wanted to do more than anything else was to write classical music. He wasn’t interested in music that might make its way to the top of the Hit Parade and then fall back down to oblivion. He wanted to write music that would last.

Following the war, in an effort to make such music, Regney immigrated to the United States. One day in the late 1950s he wandered into New York’s Beverly Hotel. In the dining room he saw and heard a beautiful woman playing popular music on the piano. He was so taken with the woman, even though he spoke little English, he went up and introduced himself. Within a month, even though he had limited speaking skills in English and she spoke no French, the two were married. Her name was Gloria Shayne.

Even musically, the two seemed an unlikely pair. He was interested in classical music and she wanted to write and play rock and roll. Her preference was well founded as she wrote an early hit in “Goodbye Cruel World,” recorded by James Darrin. The couple did produce some material together with the songs, “Rain, Rain Go Away,” “Sweet Little Darlin'” and “Another Go Round.”

Regney was haunted by what he saw and experienced in World War II. He truly hoped the devastation was such that it would be the war to end all wars. When in a matter of a few short years he saw much of the world plunged into battle again in Korea and then Vietnam, Regney was deeply troubled by what he saw on the evening news.

In 1962, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the very real threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, Regney found a quiet moment, away from all he experienced in the past and what he saw in the presence. During that quiet, he wrote a poem. It was his plea for peace in the chaos of a world seemingly gone crazy. Regney said he was inspired to write the words, “Pray for peace people everywhere” as he watched mothers pushing their babies in strollers along New York streets.

Regney gave the poem to his wife and asked her to write the music for it. That was an unusual thing between these two. When they collaborated, it was almost always the other way around. But Regney told his wife he wanted her to write the music because he didn’t want it to be classical.

She left and went shopping. She said that on her way to Bloomingdale’s she had the beginning of the song in her mind. When she returned home and played it for Regney, she had inadvertently added a beat in the first line. Regney made a slight change to the poem as he feared the loss of one of the most beautiful tunes he had ever heard. The change took the first line from, “Said the wind to the…” to “Said the night wind to the…”

Shayne also wanted Regney to change one other line. She argued that people in the United States wouldn’t get the line, “…with a tail as big as a kite.” Regney stood by his writing and refused to change it. He was right on this one. People loved the line.

Once completed the couple to the song to a New York music agent and the Harry Simone Chorale, famous at the time for their recording of “The Little Drummer Boy” four years earlier, recorded the song in October of 1962. It was released in time for the 1962 Christmas season. It was an instant hit.

A year later, the song became a Christmas standard when Bing Crosby made his recording. Since that time, a long and varied list of performers has recorded “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Years later Regney and Shayne both said their favorite version of the song was by Robert Goulet. In his version of the song, when he came to the line, “Pray for peace, people everywhere,” he almost shouted the lyrics. Both Regney and Shayne also said, they could hardly sing the song all the way through because of the power the song had over their emotions.

Regney had not had a great deal of commercial success prior to the release of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” He had always said he wanted to write something meaningful, significant, enduring and beautiful. Mission accomplished.

Here is the thing, God brought together two people from different walks in life, different parts of the world and different faith traditions. God even switched their usual roles. Some might say the result was magical. I would say the result was Divine. God made the unlikely beautiful.

Where have you seen God do the unlikely and change the world in a significant way?

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Do_You_Hear_What_I_Hear%3F

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloria_Shayne_Baker

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noël_Regney

Songs of Christmas…The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

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This is part 19 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

When one hears the baritone crooning of the late Nat King Cole belting out “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose. Yuletide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up like Eskimos…” one thing you probably are not thinking about is a 90 plus degree July day. That is as it should be. Christmas carols shouldn’t remind us of summer. But in truth, as I have researched for this series, I continually find it is not an uncommon discovery to find some of our favorite Christmas songs were actually written during the summer.

“The Christmas Song” also commonly known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is the “poster child” of Christmas songs written in July. In fact, those opening lines of the song were an effort of one man, trying to get inside his own head, in an effort to cool off on one of the hottest days in Los Angeles history. Such efforts were one of the few ways to beat the heat in 1945, long before most places had anything resembling air conditioning.

The late jazz musician, also known as “The Velvet Fog,” Mel Torme (also an accomplished song writer, actor, script writer and pilot) was to meet with fellow songwriter, the late Bob Wells, to work on the music for two upcoming movies. When Torme arrived he saw a spiral notebook laying on top of Wells’ piano. Scribbled on the exposed page of the note book were, “Chestnuts roasting…Jack Frost nipping…Yuletide carols…Folks dressed like Eskimos.”

When Torme saw the words he questioned Wells. Wells didn’t see them as song lyrics. He was just attempting to cool off from the brutal heat. It really didn’t work but what did work was what was going on in Torme’s mind. They pushed aside the music for the two movies and started working on both the lyrics and music for this new song. In forty minutes time the song was written.

Excited about what they had, they jumped in the car and drove to the home of Nat King Cole. Cole and Torme were good friends, and unannounced visits to the homes of his friends was not uncommon and even during the days of segregation, Torme never let a little thing like skin color bother him.

Upon entering Cole’s home, Torme went straight to Cole’s piano and played-sang the song. Cole was impressed and wanted the opportunity to record the song before anyone else did. Cole sensed a Christmas classic. He was right.

After the initial recording, Cole recorded the song a second time with a full orchestra within a matter of weeks. The second version was released in October of 1946. Ironically, the first recording was never released until 1989 when it was (accidentally) included on the various-artists compilation Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits (1935–1954). Cole went on to record the song again in 1953 and in 1961. It is the 1961 version we hear most often today.

Many others have recorded the song over the years. The unofficial count is, there have been at least 122 recordings (by top line musical performers) of “The Christmas Song” since it was written in 1945. From Andy Williams to Randy Travis to Hottie and Blow Fish to Big Bird and the Swedish Chef (of Muppet fame) and many more. I know I cannot forget the inspired version of the song the late Natalie Cole sang with her (even at that time) late father through some inspired technical magic. It is my favorite rendition of the song.

It all started by a guy just trying to figure out a way to cool off. Though not his intention, he inspired someone else. Together, in the heat of July they shared the song with an unlikely, but popular singer and together they created a Christmas classic. The song also helped clear the way for African-American performers to move into the mainstream of Christmas music.

Have you ever, unknowingly at least at the time, done something that inspired someone else? If so, what was it? Share your times in the comments below.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

http://performingsongwriter.com/christmas-song/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Christmas_Song

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Wells_(songwriter)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mel_Tormé