A little history behind the writing of your favourite Christmas carols

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christmas carol manuscript paper and bells

I don’t know about you but I am always fascinated with the story behind a piece of writing and therefore it’s no surprise how intrigued I am to know about the history behind Christmas carols. Here are some of the best stories I’ve discovered about five of the most famous carols.

#1 Good King Wenceslas

English hymn writer John Mason Neale wrote this carol in 1853 in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore.

The story of the carol of course is about the King (or rather Duke) of Bohemia who lived over 1000 years ago. On Boxing Day (aka the feast of Stephen) the good King looked out his window and, seeing peasants in the snow, took food and wood from his castle over to them in the spirit of good will.

It is likely this tale was a work of fiction, first seen in a poem by Czech writer, Václav Alois Svoboda in 1847. The poem was written in three languages, Czech, German and Latin, and was called Sankt Wenceslaw und Podiwin (Saint Wenceslas and the Crocheteer). The Poem found it’s way into the UK in the 19th Century.

It probably was true that Wenceslas had been thought of as a ‘good King’. During his brief time as Duke he fought off invaders, set up a more just judicial system and began implementing successful education programs for the children of Bohemia. He himself was well educated for his time and was a Christian—one of the reasons it is thought that he met such a grizzly end. Wenceslas was eventually betrayed by his younger brother and stabbed to death on route to Church. He was immediately declared a martyr and eventually canonised by Rome.

While Wenceslas was actually only a duke in his lifetime, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously ‘conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title’—thus why he was referred to as ‘King’ by Neale in the carol.

#2 Silent Night

Written in Austria by a Priest called Fr. Joseph Mohr in 1816 Silent Night did not have music added until two years later in 1818 by Mohr’s school teacher friend Franz Xaver Gruber. It is believed Fr. Mohr wrote the carol because he wanted one he was able to play on his guitar. He eventually wrote the guitar arrangement on paper around 1820 and this manuscript still exists and can be seen in the Carolino Augusteum Museum in Salzburg. Silent Night was first sung at the Christmas service at St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf in 1818.

#3 The Twelve Days of Christmas

After King Henry VIII fell out with Rome and began The Church of England (basically so he could divorce and remarry), much of the intermittent period until 1829 saw Catholics forced to practice their beliefs in secret or risk being thrown in jail or worse, executed.

The Twelve Days of Christmas was written in England during this tumultuous time for Catholics and refers to the twelve-day period that begins on Christmas day and ends on 6th January with the Epiphany. Legend has it that the carol was written to help children learn about their religion, with the gifts on each of the days holding hidden meanings while ‘my true love’ was really meant to be God. The believed symbolism is as follows:

  • First Day
    The partridge in a pear tree is a metaphor for Jesus dying on the cross. A partridge was often used in mythology as a symbol of a divine king.
  • Second Day
    Each turtle dove is meant to represent the Old and New Testaments of the bible respectively. They also symbolise peace.
  • Third Day
    The French hens represent the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit
  • Fourth Day
    The calling birds are for the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
  • Fifth Day
    The five golden rings are meant to symbolise the first five books in the Bible—the Pentateuch, the Books of Moses or the Torah.
  • Sixth Day
    The six geese a-laying are metaphors for the six days it took God to create the world
  • Seventh Day
    The seven swans a swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • Eighth Day
    The eight maids a milking are meant to be Jesus’ teachings on happiness also known as the eight beautitudes
  • Ninth Day
    Nine ladies dancing are for the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • Tenth Day
    The ten lords a leaping are representative of the ten commandments
  • Eleventh Day
    Eleven pipers piping symbolise the faithful disciples of Jesus
  • Twelfth Day
    Twelve drummers drumming was thought to represent the twelve points in the Apostles Creed

While this idea is romantic there is no evidence to suggest it’s true. The carol was more likely to have been a folk song and the gifts’ were probably given these ‘hidden’ meanings at a later date.

#4 Joy to the World

Written in 1719 by Isaac Watts, this song was never intended to be a Christmas carol. Watts was one of the most prolific English Hymn composers of his time and disagreed with his peers that only Biblical pslams should be sung in worship and that ‘human’ compositions were not worthy. In fact, Watts felt psalms were too difficult to sing and therefore adapted the words of Psalm 98 into Joy to the World. The song was first published in ‘Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament’.

#5 O Holy Night

This is probably my favourite Christmas carol and has one of the most interesting stories behind it.

A parish priest asked a local man, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure to pen a poem for Christmas mass. More well known for his writing rather than his Church attendance it is said he was surprised to be asked, but also humbled.

While the poet was in a coach travelling to Paris he imagined what it would have been like to witness Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It is said that by the time he had arrived in the city the poem was complete. Indeed Cappeau is said to have been so moved by his own work he turned to one of his musical friends, Adolphe Charles Adams to compose music for it.

The song was an immediate success all over France and found its way into many Catholic Christmas services. But when Cappeau eventually walked away from the Church and into the socialist movement and people discovered Adams was a Jew, the song was uniformly denounced by the Clergy.

The French people however loved the carol and continued to sing it in secret which is how American minister, John Sullivan Dwight found out about it. As an ardent believer in the abolition of slaver Dwight found much importance in the lines;

‘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.’

Dwight translated the carol and brought it to the States where it became a popular favourite after the Civil War.

The best legend surrounding O Holy Night is an event said to have happened on Christmas Eve in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War. In the midst of fierce fighting a French soldier jumped out of a muddy trench, no weapon by his side and sung the first three verses of the carol after which, a German soldier jumped from his hiding place and responded in his own tongue. The story goes that the fighting stopped for the next twenty four hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary cease fire in honour of Christmas day. Perhaps this is what inspired the French Church to lift the ban and include the carol once again in Christmas services.

But the infamy of O Holy Night doesn’t end there because it happened to be the first tune ever played on radio. On Christmas Eve in 1906 Reginald Fessenden became the first person to broadcast his voice across the airwaves. He began by reading from the Gospel of Luke (the Gospel the poet, Cappeau was originally inspired by) before picking up his violin and playing Oh Holy Night.

What is your favourite Christmas carol ever written? Do you know the history behind it? Enlighten us in the comments.

And one final word before you go…

Be you a scrooge or Grinch or Christmas believer, Brielle and I wish you and yours all the joy of the season and a very happy new year.

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