“Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.”
THE Christmas carol reverberates through the chilly night as a group of carollers replete with Santa hats, tambourines, and cheer sing their hearts out on my front porch. The familiar tunes and words wash over me and somehow, they bring back the latent Christmas spirit that I’ve found myself lacking in recent times. Soon, I find myself singing and swaying to the songs I grew up with. Jingle Bells, Silent Night, Hark the Herald and even Rudolph and his very shiny nose. They’re like old friends who went away for a very long time and have returned to pick up where they left off last Christmas.
It’s hard to remain a Grinch when a group of young people are singing so joyously about Bethlehem, a manky manger and three wise men — all the quintessential Christmas props necessary for the season. It’s not long before I suddenly find myself recalling the days when the younger and starry-eyed me carolled from house to house with my siblings. We’d be singing again and again about angels, shepherds and a big glittery star that led three wise men to a manger on a cold night to see a newborn baby who was destined to change the world. It was the most wonderful time of the year then.
Many of us would have that basic memory of a sound, smell or sight that signals to us the beginning proper of what we might term, in its broadest and most literal sense, the festive season. For some, it’s the glimpse of that first Christmas tree in a neighbour’s house or the shopping mall (the trees seem to sprout out as early as October in some cases); or the ubiquitous smell of Christmas fruitcake (with half a bottle of rum thrown in) baking in the oven that we find not as appealing at other times of the year.
Even those who have neither religious nor cultural resonance towards the season have their feelers out with giddy enthusiasm that Christmas, with its twinkling lights, tinsel, Santa, and presents, is near!
My own personal precursor to the season, perhaps like yours too, is nostalgic, a trifle maudlin and thoroughly (at least in my own eyes) Christmassy. No prizes for guessing what they are — Christmas carols in all their glorious sentimentality! I love carols. I love their predictable chords when performed with bombast on church organs, and their thick layer of schmaltz when sung by Bing Crosby or Elvis, and the wobbly descant parts which, when belted out with enthusiasm by amateur choirs, never fail to make me either laugh, cringe or have a lump in my throat. Never mind the tragic singing — carols still give me goose bumps.
But I also love the fact that in a season that some Christians would like to claim exclusively as their own, carols, perhaps counter-intuitively, speak profoundly of the rich and ancient connection that all of us, godly, other-godly, and godless alike, have at this time of the year with traditions of festivity and the year’s rebirth.
Unbeknownst to many, carols originated, of course, in a form that had nothing to do with Christmas, or even with Christ. The old French carole, a ring dance with song, may have been derived from the Greek choros, a circling dance associated with fertility rites and celebration. Like so many other traditions, the carol was appropriated by the church for its nativity festival. Fa-la-la-la-la la-la-la-la! Or, if you prefer, Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Nevertheless, carols still remain a perennial favourite. And if you, like me, find yourself tapping your foot to Jingle Bells and getting all schmaltzy over Oh Holy Night, you might discover that these wonderful songs with all their hackneyed lyrics and familiar tunes have stood the test of time to make the Christmas season, in all honesty, the most wonderful time of the year!
Jingle Bells, one of the best-known and commonly sung American songs in the world, was written by James Lord Pierpont in the autumn of 1857. Published under the title One Horse Open Sleigh, the song was originally intended for the Thanksgiving season and had no connection to Christmas. A plaque at 19 High Street in the centre of Medford Square in Medford, Massachusetts commemorates the “birthplace” of Jingle Bells, and claims that Pierpont wrote the song there in 1850, at what was then the Simpson Tavern. According to the Medford Historical Society, the song was inspired by the town’s popular sleigh races during the 19th century.
Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space, in a Christmas-themed prank by Gemini VI astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra. While in space on Dec 16, 1965, they sent this report to Mission Control:
“Gemini VII, this is Gemini VI. We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory travelling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a ... Very low. Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. Stand by one ... You might just let me try to pick up that thing.”
The astronauts then produced a smuggled harmonica and sleigh bells and broadcast a rendition of Jingle Bells!
Silent Night, Holy Night
Silent Night, Holy Night (German: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht) was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf. Before Christmas Eve, a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, brought the words to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the Christmas Eve mass. He’d written the lyrics of the song Stille Nacht in 1816 at his father’s hometown. Together they performed the new carol during the mass on the night of Dec 24, 1818.
It was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco in 2011. The song has been recorded by a large number of singers from every music genre. The version sung by Bing Crosby is the third best-selling single of all time.
Santa Claus is Coming To Town
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie and was first sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. But for all its mirth, its inspiration came from a place of grief. In his book Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Ace Collins explains how Gillespie was a vaudevillian-turned-songwriter who’d fallen on hard times, both financially and personally. Gillespie got the call to pen a Christmas tune for Cantor just after learning his brother had died.
He initially rejected the job, feeling too overcome with grief to consider penning a playful holiday ditty. But a subway ride recollecting his childhood with his brother and his mother’s warnings that Santa was watching changed his mind. He had the lyrics in 15 minutes before he called in composer John Coots to make up the music that would become a big hit within 24 hours of its debut. Although it brought Gillespie more royalties than anything else he ever wrote, he would try to avoid listening to songs that invoked such painful memories of his brother’s death.
Oh Holy Night
According to the book Stories Of Best Loved Christmas Songs, the original text of O Holy Night was written in 1847 by a French poet and wine merchant named Placide Cappeau. After being approached by a local priest, Cappeau was commissioned to write a poem in celebration of the church’s new organ.
The priest’s request may have come as a surprise for Cappeau who wasn’t considered a godly man, but he obliged. Pondering the Gospel of Luke, Cappeau wrote Minuit, Chretiens (Midnight, Christians) as he imagined what it’d have been like to witness Christ’s birth. He then approached his good friend and composer, a Jewish man named Adolphe Charles Adams, to put the words to music. Three weeks later, Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night) premiered at a midnight mass and became a firm favourite among French congregations.
When Church leaders discovered that Cappeau had formally renounced the Church to join a Socialist movement, and that the song’s composer was Jewish, they took it off the playlist. Despite being banned in churches, Cantique de Noel continued to gain popularity in homes around France.
Have Yourself A Merry Christmas
When songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine originally wrote the holiday classic for the 1944 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland didn’t like it. The actress said it was so sad it’d make her co-star Margaret O’Brien cry and leave herself looking like a monster. After some debate, the songwriters changed the song to the version that’s in the movie.
These included lines that Martin would later describe as "hysterically lugubrious” like "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last.... Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more”! He refused to revise the lyrics but a dressing down by actor Tom Drake set him straight.
“He said: ‘You’re gonna foul up your life if you don’t write another verse of that song!’’’ recollects Martin. Ultimately, he gave the song a more hopeful leaning, first for the movie, and then again in 1957 at the request of Frank Sinatra. For Ol’ Blue Eyes, he changed “We’ll have to muddle through somehow” to the more jolly “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” The song has since become a standard, in both forms.