From the hillsides of Bethlehem to the present

Maria von Trapp (whose life was immortalized in the Sound of Music) wrote, ''Singing at Christmas goes back to the early centuries of Christianity. It is the oldest of those innumerable folk customs still alive throughout the world during the Christmas season.''

How did Christmas carols become part of the holy day and holiday we know as Christmas? Was it the angels that first Christmas? Was it the Church establishing December 25 as the commemoration of Jesus Christ's birth?

We can go back to the first carolers -- the angels who sang to the shepherds on a hillside in Bethlehem. Their songs were not recorded. The oldest known carol, however, was written in the fourth century by St. Ambrose (''Veni Redemptor Gentium'' or ''Savior of the World Come'') around the time the Church made December 25 Christmas Day.

Father of the Christmas Carol

After that there is a silence for almost 1,000 years. There may have been carols, but not many have been preserved. The silence was broken by St. Francis of Assisi. Many call him the father of the Christmas carol. He wanted to find a way to make the Christmas story come alive for the common people, who could not read and had no access to the Bible or other books.

He decided in 1223 that he would build a life-size manger scene, complete with live animals such as ox, ass, and sheep. He would get various villagers to play the roles of the Holy Family and the shepherds and wise men. Then he would have people sing songs about Christmas -- so caroling was born.

''The First Nowell,'' first sung about 1500, is the oldest known carol in the English language still sung today. It did not appear in print until 1833 however. This song was claimed by both the French and the English. In France it was written as ''Noel.'' Researchers think that this song came from Cornwall in England, but no one knows for certain who wrote it.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Before the invention of the printing press, carols were a way to communicate the Christmas story and pass it from one generation to another. An example of this is a carol which dates back to those very early days.

''The Twelve Days of Christmas'' was written for English Catholics to illustrate the truths of their faith during a time of persecution.
 

  • One partridge in a pear tree -- God's gift of love to mankind: the advent of Jesus and His death on the cross.
  • Two turtle doves -- the Old and the New Testaments.
  • Three French hens -- the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity, or the Holy Trinity.
  • Four calling birds -- the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
  • Five gold rings -- the first five books of the Old Testament telling the story of man's fall from grace.
  • Six geese a laying -- the six days of creation.
  • Seven swans a-swimming -- the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  • Eight maids a-milking -- the eight Beatitudes.
  • Nine ladies dancing -- the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  • Ten lords a-leaping -- the Ten Commandments.
  • Eleven pipers piping -- the eleven faithful disciples.
  • Twelve drummers drumming -- the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.

Another early carol, which would have been long forgotten if it had not been for England's Queen Victoria, is ''O Tannenbaum.'' In 1846 she established the custom of the decorated Christmas tree. When the Germans contributed ''O Tannenbaum'' to our catalog of carols, it had one verse. Then, because of Queen Victoria's Christmas tree, two verses were added by German poet Ernst S. Anschutz.

The Huron Carol

Carols were first sung in America in 1645 at the Huron Mission (in the northern Great Lakes region). This was unusual because the Puritans, who dominated American shores at the time, had outlawed the celebration of Christmas -- associating it with paganism and drunken revelry. It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that those ideas changed.

Up until that time carols were imported. The first American Christmas carol was ''The Huron Carol.'' The composer of that carol was John de Brébeuf, Jesuit missionary to the Huron Indians, martyred in 1649 by the Iroquois, and canonized a saint in 1930.

Twas in the moon of wintertime
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wond'ring hunters heard the hymn:
Jesus, your King is born,
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.

Edmund Hamilton Sears was a descendent of the original Pilgrims, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, a clergyman of some renown. What Sears is most noted for is the writing of a poem in 1849. It was published in the Christian Register, and titled ''It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.'' It became the first American carol of international reputation.

The poem became internationally known when it was set to music. Several tunes were written for the hymn -- even one by Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan). The one most often used was written in 1850 by Richard Storrs Willis, a Yale graduate, who had studied music with Felix Mendelssohn in Germany.

The Golden Age of Carols

The 19th century in America is known as ''the Golden Age of carols.'' Another song from that period was composed by Bostonian James S. Pierpont, but this one was not written for Christmas. It was written for Thanksgiving. The song was ''Jingle Bells'' and it was written in 1857 for Pierpont's father's Sunday school class.

Another East Coast man was Pittsburgh-born John Henry Hopkins, Jr., a classical scholar with a law degree, who had been ordained an Episcopal priest and was the editor of New York City's Church Journal. He had no children, but had a childlike love for Christmas.

In 1857 he was looking for a gift for his nieces and nephews. Not finding anything that pleased him, he decided that he would write the story of the wise men. Basing his tale on Matthew 2:11, he added to it what was known from stories and legends. When he had finished he had written the song, ''We Three Kings of Orient Are.'' The song was first published in 1863 and was an instant favorite, spreading from north to south through the Civil War army camps.

The tragic Civil War echoed the tragedy in the life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His first wife died just three years after their marriage. In 1843 Longfellow married Frances Appleton, and they had six children. In 1861, she was melting candle wax when some dropped on her dress and her dress caught fire. Longfellow tried to put it out and was badly burned. Fanny, as his wife was called, died. So Longfellow spent Christmas without his beloved.

In November 1862, his son, Lieutenant Charles Longfellow, was severely injured in the Mine Run Campaign at New Hope Church, Virginia, with a bullet lodged near his spine. It was uncertain for some time if he would live.

Christmas Bells, Longfellow's Song of Peace

Longfellow couldn't help asking the question, ''Where is peace?'' He wrote a poem simply titled ''Christmas Bells'' to answer that question.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed 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!''
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!''

We don't understand that Longfellow's poem was written as a song of peace in a time of war. When the poem was set to music by John Baptiste Calkin, a composer from an accomplished family of English musicians, the title was changed to ''I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.'' Since that time the paragraphs describing the Civil War have been eliminated and much of Longfellow's original intent in the poem was lost.

The tragedy of the Civil War not only gave us ''I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'' but other carols as well. Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks was so exhausted from ministering to a people ravaged by war, that his church gave him a sabbatical.

He made a trip to the Holy Land and returned with ''Palestine singing in my soul.'' He penned the words to ''O Little Town of Bethlehem.'' Louis Redner, his church's organist, wrote the music, and the song was sung by Sunday school children for the first time on Dec. 27, 1868.

Even as Americans penned carols out of their tragedies and war, others in the world were writing carols from places of peace. One of the most popular carols of all time was written in France in the 18th century. This carol's story starts in the 16th century with King Philip II of Spain. King Philip established a college at Douai in France.

Adeste Fidelis

Douai was a place of refuge for persecuted English Catholics. Early in the 1700s one of these English Catholics, John Francis Wade, moved there to teach music. Wade's hobby was to make calligraphic copies of ancient hymns. His beautiful manuscripts were carried all over Europe. Sometime in the 1740s, Wade wrote his own hymn in Latin called ''Adeste Fidelis.''

Because of his reputation as a calligrapher of the hymns of others, no one believed that he had written ''Adeste Fidelis'' himself. Over time, it was attributed to many different composers. In the 1780s it was brought to England and introduced at the Portuguese Embassy chapel and because of that was known as the Portuguese hymn.

In 1947, researchers discovered that Wade did indeed write the song -- words and music. ''Adeste Fidelis'' in its English translation (by F. Oakeley) is known as ''O Come All Ye Faithful.''

''O Come All Ye Faithful'' is not the only carol in that time period in England. Isaac Watts often complained to his father, a deacon in the Episcopal church, about the terrible music used. His father posed the question, ''If you don't like our music, why don't you write something better?'' And for over 200 Sundays, Isaac Watts did write something better. In all he would write over 600 hymns -- many based on the Psalms.

In 1719, he collected some of these hymns into a book called Psalms of David Imitated. One of these became popular as a Christmas carol, even though it contains no references to things we normally associate with the holy day. This song was ''Joy to the World.'' Its familiar music was not added until over 100 years later, by organist, Dr. Lowell Mason.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Another prolific hymn writer of over 6,000 hymns was Charles Wesley, who wrote a favorite Christmas carol, ''Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.''

''Hark'' was sung for over 120 years to different tunes before it was set to the music by Felix Mendelssohn that accompanies it today. This song, however, didn't start out with that title. Wesley called it ''Hark, How all the Welkin Rings.'' ''Welkin'' are places of heavenly abode, celestial spheres. George Whitfield, the famous preacher, changed its words to the ones we know today.

Some of our more popular Christ- mas songs came from the secular world. In 1940, for example, an Ameri- can composer was asked to write the score for a film which would star two famous American film stars. The last scene took place at Christmas, and he was asked to write a song for that scene. The song made its first appearance in December 1941 two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The song he wrote was ''White Christmas.'' The director was unimpressed. But the singer, Bing Crosby, thought Irving Berlin had a winner in this one.

Holiday Inn was released in August 1942. The song became the Oscar winner for that year, but it was some time before it became the best-selling recording of all time. It became a hit because of its nostalgic quality -- nostalgic for a group of boys who were serving overseas. It became a song of peace in a time of war.

Another song written for a movie was ''Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'' from Meet Me in St. Louis. Judy Garland sang the song, insuring its success.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Robert L. May was asked by the Montgomery Ward Company to write a story for Christmas. The story he wrote was ''Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.'' May's brother-in-law set the tale to music. Gene Autry was approached to record the song.

In his autobiography, Autry says that he didn't want to do it because there ''were already too many reindeer flying around.'' His wife loved the song and talked him into recording it. He sold two-and-one-half million records that year and by 1977 had sold ten million.

The carols that most often ring true go back to a stable and a baby born in a manger. They always speak of peace as this one does: On Christmas Eve in 1818, a priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, sat at his desk in the rectory.

He was interrupted by a knock at the door. Some simple village folk had come to ask him if he would visit a new mother and her baby up in the hills. The priest was unhappy about being interrupted because he had a lot to do. But he put on his heavy coat and followed them.

Silent Night, Holy Night

He visited the newborn and his mother and was reminded of another Newborn and His mother. Words turned 'round and 'round in his mind, and by the time he had returned to his desk, a poem had formed in his head. Writing rapidly, Father Josef Mohr put his words to paper.

He gave them that night to his friend, the schoolmaster Franz Gruber. Gruber was the organist for their church, and the two were good friends. Gruber set the words to music, but since the organ was old and out of commission, he wrote it instead for two voices and a guitar. He would later tell Father Mohr, ''Your words seem to sing themselves.''

On Christmas Day 1818, the ''Song from Heaven'' (''Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht'') was sung for the first time. The parishioners weren't aware that they were present at an auspicious event -- any more than the innkeepers in Bethlehem were aware of who they were turning away. All they heard that day was the priest and the schoolmaster singing softly, to the accompaniment of an old guitar:

Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.