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Three Treasured Christmas Songs and Their Stories

December 17, 2015

Every song has a story.*

Christmas songs, in my house, are only heard from the day after Thanksgiving through December. While I write I am listening to an eclectic play list of Christmas selections, ranging from “The Messiah” (in the background right now) to Elvis Presley and everything in between.

I’ve sung a number of Christmas hymns this December as well: “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Holy Night” and, of course, “Silent Night,” to name a few.

1. O Little Town of Bethlehem

The words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem were composed by Phillips Brooks in 1868 and were likely inspired by an earlier trip to Bethlehem. The score was written by Lewis H. Redner, who describes the composition as hopelessly last minute, hasty, and not his top priority. He said this about the process:

But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.**

We never know what God will do with our lives, our accomplishments, or our failures.

2. Silent Night

Silent Night! Holy Night! has been the go-to hymn on Christmas Eve for as long as I remember. The lyrics were written by Rev. Josef Mohr and the music composed by Franz Xaver Gruber in Oberndorf, Austria in 1818. The church in Oberndorf had a rickety old organ, which might explain why Gruber composed the music for “two solo voices with choir and the accompaniment of one guitar.” There is no record of the inspiration behind the hymn, legends of quiet walks through snowy forests notwithstanding.

Years after the song was composed Josef Mohr spoke to a friend, who wrote the following of Mohr and “Silent Night”:

… (he) would be grateful and say that it was one of the most treasured moments of his life, when shortly before Christmas, 1818, he met Mr. Franz Gruber and said: ‘Let’s work up something together for Christmas eve’, which was the way it turned out…

“Silent Night” has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects, and many people have been blessed by “something” that they worked up for Christmas Eve.***

What can God do with your little something?

3. O Holy Night

The composition of “O Holy Night,” my personal favorite, was a little more purposeful. The lyrics were written by a commissionaire of wines and poet, Placide Cappeau of France, at the request of a local priest. The story goes that Cappeau was inspired with the words of this beautiful hymn while traveling for business to Paris. When he arrived in Paris he requested that the music be written by a well-established musician, Adolphe Adam.

The hymn was first sung on Christmas Eve in 1847 in Roquemaure at the midnight mass, and as you might expect it was well received.

There was a bit of a backlash against the hymn because of the social and political views of Cappeau and the belief that Adam was Jewish. “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother…” point to Cappeau’s abolitionist stance, which apparently was not a preferred ideology at that time. The music prevailed, however, and by 1855 the hymn was published and was translated into many languages.

God can get the truth beautifully proclaimed even when it is unpopular.

The Greatest Story

We’re still enjoying those hymns a century or two after they were written. It took a while for them to become known, translated, and established favorites. Sounds familiar.

The night that Jesus was born few people took notice, and the world went on as usual. Babies were born all the time. The people who understood the miraculous nature of his birth – Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, to name a few – realized that the world would never be the same. But years would pass before Jesus would begin his public ministry, and the miracle of Jesus’ birth, perhaps, was minimized or even forgotten.

God didn’t forget. Jesus, whose birth caused barely a ripple, is still generating gigantic waves today. It was the beginning of something big that God had arranged in a little town of Bethlehem on that holy night.

What are your favorite Christmas hymns? Any good stories?

*For the history of hymns, check out this site which contains a wealth of information on hymns and Christmas carols.
**Notes on O Little Town of Bethlehem are via Louis F. Benson from Studies Of Familiar Hymns, First Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1924).
***Quite a write up of Silent Night! Holy Night! can be found here.

The Author
Judy Allen

Judy Allen is an area director of Community Bible Study in Arlington Heights, Ill.,, and she writes at Connecting Dots to God. Judy also enjoys reading, walking, hiking, and spending time with family and friends.

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