We love our Christmas carols, don’t we? There’s just something about them that touches us, warms our hearts, and draws our focus back to God. So who are the writers who penned these songs? Listen in to these behind-the-scenes stories and see!
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One of the things many of us look forward to at Christmas time is singing or listening to our favorite Christmas carols. Many start listening to them as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is put away in the fridge. Some of us––even some who are sitting here talking to you––listen to them all year long. So who are the writers who wrote these songs? And what inspired them to do so?
We’ve got stories behind three of the most loved Christmas carols. Our source for this podcast is a book called Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins.
The first Carol is one Karen’s dad loved to sing: I Wonder as I Wander.
For years, John Jacob Niles wandered around the Appalachian Mountains in search of the origins of songs. A composer and singer, Niles was born in Louisville Kentucky, on April 28, 1892. As an adult, though he longed to start his quest for music, John worked for an adding machine company to make ends meet. He then served as a pilot during World War I. It was during his days in Europe that he first put together an impressive catalog of American folk songs.
Begging every soldier he met to share a song, Niles wrote down the lyrics and memorized the music of each one. After the war, armed with the suitcase filled with folk music, Niles returned home and continued his education at the Cincinnati Conservatory. When he graduated, he moved to Chicago, where he sang with the lyric Opera and performed on Westinghouse radio.
In 1925 Niles moved to New York, where he not only sang on radio and stage, but began to publish music collections of both his original songs and the folksongs he had gathered during the war. By 1940 he was a recording artist on the RCA label and was recognized as one of the nation’s top opera singers. His two most successful original works were “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head.”
Money and fame made Niles the toast of New York. Yet even as he received standing ovations for his performances, and was dressed in the finest clothing, backstage the man sang folk ditties. There was something about simple American music that wouldn’t leave him alone. He finally decided he was more historian than performer, and moved back to Kentucky.
In his beloved Appalachian Mountains, Niles traveled from town to town, looking for undiscovered folk songs. The library of work he uncovered is still one of the most important in music history. One song in particular would become a monument to Niles’s years of hard work and a testament to the power of inspired creativity.
On a cold December day in North Carolina, Niles was visiting a poor community going about their daily lives. Just a few hundred miles away in New York, the chaos that was Christmas in the big city was in full force. Niles had seen it many times.
Yet in this village, Niles could hear snow crunching under feet and saw children in ragged clothes looking longingly into windows where a few small toys were displayed. Clearly, the modern world had never touched this unspoiled place. While Niles took in the simple beauty around him, a soft voice reached him. He scanned the street, and spotted a small girl sitting by herself on a bench, quietly singing a song Niles had never heard.
When she finished, Niles pulled out a pencil and tablet and went to ask the little girl about the song. All she knew was that her mother had taught it to her, like her grandmother had taught it to her mother before her. Niles asked her to please sing it again, and she smiled and quietly repeated the ballad’s short verses. The song, which the girl called “I Wonder as I Wander,” haunted Niles.
Long after the child disappeared into the evening, Niles continued to study the words. They were deeply spiritual, incredibly thoughtful. They embraced the joy and wonder of Christmas, but also lingered on the sacrifice of the babe, grown into a man, who died on the cross.
Both the words and music were perfect, simple, direct, and inspired. Even a master songwriter like Niles couldn’t imagine improving on them.
When Niles brought the song to prominence just before the beginning of World War II, he tried to capture the spirit of the child who had first shared the song with him. Even as he awed audiences with his discovery, the humble singer recognized that his version was not nearly as powerful as the original.
For the rest of his life, Niles tried to discover the origins of the song, but he could never trace it back farther than the girl in North Carolina, a child he never found again. It was as if she had been an angel sent to deliver a message, a message that embraced the wonder of the Savior’s birth and sacrifice. Because of a chance meeting between an unknown child and a man who spent his life wandering America in search of music, the world gained an unforgettable Christmas ballad that has never ceased to cause those who hear it to wonder.
I Wonder as I Wander
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God’s heaven, a star’s light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God’s angels in heaven for to sing
He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King
Cause He was the King.
Our next carol is one of the oldest and most beloved: O Come, All Ye Faithful.
John Francis Wade was a man of God caught in a holy war. In 1745, at the age of 35, Wade’s life was on the line. Strife between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church was at an all-time high. Many practicing Catholics were forced to take their faith underground.
To avoid prison or death, many priests fled Britain, including John Wade. He made his way to France where, in a city inundated by English Catholics and those who oppose the British royal family, he was given an important job: research and identify historical church music––which the Church of England was trying to erase from the world––then carefully record and preserve it for future generations.
Wade reclaimed old pieces but was also inspired to write new hymns. As a Catholic cleric, it was only natural that he composed new works in Latin. In or around 1750, Wade put the finishing touches on what would become his most famous tune, “Adeste de fidelis.”
It wouldn’t be until a decade later that he put lyrics to his melody and it was published. Yet, something strange happened. Though the carol was published at least two different times with John Wade credited as being the composer, credit for writing the Carol became––and remained––a mystery. Frederick Oakley translated the original lyrics into English in 1841, but the authorship of the song had spawned numerous legends as to its writer. None of which named John Wade.
Many of the world’s most famous singing groups and stars recorded the song, making it famous worldwide. But no credit was given to the man who had written it. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was America’s favorite Christmas carol until Bing Crosby cut “White Christmas.” On that same album, though, Crosby included his version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
And that is when a music historian finally sifted through all the legends and uncovered the song’s real writer, finally granting John Francis Wade the credit he so richly deserved. Wade lived in a time of great conflict between various branches of the Christian church. He’d been forced to give up the country he loved as a sacrifice of faith, and made to work long hours trying to preserve church records others were attempting to erase for all time.
Even so, Wade revelled in his role as a servant of his Lord. In every word and verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the composer’s faith is not just verified, it is magnified. At a time when the church was literally at war, only someone who truly believed in the holiness of Christ could have written the carol that would bring all Christians together to the same place each Christmas bowing before Christ the Lord!
Here are the lyrics, some of which we’d never heard.
O Come All Ye Faithful
O come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the King of angels;
O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten not created;
Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest;
See how the shepherds, summoned to his cradle,
leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
we too will thither bend our joyful footsteps;
Child for us sinners, poor and in the manger,
we would embrace thee with love and awe.
Who would not love thee, loving us so dearly?
Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning,
Jesus, to thee be all glory given.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing:
O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
Our last carol is one Karen loves to sing: O Little Town of Bethlehem.
On Dec 24, 1805, Phillips Brooks was a half a world away from home and feeling a lot older than 30. Already recognized as one of the most dynamic Christian speakers in America, it was Brooks, only six years into his ministry who had been called upon in May to give the funeral message over President Abraham Lincoln.
That solemn honor, in tandem with leading the congregation of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church through the bloody years of the Civil War, took its toll. Worn out and in need of spiritual rebirth, Brooks took a sabbatical and left the United States to tour the Middle East.
On Christmas Eve in Jerusalem, the American felt an urge to get away from the hundreds of other pilgrims who had journeyed to the Holy Land for the holidays.
Though warned that he might encounter thieves, the preacher borrowed a horse and set out across the desolate and unforgiving countryside. For many peaceful hours he was alone with his thoughts as he studied a land that had changed little since the days of Paul and Timothy. For the minister, December 24th was a wonderful time of prayer and meditation.
At dusk, a sudden sense of awe fell over Brooks. Under a clear sky, the first stars just beginning to emerge, he rode into the still-tiny and remote village of Bethlehem. He recalled the story of the birth of his Savior, and by being present in the place in which Jesus was born, was able to add vivid detail to the familiar tale in Scripture.
The great speaker was all but speechless as he considered the heavenly King, born in such modest surroundings. There, on the streets almost unchanged since biblical times, Brooks felt as if he were surrounded by the spirit of the first Christmas. He would later tell his family and friends that the experience was so overpowering that it would forever be ”singing in my soul.”
Like the path from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks’s own life had often been rocky and winding. At the age of 22, the Harvard graduate was a struggling teacher at Boston Latin school. Frustrated that his students wouldn’t put in the time he felt was necessary to do the coursework, Brooks finally gave up. He turned to prayer and Bible study to find his place in the world. Still unsure of his future, Brooks entered the Episcopal Theological Seminary and began pastoral studies. After graduating in 1859, he began his ministry in Philadelphia.
What he lacked in the classroom, he made up for in the pulpit. His messages were powerful and dynamic. In 1861 he was called to lead the congregation of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. Yet even as Holy Trinity grew, and Brooks’s fame spread far and wide, he was growing physically and spiritually tired.
By 1863, the national spirit was dying almost as quickly as the soldiers on the Civil War battlefields. Everyone knew someone who had been killed or gravely injured. Scores of women in the church wore black, mourning the loss of a husband or son.
Darkness fell over every facet of the services. Brooks’s congregation wanted him to be inspirational, to help them believe that the good things in life they had once known would someday be theirs again. They wanted an end to the war. Yet though Brooks made a valiant effort, the preacher couldn’t give his flock with they needed most: peace.
When the war finally ended, Brooks believed that the sweetness of life and soul would soon return to his flock. But the pain only intensified when President Lincoln was assassinated. Although Brooks was not Lincoln’s pastor, He was asked to speak at Lincoln’s funeral because of his reputation as an orator. Digging deep, he found words to fill the moment––but seeing a great leader senselessly slain, and the exhaustion of the effort itself, left him void of everything he needed as a pastor. And so he decided to take a sabbatical.
He kept a journal while in the Holy Land, and added this account of his visit in Bethlehem:
“I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God…. Again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Savior’s birth.”
Back in Philadelphia, Brooks longed to share those amazing moments with his flock, but he could not find the words to express all he’d seen and felt. In the holiday season of 1868, Brooks again thought of when he rode into Bethlehem at dusk, and the church service that had followed.
This time, he didn’t force the words out. He simply relived the experience and jotted down the lines that seemed to float in his head. His thoughts soon took the form of a poem.
When he finished writing, he hurried to share it with the church organist, Luis Redner. Redner spent hours at the piano trying to find a tune to fit the poem. Finally on December 24, as Redner went to bed, he was forced to admit he had failed.
Just as Brooks had been unable to find dynamic oratory to fully describe what he had experienced in Bethlehem, Redner was unable to compose a majestic Rhapsody to carry the preacher’s simple words.
It was only in his bed, long after he had given up, that the organist found an unadorned and straightforward tune. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Redner discovered the tune given to him in slumber perfectly fit Phillips Brooks’s words. As if blessed by God himself, on Christmas morning, ”O Little Town of Bethlehem” was complete.
Phillips Brooks is now recognized as the greatest American preacher of the 19th-century. His first published volume of sermons sold over 200 thousand copies when released in 1878, and it’s still read and studied today. Yet it is Brooks the songwriter, not the preacher, whose work millions now know and cherish. It is the simple language of the common traveler in search of spiritual renewal that continues to touch lives around the world.
How very appropriate these words are for us in this broken, angry world today.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And peace to men on earth
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
We want to hear from you!
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