Published by
WQXR Features

Oh Come All Ye Curious

Email a Friend

The genesis of some holiday songs is pretty self-evident--"The First Noel," for instance, or "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." But others don't reveal themselves so easily. Every year we hear favorites like "Good King Wenceslas," or "I Saw Three Ships" but many don't know the history of the people or events to which these songs refer. Each weekday between now and Christmas Eve, we'll tell you the story of a classic song or carol.

15) Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

This famous carol actually started life as a song in praise of the inventor of the printing press.

Charles Wesley, the godfather of English hymns and brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, wrote the words to "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" in 1739, although the carol was originally entitled simply "Hark!." Wesley also specifically requested that his words be accompanied by somber music--a request that was adhered to for 100 years.

Congregations in the 18th and early 19th centuries sang "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" to a plodding, dreary melody. It took some unusual events to break Wesley's gloom. In 1840 Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata called Festgesang to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and the 400th anniversary of the printing press. A dozen years later, English musician William Cummings heard the second chorus of the cantata and retrofitted the original lyrics to Mendelssohn's tune.

Cummings' inspiration to pair a Mendelssohn melody with Wesley's words granted the carol a degree of immortality than it otherwise might not have had. For many years "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" has served as the recessional hymn of the annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in King's College Chapel, Cambridge. Many Americans are introduced to the carol from its rousing appearance in the end credits of "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

14) White Christmas

This Irving Berlin classic is the song that changed everything about holiday music. Before “White Christmas,” the holidays meant traditional carols and religious hymns. After it, secular tunes became part of the fiber of popular culture.

First performed by Bing Crosby in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn and covered by countless others, an estimated 125 million copies of the three-minute song have been sold over the decades, according to music critic Jody Rosen.

Rosen, who wrote an entire book called White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, described the song as how "a cantor's son from Russia takes the Christ out of Christmas and composes one of America's favorite songs." He added that it is "the darkest, bluest tune ever to masquerade as a Christmas carol," with its hints of dissonance and minor and diminished chords.

In fact, days were never "merry and bright" for songwriter Berlin and his Catholic second wife, Ellin, after the death of their infant son on Christmas Day, 1928, 12 years before Berlin composed "White Christmas." And it's not a carol--that implication is religious--it's just a popular song.

"Is there another song that Kenny G, Peggy Lee, Mantovani, Odetta, Loretta Lynn, the Flaming Lips, the Edwin Hawkins Singers and the Backstreet Boys have in common?" writes Rosen. "What other tune links Destiny's Child, The Three Tenors and Alvin and the Chipmunks; Perry Como, Garth Brooks and Stiff Little Fingers; the Reverend James Cleveland, Doris Day and Kiss?" (Irving Berlin so hated Elvis Presley's cover of White Christmas that he launched a fierce but unsuccessful campaign to ban Presley's recording.)

To add to the song’s many contradictions, the its first stanza speaks of sun and green grass. Bing Crosby's record producer Jack Kapp thought this opening verse would be meaningless outside of the film Holiday Inn, however.

Crosby agreed, and didn't record these lyrics that explain the song's origin: "The sun is shining/The grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway./I've never seen such a day/In Beverly Hills, L.A./But it's December the 24th/And I am longing to be up North."

13) The Christmas Song

Best known by its evocative opening line of "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose," this perennial favorite was written by jazz singer Mel Tormé and songwriter Bob Wells during a Los Angeles heat wave in the summer of 1944. According to Tormé, the song was an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.”

“I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil,” Tormé recalled. “They started, 'Chestnuts roasting ... Jack Frost nipping ... Yuletide carols ... Folks dressed up like Eskimos.' Bob (Wells, co-writer) didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”

Wells was just 22 and Tormé was only 19 at the time. It was Nat “King” Cole who made the song a smash hit, recording it several times: first in 1946, then again later that year with a small string section; in 1953, using the same arrangement with a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, and once more in 1961 in a stereo version with orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael. Tormé himself eventually recorded his own versions in 1954, 1965 and 1992.

The Nat "King" Cole version of “The Christmas Song” was the second-most popular holiday song of the past decade--just behind "Winter Wonderland"--according to ASCAP.

12) O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël)

The history of this carol is fraught with controversy. The Catholic Church denounced "O Holy Night" when its lyricist, a French wine merchant named Placide Cappeau, became a socialist and it was discovered that the composer of the music, Adolphe Adam, was a Jew. In addition, the French church authorities deemed it as "unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste" and "total absence of the spirit of religion," according to Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas.

Still, the carol caught on quickly after its premiere at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 1847, in Roquemaure, France, just days after it had been completed. It is said to have been the first piece of music to be broadcast on the radio when a Massachusetts radio station played it on Christmas Eve, 1906.

The carol also has an interesting historical link to the abolition of slavery. The French text includes a passage that says Christ's love connects men as brothers, even to those who are slaves. In 1855, six years before the American Civil War, American John Dwight's English translation of the song included a strong abolitionist bent.

A favorite of opera singers--from Enrico Caruso's 1916 recording in French to Luciano Pavarotti’s 1990 version--it gives singers a flourish with which to end concert programs. A 2006 poll by Classic FM ranked “O Holy Night” as the UK’s favorite carol.

11) The Twelve Days of Christmas

Whether you consider it a silly kids’ ditty or a prescription for economic ruin, the traditional song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is one of the most popular holiday songs of the past century.

Likely of French origin, "The Twelve Days" probably originated as a singing memory game that children played on Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany. In church circles, the 12 days refer to the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany on January 6, not the 12 days before Christmas.

The first printed version of the song is said to be in the children's book "Mirth Without Mischief" published in 1780. The book identifies the song as a game of "memory and forfeits:" In the game the leader recites the increasingly complex lyric, which the other singers must repeat. When somebody fails, the individual is forced to do or pay something as penalty.

Another popular theory holds that the song was actually a catechism song sung in England during the period from 1558 to 1829 when Roman Catholics were forbidden to practice their faith. The song's gifts reportedly were meant to represent church's teachings. There is no substantive primary evidence supporting this claim, however, and it may be merely modern-day speculation.

Regardless of its origin and meaning, the song often urges the curious to ask: What would all of these gifts cost?

Each year, American wealth management company PNC tracks the cost of the items mentioned in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." In 2009, buying all the presents in the carol would cost $21,465--nearly $400 more than last year, with the prices of gold rings and French hens up sharply. Never mind that geese can be aggressive and messy and drummers will keep you up all night.

10) Deck the Halls

Nit-pickers are quick to correct singers who implore their audience to "deck the halls with boughs of holly." The correct opening line of the song reads: "deck the hall," but "halls" is a convention that may be here to stay. More importantly, why all the "fa la las?"

"Deck the Halls" has secular origins. It is believed to have originated as a sixteenth-century Welsh New Year's melody called "Nos Galan." There was a distinctive Welsh tradition in which merrymakers would dance in a circle around a harpist playing that tune. The "fa la la" bits were originally played on a harp. As if to underline the point, the song's lyrics include: "See the blazing yule before us, strike the harp and join the chorus." The connection with dancing is made explicit with the phrase "follow me in merry measure," as "measure" was a synonym for dance.

Dr. Ian Bradley, a Scottish theologian who researched the song, notes that "Deck the Halls" may have been exported to North America by Welsh miners who immigrated to the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. While the exact author of the lyrics is unknown, many believe the words are of American origin.

In the eighteenth century Mozart used the tune to "Deck the Halls" for a violin and piano duet. And there are countless parodies ("Deck the halls with gasoline") and references to the tune in pop culture, from The Simpsons to a recent Lady GaGa Christmas TV Special.

9) In Dulci Jubilo

"In Dulci Jubilo," also known in English as "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," is one of the few bilingual Christmas carols. Technically, it was written in “macaronic” verse--a mixture of Medieval German and Latin with a few bilingual in jokes thrown in (think of it as early intellectual snobbery).

The carol is thought to have been written by the German mystic Heinrich Seuse around 1328. He claimed to have learned the song from dancing angels. "This dance," he wrote, "was not of the kind that are danced on Earth, but it was a heavenly movement, swelling up and falling back again into the wild abyss of God's hiddenness." More likely the tune was already in existence at the time.

Over the centuries, the carol has become familiar in many guises, from the famous Bach Christmas organ chorale prelude (BWV 729), to Mike Oldfield’s 1975 synth-folk crossover hit. There have been numerous arrangements, including standouts by Buxtehude, Praetorius and R.L. Pearsall’s sumptuous 1837 arrangement.

8) Sleigh Ride

Composer Leroy Anderson began writing "Sleigh Ride," which would become his most famous piece, in Woodbury, CT in 1946 during a July heat wave. Complete with jingling bells, clip-clops and "whinnying" by a solo trumpet, the song has consistently ranked among the top ten holiday songs of all time--without mentioning Christmas or any holiday--according to ASCAP.

It took Anderson over a year to get "Sleigh Ride" just right. He wrote the middle section quickly but toiled over the opening. Perhaps he was intimidated by the shadow of Mozart, who wrote his own "Sleigh Ride" ("Die Schlittenfahrt") in 1791.

When it was first written, "Sleigh Ride" didn't have any words at all; Mitchell Parish wrote them in 1950. In fact, "Sleigh Ride" is the only holiday song on our list written originally as an instrumental piece for a symphony orchestra. The Boston Pops Orchestra gave the first performance in a concert conducted by Arthur Fiedler at Symphony Hall in Boston, May 4, 1948 (yes, May). Mills Music published it the same year, and the Boston Pops Orchestra recorded it in June, 1949.

7) God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

You might be all the way through the first verse of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" before you start to wonder, "What does this song have to do with taking a nap?" And how do the words "Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan's pow'r" go with the resting happy guys in the first line?

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" dates to 15th century England, a time when carols were all the rage. “Merry," at the time, meant "great" or "mighty."

"A strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer," writes Ace Collins, in Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. The word "rest" meant to "keep" or "make." So, in modern English, the first line of the carol should read, "God make you mighty, gentlemen," Collins wrote. Which ultimately makes it a song about having the strength to overcome spiritual darkness.

The author of the lyrics is unknown, although the danceable melody made it unpopular with the church. "Like so many early Christmas songs, this carol was written as a direct reaction to the music of the fifteenth century church," writes Collins. The carol was sung for centuries before being published in Britain in 1833, when it appeared in a collection of seasonal carols gathered by William B. Sandys.

This quintessential English carol is referred to in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and is parodied in In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

6) Silent Night

"Silent Night" is probably the world's best-known Christmas carol and as such, it comes complete with numerous myths and back-stories. It has been translated into 320 languages. There are even fan clubs, of which the largest by far is the Silent Night Association, an Austrian group dedicated to disseminating its history and music around the world.

The song, known as "Stille Nacht" in the original German, was first performed on December 24, 1818, in the tiny hamlet of Oberndorf. Joseph Mohr, a local assistant priest, sought to comfort his flock, racked by poverty and misery in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. He turned to his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, a school master, to compose the music for six verses he had written two years earlier, and they performed the song together at mass with the help of a simple guitar.

According to one popular story, mice had eaten through the bellows of the church organ and so Gruber created the song for guitar accompaniment. But the answer is probably more prosaic: Mohr simply loved guitar music.

Another popular story claims that the carol, once premiered, was promptly forgotten until an organ repairman found the manuscript in 1825 and revived it. However, Gruber published various arrangements of it throughout his lifetime and a Mohr arrangement (ca. 1820) is kept at the Museum Carolino Augusteum in Salzburg.

The song bridges social, religious and cultural divides. According to the Christmas Carol Archive in Graz, Austria, more than 3 billion people worldwide recognize this song. It was the carol that wafted from the German trenches to the Allied lines during the famous 1914 Christmas truce in World War I. Check out Silent Night Web for versions in Swahili, Chinese and Zulu, among others.

5) In the Bleak Midwinter

One of the season's most evocative songs, this song was named the most popular carol of all time in a BBC poll of choirmasters and choral experts last year.

"Does any other carol get to the very heart of Christmas as understatedly but effectively as ‘In the Bleak Midwinter?'" wrote the editors of BBC Music Magazine. Admirers especially praise the haunting beauty of the carol's text by the English poet Christina Rossetti.

In fact, Rossetti had no idea that her Christmas poem of 1872 would be set to music, let alone sung as a carol. But it became a hit in the early 20th century thanks to two well-known versions, one by Gustav Holst and the other by the organist Harold Darke. The Holst version has been recorded by a number of pop artists, including Julie Andrews, Cyndi Lauper and James Taylor. The Darke version, with its delicate organ accompaniment, has gained popularity among choruses, especially after the King's College Choir included it on its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

With lyrics like "In the bleak midwinter / Frosty wind made moan / Earth was hard as iron / Water like a stone," the carol evokes a time when winter fuel involved schlepping for wood rather than turning up the thermostat. 

4) The Holly and the Ivy

If you've ever wondered why a carol pairs two seemingly unrelated evergreen plants, there happens to be a very old tradition at work.

Like many of the best-known carols, "The Holly and the Ivy" has its origins in pagan tradition. Holly was associated with good, and ivy with evil. They were also primitive symbols for man and woman, and the words are thought to derive from some ancient fertility dance common in Somerset or Gloucestershire, England (mistletoe was another important pagan symbol). But, by the Middle Ages, holly and ivy had shed their former associations to become mainstays of Christmas decorations in homes and churches.

The carol itself can be traced to sheet music in Birmingham, England from about 1710. The version we know was noted down by Cecil Sharp, a folk music collector, in Gloucestershire, England.

Sir Henry Walford Davies wrote a popular choral arrangement that is often performed today at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and by choirs around the world.

3) Once in Royal David’s City

“Once in Royal David’s City” is sung on Christmas Eve in churches around the world, often as a processional hymn. Like many beloved carols, it has humble beginnings.

In 1848, Cecil Frances Alexander, the Irish wife of an Anglican bishop, heard her godchildren complaining about a boring church service. So she spiced up their prayers with a group of poems called Hymns For Little Children. A year later, an English organist and songwriter named by H.J. Gauntlett discovered the poem and set it to music.

The carol proved enormously popular: Every Christmas Eve since 1919, it has opened King's College Cambridge's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols as the processional tune. According to Cambridge custom, the first verse is sung unaccompanied by a solo boy chorister. To save the poor lad from having his holiday season spoiled by nerves, the chorister is never told of his solo moment until just before the service is to begin. As the service is broadcast live on the BBC World Service, there are millions of listeners worldwide who tune in to this service.

2) Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas may have been "good" in the eyes of the Church, but he was unpopular enough to be murdered by his own brother.

The 19th-century carol about a king who goes out to give alms to a poor peasant on St Stephen's Day (the day after Christmas), and whose miraculous footprints melted the snow so his page could follow, is based on Svaty Václav, Duke of Bohemia, a popular Christian prince born in 907 in a castle near Prague.

As Václav (known as Wenceslas in English) was entering church one day in 935, he was assassinated by his politically ambitious brother. As the song indicates, he was a good and honest man and immediately after his death he was considered a martyr and a saint. Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously bestowed him with the title "king.”

In Prague the central square is named after him and the feast day of St. Wenceslas--September 28--became a national holiday in the Czech Republic in 2000.

The tune itself dates from the 13th century while the lyrics are by the English hymnwriter John Mason Neale (1818-66). It was first published in 1853. Musicians including Joan Baez, The Beatles and Tori Amos have recorded modern versions.

1) I Saw Three Ships

Bethlehem, of course, is a landlocked city. So why the reference to three ships?

The song is based on the final journey of the Biblical Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men. According to European folklore, Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, carried the Three Kings' remains to Cologne Cathedral in 1162 where they now supposedly reside. Those relics made the final leg of their journey from Bethlehem to Cologne in three ships.

When this song of the Three Wise Men--or what was left of them--began circulating as a Christmas carol in the Middle Ages, someone may have decided the lyrics needed a less gruesome focus. So references to bones and Cologne were changed to words about Jesus, Mary, and Bethlehem. The song's popularity has always depended on its sing-song appeal to children more than its lyrics anyway. A 17th century printing of the song located in Derbyshire, England is perhaps the earliest known version.