Carols are a beloved part of the Christmas season — even those not originally intended to be tied to any specific holiday. Here are the stories behind seven popular songs and hymns and how they came to be written.
'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing'
John Wesley, the co-founder of the Methodist Church, wrote the lyrics to this Christmas carol in 1739, according to “28 Carols to Sing at Christmas” by John Mulder and F. Morgan Roberts. Wesley wrote these lyrics approximately a year after his conversion, according to the authors. The carol was first published in a collection titled “Hymns and Sacred Poems” in 1739.
The carol’s lyrics went through several alterations, much to Wesley’s dismay, the authors wrote. According to “28 Carols,” the first two lines of the carol originally read: “Hark! How all the welkin rings, glory to the King of Kings.”
In 1754, preacher George Whitefield changed the opening lines to the words that are sung today.
The carol’s melody was found in a piece of music written a century later. In 1840, Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press, wrote Mulder and Roberts. According to the authors, Mendelssohn did not think this piece of music was suited for religious purposes. Despite this, and the fact that Wesley wanted “slow and solemn” music for his hymn, English organist W.H. Cummings adapted the upbeat music to the text, and this version of the carol was published in 1856, according to “28 Carols.”
This Christmas carol had a humble beginning, according to “The LDS Christmas Songbook.” It was originally written in German and titled “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest in a small village near Salzburg, Austria, wrote the words to the carol in 1816. Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber, an organist at a nearby church, to compose music to his poem two years later, on Christmas Eve, according to “28 Carols.”
The reason for the Christmas Eve request is a source of speculation, according to the authors, but it is believed that in preparing for his traditional midnight Mass, Mohr discovered that his organ had broken down. He turned to his friend during this musical disaster and asked him to compose a melody for two solo voices, a chorus and a guitar in time for the service, the authors wrote.
John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest, translated the English version of the song and published it in 1859. “Silent Night” was barely acknowledged as a proper hymn when it was first written, but today it is sung around the world in more than 140 languages, according to “28 Carols.”
'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'
The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words to this Christmas song on Christmas Day in 1864, according to “Christmas Encyclopedia" by William Crump. Longfellow’s son had been wounded in the Civil War, and just two years prior, Longfellow had lost his wife in a fire. It was during this time that Longfellow turned to writing about more spiritual topics, according to Dale Nobbman's “The Christmas Music Companion Fact Book." The encyclopedia described Longfellow as a pacifist who wrote the poem to lament about the war as well as to express his grief over losing his wife.
His poem, originally titled “Christmas Bells,” was first published in 1867. According to the encyclopedia, Longfellow had intended for his words to remain only a poem.
An English organist named John Baptiste Calkin first set music to Longfellow’s words in 1872, according to the encyclopedia. The melody that is commonly sung today was created in 1956 by Johnny Marks, composer of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” according to “The LDS Christmas Songbook.”
'Carol of the Bells'
Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych wrote this carol in his small office in the early 1900s, according to “Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas” by Ace Collins. Leontovych titled his work “Shchedryk,” which means “The Generous One,” according to the book. Collins wrote that Leontovych intended the music to be sung a capella, and that the song was about embracing the beauty of God’s creations every day. According to Collins, students at Kiev University first performed the song in December 1916. Although Leontovych had not intended the song to be a holiday piece, Collins wrote, its timing positioned it as such.
Soon after the song’s debut, Vladimir Lenin rose to power, and as the Soviet Union took hold, “Shchedryk” lost popularity in Ukraine, according to Collins.
Years later, Collins wrote, the song was rediscovered by Peter Wilhousky, an arranger for the NBC radio network’s symphony orchestra, who found “Shchedryk” when he was looking for new music to air for Christmas. Wilhousky was reminded of handbells when he heard the melody, and he wrote lyrics to that theme and rearranged the melody for performance by an orchestra.
Wilhousky aired the orchestral version on NBC radio in the middle of the Great Depression, according to Collins, who wrote that within two years, “the song became one of the most popular holiday sheet music compositions in the world.”
‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’
Robert May wrote this tale about a reindeer that gets to lead Santa’s sleigh in 1939. May worked in advertising for a department store in Chicago called Montgomery Ward and Company, according to a History Channel article commemorating the 75th anniversary of “Rudolph.” In the article, Christopher Klein wrote that during the Christmas season, the department store owners would buy and give away coloring books for children. To save money, May’s boss asked him to create his own story for the store to distribute.
The writing of the story took place during an emotionally difficult time for May, Klein wrote. May’s wife had cancer and her health was deteriorating. In July of 1939, she passed away. May immersed himself in the story of “Rudolph,” finishing a month later. Klein mentioned how May later reflected and wrote about that challenging time, writing that he “needed Rudolph (then) more than ever.”
According to Klein’s article, May based Rudolph’s story on the existing tale of the ugly duckling. The department store distributed almost 2.4 million copies of the book in 1939.
Ten years later, in 1949, May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, put music to the song, according to Klein’s article. Gene Autry first introduced the song at Madison Square Garden in 1949, according to "The LDS Christmas Songbook."
‘The Christmas Song’
This song was written in 1946 on one of the hottest days in California on record, according to “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas,” also by Collins.
Songwriter Bob Wells and singer Mel Torme had been assigned the task of producing title songs for two movies, Collins wrote. When Torme arrived at Wells’ home, he found a notepad on the piano with four phrases scribbled across the paper: “Chestnuts roasting,” “Jack Frost nipping,” “Yuletide carols” and “Folks dressed up like Eskimos.”
Wells wasn’t planning on writing a song, according to Collins, and was simply trying to cool off on a hot day by creating these wintry phrases. Torme, however, saw a song in Wells’ writing, and 40 minutes later, the two musicians created what Collins called “one of the most famous modern-day Christmas songs.”
In circumstances similar to those surrounding the writing of “The Christmas Song,” Leroy Anderson first got the idea for "Sleigh Ride" in a July heat wave in 1946, according to the Leroy Anderson Foundation’s website. He completed the song, which was solely an instrumental work, in 1948, according to the website. The Boston Pops Orchestra first performed “Sleigh Ride” in 1949, and it has since become a signature song for the group with its use of bells, clip-clops and horse whinnies, according to “The LDS Christmas Songbook.”
According to the website, Anderson did not intend for the song to be a Christmas tune in particular, but rather envisioned “conveying the entire winter season through the imagery of a sleigh ride.”
Mitchell Parish acknowledged Anderson’s intentions when he added lyrics to the song in 1950 and not once referenced the word "Christmas." According to the website, the song is ranked as one of the 10 most popular Christmas pieces worldwide.
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