The origins of three of our favourite Christmas carols
by David Hall
I love Christmas carols, and the way some of them were inspired has always given them even more of a special reason for singing them.
In the tiny village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, in the Austrian Alps, actors presenting a Christmas play discovered that the church organ was not working and so decided to hold their presentation in a local home. But as the assistant minister of the church, Josef Mohr, listened to their production, his mind began to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.
As he left the meeting, overlooking the village, words came into his mind – the verse of Silent Night, Holy Night. He presented the words to the church organist, Franz Gruber, a teacher who also wrote songs. It is believed that on the same day he managed to put music to the words.
On Christmas Eve 1818, the pair sang the song to the congregation, to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar. The carol became an instant favourite. Austrian concert singers the Strasser Sisters included it in their European concerts and it was translated into English by Jane Campbell in 1863.
Not only was it declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011, but During the First World War soldiers from both sides joined in its singing during a miraculous Christmas Day of peace of 1914.
The popular carol O Come All Ye Faithful was originally written in Latin but its author, John Francis Wade, could speak several languages and being English could well have created the English version. He was a scribe – a writer who would write or copy anything people wanted copying. In mid 1700s, with printing in its infancy, he was also able to copy music, and in 1750 he was asked to produce a document for a college in Lisbon, Portugal, and included in it the Latin carol.
He also composed the tune which, when the then Duke of Leeds heard it in 1785, was introduced to a singing group that he conducted and it became popular, translated in a number of languages. In 1852 Canon Frederick Oakley, of Shrewsbury, gave it the title it is now well known as, with a verse he added: “Amen, Lord we bless thee, Born for our salvation, O Jesus! Forever be thy name adored; Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing…”
My third carol was written by the Rev Phillips Brooks, who spent Christmas in 1865, in Bethlehem. What he saw there stayed in his memory and three years later he wrote O Little Town of Bethlehemfor the youngsters in the Sunday school he ran.
Towering over six feet six inches high – and portly with it – Brooks was the minister of the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.
It is said that he interrupted his sermon, writing as he listened to the organist practising Christmas music and, recalling the scenes in Bethlehem, wrote four verses.
He then asked the organist, Lewis Redner, to put it to music which he did – but not until the last minute.
Without any inspiration he was woken at midnight on Christmas Eve by what he thought were angelic voices. The music, he said “seemed to come down from heaven.” He noted the melody and went back to sleep, finishing it the following morning in time to bring it to the Sunday school on Christmas Day 1868.
There are, or course, many carols – all of which are loved and sung with enthusiasm in congregations all over the world. Many are written under unusual circumstances but these three are among my favourites – and not just mine.