Where do MORE of our favorite Christmas songs come from? The answer involves Thanksgiving sleigh rides, a department store giveaway, and a pilgrimage to Israel.
(This is part 2. Read part 1 here.)
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Many Christmas songs are written by those who imagine what Bethlehem might have been like on the night Christ was born. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was inspired by a Christmas Eve service actually held in Bethlehem.
Phillips Brooks was highly esteemed in matters of both faith and intellect, as an Episcopalian preacher who had earned a doctorate of divinity from Oxford, taught at Yale, and publicly advocated against slavery during the Civil War. He was known to be quite reserved and found an outlet to express his feelings through writing verse. Hymns were a major part of his spiritual upbringing, as his parents had each child in the family learn a new hymn each Sunday and recite it for the family. Wrote one biographer, “These hymns Phillips carried in his mind as so much mental and spiritual furniture, or as germs of thought; they often reappeared in his sermons, as he became aware of some deeper meaning in the old familiar lines.” He also said that “the language of sacred hymns learned in childhood and forever ringing in his ears” was a means through which “he had felt the touch of Christ.”
In 1865, Brooks embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and saw the fields where the shepherds saw the star. He participated in a five-hour long Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity and was profoundly moved by the experience.
In 1868, with the memory of Christmas in Bethlehem still “singing in [his soul],” Brooks channeled his feelings about the experience into a song for the Christmas service at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, where he was the rector. He asked organist Lewis Redner to set the words to music. Redner struggled to come up with just the right tune. On the night before the Christmas service at their church, Redner wrote, “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.” The children’s choir performed the song, and Brooks and Redner thought that would be the end of it.
But the owner of a bookstore a few streets down began to print the carol on leaflets for sale. In 1874, a Reverend Huntington of All Saints’ Church in Massachusetts asked for permission to reprint the song in a Sunday school hymn book and named the tune “St. Louis.” The song gradually gained recognition and made its way into official hymn books of many different denominations.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the words were set to the tune “Forest Green” by Ralph Vaughan Williams and published in the 1906 English Hymnal. To this day, those in England and Ireland sing this version, while North Americans prefer Redner’s melody.
The town of Medford, Massachusetts, had an annual sleigh race around Thanksgiving. In 1850, James Lord Pierpont wrote a song to commemorate the Thanksgiving tradition and published it in 1857 as “One Horse Open Sleigh.” Reportedly, he penned the song in a tavern that was home to the one piano in town and may have lifted some lines from a minstrel song by Stephen Foster.
It actually has two additional verses that you may not know, telling the story of a young couple on a sleigh ride who tip their sleigh into a snowdrift (and they’re still “laughing all the way!”).
The song was not widely popular at first and remained a local phenomenon, but the phonograph record changed that. The song was first recorded on an Edison cylinder in 1898. Drawing upon the cold weather imagery, musicians and choirs began to incorporate it into their rotations of Christmas songs, and it eventually became closely tied to the Christmas season rather than Thanksgiving. Finally, the radio propelled “Jingle Bells” to be consistently one of the most popular Christmas songs in the country.
“Jingle Bells” was also the first song broadcast from space. On December 6, 1965, an astronaut aboard Gemini 6 performed “Jingle Bells” on a harmonica as a prank on Mission Control.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
In 1939, the Great Depression was beginning to fade, but World War II was lurking on the horizon. The Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store was looking to cut costs for its annual holiday giveaway, which featured children’s coloring books, while still spreading Christmas cheer in an uncertain environment. The marketing department was tasked to come up with something, and employee Robert L. May wrote an original Christmas storybook with his four-year-old daughter in mind.
According to History.com, “As he peered out at the thick fog that had drifted off Lake Michigan, May came up with the idea of a misfit reindeer ostracized because of his luminescent nose, who used his physical abnormality to guide Santa’s sleigh and save Christmas.”
May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was a professional songwriter and later wrote hits like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Nearly ten years after May wrote his storybook, Marks adapted the story into a Christmas song. Gene Autry, better known as the “Singing Cowboy,” picked up the song in 1949, and his recording sold over 2 million units in a year. This made it the second most successful Christmas record ever, just after Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
Since May had written the story while on the job at Montgomery Ward, the department store owned the copyright to all things Rudolph. When May’s wife died of a terminal illness in 1947, he was left as a single parent with crippling medical debt. The president of Montgomery Ward signed over 100% of the “Rudolph” copyright to May, and with the royalties, he was able to pay off his debt and live comfortably for the rest of his life.
Once in Royal David’s City
Cecil Francis Humphreys Alexander was a prolific hymnwriter from a young age. By the time she was 22, several of her texts had been published in the hymnbook of the Church of Ireland. She was born in Dublin in 1818, and her influence spread all over Ireland as she accompanied her husband, who was the bishop of the Church of Ireland and later an archbishop, on his travels. Alexander took every opportunity to engage in the ministry of the church and work with children. She also gave much of her life to charity work and social causes.
Her poem “Once in Royal David’s City” first appeared in the collection Hymns for Little Children in 1848. The goal of this book was to explain the Apostles’ Creed in cheerful, simple terms for the benefit of children. “Once in Royal David’s City” elaborates on the line of the Apostles’ Creed “born of the Virgin Mary.” Two other well-known hymns were also published in this book: “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (to explain “creator of heaven and earth”) and “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (to illuminate “was crucified, died, and was buried”). The proceeds from the hymnal were used to build the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.
Henry John Gauntlett, an organist at several churches in London, composed the music for the most well-known version of the song in 1849. The song caught on quickly and became part of the Christmas liturgical sections of hymnbooks in most Christian denominations.
Later verses of the song have sparked controversy over their portrayal of the baby Jesus as “weak” and “helpless.” Critics have suggested that Alexander was writing in a Victorian-era context in which a patronizing tone was taken toward children, and children were to be seen and not heard. Her lyrics may well have reflected Victorian child-rearing principles rather than providing a scripturally based account of the Nativity scene—but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Christmas song that does get everything right, and the Son of God in the flesh surely did experience what it was like to have human feelings and experiences.
On Christmas Eve, English speakers around the world tune in to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast from King’s College in Cambridge. This tradition began in 1918, was first broadcast in 1928, and is now heard by millions around the world. In 1919, the second year of the festival, the organist composed an arrangement of “Once in Royal David’s City” as a processional hymn. The first verse is an a cappella solo by a boy chorister, with the organ and choir joining in for the rest of the song. It is a high honor to be chosen for the solo—to be the voice that rings in the spirit of Christmas in the hearts of people all around the world.
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History.com editors. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the #1 song on the U.S. pop charts.” History, January 6, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeer-is-the-1-song-on-the-u-s-pop-charts.
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Riggle, Emma. “The Stories of Twelve Famous Carols.” All Classical Portland, December 20, 2019. https://www.allclassical.org/the-stories-of-twelve-famous-carols/.
Roland, Elisa. “Here’s the Surprising History Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols.”Reader’s Digest, October 21, 2021. https://www.rd.com/list/history-behind-christmas-carols/.
The Hymns and Carols of Christmas. “Once in Royal David’s City.” http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/once_in_royal_davids_city.htm.