I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day – The Christmas Carol Inspired by Grief

In July of 1861, Fannie Elizabeth Appleton, the wife of the famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, tragically died. She had been sealing envelopes with hot wax which sparked a flame which caught her dress on fire. Henry tried to extinguish the flames, first with a rug and then with his own body, but Fannie had already suffered severe burns. She died the next morning. Henry was also badly burned, so much that he was unable to attend his wife’s funeral. Because of his burns, he stopped shaving and grew a beard that became his trademark. Henry’s grief was so overwhelming that he believed he was going to end up in an asylum.

Two years later, in March of 1863, Henry’s 18 year old son Charles Appleton Longfellow secretly boarded a train in Cambridge, Massachusetts that was bound for Washington D.C. He enlisted in the Union Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.

On December 1st of that same year, Henry was dining alone at his home when he received a telegram with the news that his son Charles had been severely wounded four days earlier in the battle of the Mine Run Campaign. Charley, as he was called, had been shot through the left shoulder. He avoided paralysis by less than an inch. Henry and his Charley’s younger brother Ernest traveled to Washington D.C. where they learned that, although serious, Charley’s wounds were not as serious as they had initially been told.

Three weeks later, on Christmas Day, 1863, Henry was overwhelmed by loss. He was a 57 year old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly killed or paralyzed as he fought for a country that was at war with itself. To capture the way he felt, Henry wrote a poem he titled I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. That day, he had heard the Christmas bells ringing in Cambridge and he had listened as people sang “peace on earth.” However, the world he observed was filled with injustice and violence that mocked the truthfulness of the optimistic outlook. The theme continues throughout the poem, finally leading the listener to a settlement of confident hope that even in the midst of bleak despair, that God is alive and faithful and that His righteousness will prevail.

Click here to hear an interesting arrangement of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Charlene Closshey.

*Image courtesy of Aaron Burden and Unsplash

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus – the Christmas Carol Crafted from a Prayer

It was 1744 and Charles Wesley was frustrated. The impoverished world around him was filled with homeless people, orphaned children, and the Scroogelike indifference of Christians to the suffering of the lower class. Looking for inspiration, he searched the scriptures and came across the following words: “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will find this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:7). 

After reading the scripture, Wesley wrote the following prayer: “Born Your people to deliver, born a child and yet a King, born to reign in us forever, now Your gracious kingdom bring.” Wesley soon adapted the prayer into a hymn he titled Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus which expressed a hope for the newborn Christ to eventually come again and set all things right. He published it in his own Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord hymnal.

Over a century later, the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon based around Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus. Spurgeon stated that he did so to “Illustrate the point that very few are ‘born king’ and that Jesus was the only one who had been born king without being a prince.” The sermon popularized the song and was most likely the reason it made its way into the hymnals of multiple denominations. 

Click here to hear Meredith Andrews sing Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.

*Image courtesy of Omar Lopez and Unsplash

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com

The 12 Days of Christmas – The Christmas Song with Surprising Symbolism

The 12 Days of Christmas is a fun song that people of all ages sing at Christmastime. Until recently, I thought it was simply about a lucky guy whose true love gave him lots of presents. However, there was a time when The 12 Days of Christmas was used as an undercover teaching tool for children in the Catholic Church.

In the 16th century, the Church of England was the only legal church in England. If Catholics were going to disciple their children in their faith and practice, they had to do so in secret. Even their lessons of doctrine and faith had to be reproduced by secret code. Even though The 12 Days of Christmas appears to be without purpose, it actually taught important doctrinal lessons. The 12 days marked the time between Christmas Day and Epiphany, when it is celebrated that the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem. The “true love” mentioned in the song is not speaking of a romantic love interest, but of the Lord’s love for each of us. Each day also has an undercover spiritual meaning. I’ll list them below as succinctly as possible:

1st Day of Christmas – The partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus, who gave his life for us, much as a mother partridge would do for her chicks. The pear tree also symbolizes the cross. 

2nd Day of Christmas – The two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Doves are symbols of peace and truth as the Bible conveys.

3rd Day of Christmas – The three French hens represent the gold, frankincense, and myrrh presented to Jesus by the wise men. In the olden days, if a meal served three French hens, it was fit for a king. 

4th Day of Christmas – The four calling birds represent the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) which cry out the story of Jesus for all to hear.

5th Day of Christmas – The five golden rings represent the five Old Testament books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy which showed not only the fall of man but gave hope that a Savior would come and offer a pathway to salvation.

6th Day of Christmas – The six geese a-laying represent the six days of Creation. The eggs are a symbol of new life.

7th Day of Christmas – The Seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Romans 12:6-8 (Prophecy, Service, Teaching, Encouragement, Giving, Leadership, and Mercy). Children were often taught that when you follow the ways of the Lord, the gifts of the spirit moved in your life as easily as a swan swam on the water.

8th Day of Christmas – The Eight maids a-milking represent the common folk Jesus came to save who are follow the eight beatitudes (the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker, and the righteous.)

9th Day of Christmas – The Nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Dancing represented the joy of serving Christ.

10th Day of Christmas – The ten lords a-leaping represent the 10 Commandments because a lord was supposed to be just and noble.  

11th Day of Christmas – The eleven pipers piping represent the 12 Disciples of Jesus minus Judas who fell away. They led the way in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

12th Day of Christmas – The twelve drummers drumming represent the dozen elements found in the Apostles’ Creed (You can read it here.) The drum symbolized the daily practice and rhythm of spiritual disciplines. 

Fortunately, the time finally came in history when Catholicism was no longer a crime in England. However, by the time that happened, most people didn’t understand the undercover meanings behind the days and the gifts. Therefore, the song is most often thought of as a whimsical and fun Christmas song.

Click here to hear one of my favorite renditions of the 12 Days of Christmas by John Denver and the Muppets.

*Image courtesy of Chris Sowder and Unsplash.

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com 

Angels We Have Heard On High

Anonymous. That sums up the lyricist and composer of the Christmas carol Angels We Have Heard on High. As much as I love the carol, especially listening to people pronounce “in excelsis deo” in different ways, I was about to pass on learning the story behind the song. What kind of story could there be behind an anonymous song anyway? Well, there is one, and even though it’s different, it is interesting. 

Angels We Have Heard On High is actually the English translation of Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes. The lyrics of the original French song tell the story of the birth of Jesus and an angel choir that shared the good news of His birth with the shepherds who were watching o’er their flocks by night. 

The biblical shepherds from the biblical account of Jesus’ birth must have struck a chord with the Medieval shepherds of southern France. According to legend, the shepherds in the hills of southern France had a Christmas Eve custom of calling out to one another by singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” The tune they sang as they called out was from a Medieval Latin chorale, but it is believed to have adapted into the chorus of the Angels We Have Heard On High carol we still sing today. 

The French of that southern region also have a tradition known as the creche where handmade nativity scenes are placed in homes, town squares, parks, and other public areas. The nativity characters are clay figures called santons. Often, families within communities work diligently to craft the nativity scene figures. In some areas, villagers themselves even dress as shepherds, forming a procession to the church building where the nativity scenes are assembled, the characters are placed, and the people sing Christmas carols, always being careful to include the French favorite Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes or Angels We Have Heard On High.

Not too shabby for an anonymous carol. 

Click here to hear a great version of Angels We Have Heard On High by Pentatonix.

*Image courtesy of Gritte and Unsplash

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com 

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear – the Christmas Carol Inspired by Scripture

It was 1849 in Wayland, Massachusetts. Dr. Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister, was preparing his Christmas Eve sermon. Despite his denominational affiliation, Sears believed Jesus was the Son of God and died on a cross for the sins of the world. He also believed that Christians should reach out of the lost, the helpless, and the poor. Sears found himself depressed because of the slavery debate and the level of poverty within his own community and across the nation. This was all heavy on his mind as he wrote his sermon. He wondered how he could write about the Light of the world when the world seemed so very dark.

As Sears struggled with his sermon, he opened his Bible to Luke 2:8-11 and read these words: “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

After contemplating that moment in time, Sears wrote a five verse poem titled It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. That Christmas Eve, he ended his sermon with the words of that poem. Later, a music critic named Richard Willis found the poem, thought that it needed to be a Christmas carol, and added the tune we know and love today. A few traveling musical groups picked the song up, but it didn’t grow in popularity until the 20th century when the carol was added to several denominational hymnals. Now, it is considered one of the deepest and theologically rich carols Christians sing today.

Click here to hear Josh Groban sing It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

*Image courtesy of Adrian Dascal and Unsplash

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com

Welcome To Our World – The Christmas Song That’s Becoming A Modern Classic

I never paid much attention to the song Welcome To Our World before this year. However, after I began posting about Christmas Carols, a friend told me it was her favorite Christmas song and suggested I give it a listen. So, I played it and truly paid attention to the song that evening. At first, I was intrigued. Soon after, I was slightly emotional.

Chris Rice first published Welcome To Our World in 1995. It is contemporary in style but feels like a traditional hymn. The song has an O Come, O Come Emmanuel feel because it speaks from a first century perspective. However, the part that stirs me is where the song shows Jesus’ preparation for death so soon after at his birth:

“Fragile fingers sent to heal us, Tender brow prepared for thorns,

Tiny heart whose blood will save us, Unto us is born. Unto us is born.


Of his song, Chris Rice shared the following thoughts in a CCM interview: “Welcome to Our World deals with the reality that God invaded our planet and became one of us, which is just astounding to me. I wrote about God coming to our world in a naive way, knowing that it’s not ours anyway. It’s God’s. The thoughts that went through my head were about how tiny Jesus was and how He came into the world just like the rest of us. How much did Jesus know at that point? When Jesus was human flesh, was He aware at all that He was really God, or did He just accept all the limitations and start from scratch? I thought of that progression, and about the fact that He took on what He did so we would be able to find God and be found by God.” 

I must say, Welcome To Our World is now one of my favorite Christmas songs. If you’ve never heard the song, why not click on the link below and listen to it now? Let me know what you think. 

Click here to hear Chris Rice sing Welcome to Our World. 

*Image courtesy of Rod Long and Unsplash

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com

I Wonder As I Wander – The Christmas Folk Song Discovered By Chance

The Christmas folk song, I Wonder As I Wander, was very aptly named. It is attributed to John Jacob Niles who wandered through the towns and country roads of the Appalachian mountains in search of original folk songs. The library of work Niles uncovered is perhaps one of the most important in all of music history. I Wonder As I Wander may be the best testimony of his years of hard work.

One cold December day, John Jacob Niles visited the town of Murphy, North Carolina. As Niles watched and listened, he could hear the snow crunching under the feet of children who peered into shops displaying a few small toys. As he glanced up and down the street, he saw a young blond girl with a dirty face sitting by herself on a bench. Unaware that Niles was listening, the girl was singing a beautiful song with an intriguing melody and lyrics. 

When the little girl finished singing, Niles introduced himself and learned that her name was Annie Morgan. She said she learned the song from her mother who had learned it from her grandmother. The girl’s family were poor revivalists and were camping in the town square, cooking their food in the open and hanging their wash from the monuments. Learning that her family was about to be evicted from their makeshift home, Niles paid Annie 25 cents to sing him the song again, which she did as Niles furiously transcribed words and music on paper. Before the day was over, she had sung the song for Niles eight times. Annie left with two dollars in her pocket which probably meant a lot to her family that day. 

John Jacob Niles recognized the beautiful simplicity of the song, which to him combined the passion of the American spiritual with the irony of the Irish ballad. Niles published and recorded I Wonder As I Wander in the years before World War II. People everywhere were awed by his chance meeting with the little girl and the discovery of the song. Even though the song contributed to his own success, Niles was always careful to point out that his version and performance could never compare with Annie Morgan’s original performance as she sat alone on a bench in the snow of the North Carolina mountains.

Click here to hear Vanessa Williams sing I Wonder as I Wander

*Image courtesy of Kostian Li and Unsplash

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com

Angels From the Realms of Glory – The Christmas Carol Written By The Political Extremist

James Montgomery was born in Scotland to Irish Moravian missionaries in 1771. While his parents went to the West Indies to do evangelistic work, James was sent to live in a Moravian community in Ireland. At the age of seven, he was enrolled at Fulneck Seminary, a Moravian boarding school in Yorkshire, England. Inspired by the hymns he heard, James began writing poetry at the age of ten. 

Writing poems and stories was basically all James Montgomery enjoyed during his time in school. Nothing else interested him. A few years later, the parents James hardly knew died on the mission field. James flunked out of seminary, became a baker’s assistant for a brief time, and then wandered from place to place. By the time he was twenty, he was basically homeless, sometimes working, often not, living wherever he could and with whomever he could. Fortunately, an editor at The Sheffield Register noticed James’ writing ability and gave him a job.

James later became editor of the paper when the previous editor had to flee the country because of his fear of political persecution. He changed the name of the paper to the Sheffield Iris and served as its editor for 31 years. When James wasn’t serving as editor of the paper, he was reading his Bible in an attempt to understand why his parents felt led to move around the world to serve God. 

Even though most of his editorials were political in nature, he published a different type of article on December 24, 1816. Readers opened their paper and read the following words:

Angels from the realms of glory, Wing your flight o’er all the earth;

Ye who sang creation’s story now proclaim Messiah’s birth.

Come and worship, come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn King.

Shepherds in the fields abiding, Watching o’er your flocks by night,

God with man is now residing, Yonder shines the infant light.

Come and worship, come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn King.

Sages, leave your contemplations, Brighter visions beam afar;

Seek the great Desire of nations, Ye have seen His natal star.

Come and worship, come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn King. 

Saints before the altar bending, Watching long in hope and fear.

Suddenly the Lord, descending, In his temple shall appear.

Come and worship, come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn King.

James Montgomery eventually returned to the Moravian Church and became an avid writer of carols and hymns. In fact, he continued to publish hymns until his death in 1854.

Click here to hear Angels From the Realms of Glory by Reawaken.

*Image courtesy of Luke Stackpoole and Unsplash.**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com

Good King Winceslas: The Christmas Carol About A Kind Man

Kindness is rare these days, but in the 10th century, Good King Wenceslas, the Duke of Bohemia (in what is now the Czech Republic) was known for his kindness. His father converted to Christianity from paganism, but his mother, being the daughter of a pagan tribal chief, did not. His father died when Wenceslas was 13 and his mother immediately tried to turn him away from his faith in Christ. Wenceslas resisted and had her exiled when he became king at 18. 

Wenceslas was known far and wide for his acts of kindness. One biographer wrote this of his kind deeds: 

“Rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”

Wenceslas was loved by his people and he ruled them for a decade. However, at the young age of 28, Wenceslas was assassinated on his way to church by his brother. Fortunately, as a martyr, his influence lived on. He was canonized by the Catholic Church and is now the patron saint of the Czech state.

The carol Good King Wenceslas was written down in 1853 by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale. As the story and the song tells, Wenceslas sees a poor man collecting wood on a cold December 26th evening, when the Feast of St. Stephen is celebrated. Wenceslas finds out where the poor man lives, then along with his servant, he gathers meat, drink, and firewood and delivers it to the poor man’s home. On the way, his servant almost gives up because of the cold, but Wenceslas directs him to walk directly behind him. Miraculously, the servant feels the warmth of Wenceslas as he walks in the footprints of his master. The carol ends with a call to all Christians to bless the poor, and in doing so, find true blessings for themselves.

Even though Good King Wenceslas is not a song directly about Jesus, it is a song about someone who was Christlike at Christmastime. We could all learn a lesson from Wenceslas that kindness is a virtue worth keeping, especially if we are blessed with the means to bless others.

Click here to hear Bing Crosby sing Good King Wenceslas 

*Photo courtesy of Nathan Lemon and Unsplash

The Little Drummer Boy, The Christmas Carol That Caused A Legal Battle

When I was in second grade, I sang The Little Drummer Boy as a solo because I was the only child in my grade who knew the words. I still love the song, but there are three things that intrigue me about it. First, how did the ox and lamb keep time? I always envision them with metronomes, snapping their hooves to the beat. Second, living in New Orleans for many years, it sounds as if the drummer is comparing himself to a sandwich when he sings, “I am a Poor Boy too.” Finally, I’m amazed at the story of how the song came to be.

The Little Drummer Boy is the fictional story of a boy who couldn’t afford a gift for baby Jesus. Instead, he played his drum at the manger, once Mary nodded her approval that is. At the end of the song, Jesus smiles at the drummer boy, causing us to smile as well. 

In 1941, Katherine K. Davis wrote the words and music to The Little Drummer boy which she called The Carol of the Drum. Some claim she translated an old Czech carol. Others say she adapted the song from an old French legend where a juggler performs for a statue of Mary. Still others say she arranged an existing song with a small to medium sized group of musicians and composers. However, it seems the most likely story is that she wrote the song completely on her own while trying to take a nap. She tried to rest but the words and tune wouldn’t leave her alone. So, she rose and wrote most of the song in one sitting.

Davis finished the song, sent it off for publication, but never really heard much about it. Assuming it was rejected, she went on with her life. Several years later, a friend called her and said, “Your carol is on the radio. I hear it all the time.” Davis asked, “What carol?” Her friend stated, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Davis replied, “I never wrote a carol with that name. On which station did you hear the song?” Her friend paused then replied, “All of them.”

Davis turned on her radio and soon heard a beautiful recording of her song performed by the Trapp Family Singers (Yes, the ones from the Sound of Music). She called the radio station and said, “That’s my carol you’re broadcasting.” They replied that the carol had several names attached to it, but not hers. After some legal intervention, Davis finally received the credit she deserved for writing and composing The Little Drummer Boy. In 1968, the song was made into a claymation animated movie. Eight years later, Sherwood Elementary School in Pensacola, Florida endured my performance of the song.

Pa rum pum pum-pum.

Click here to hear The Trapp Family Singers perform The Carol of the Drum (a.k.a. The Little Drummer Boy)

Click here to hear For King and Country perform The Little Drummer Boy.

Click here to watch the animated movie based on the song.

*Image courtesy of Imir Yalon and Unsplash