The First Noel – The Christmas Song With The French Name

Being a song that was passed down orally, The First Noel may date to the 13th or 14th century. Some believe the song was inspired by a dramatization of the Christmas Story where actors would act out vignettes as they sang. The song does tell the story of Jesus’ birth from Matthew 2 and Luke 2, and would have worked well as a dramatized song with a repeating chorus. 

The word “Noel” is French for “Christmas” which is derived from the Latin word “Natalis,” meaning “Birthday.” Even though “Noel” works well for the chorus of The First Noel, it’s strange to consider that when the ancient singers arrived at the chorus of each verse that they were simply singing, “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas….” 

The First Noel was first published by Davies Gilbert in 1823 in Some Ancient Christmas Carols. Ten years later, William Sandys published the song in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern increased the popularity and prominence of the carol. The song originally had nine stanzas, but five are most commonly used today. In most recordings, artists rarely perform more than two or three verses which is a shame because it causes people to miss out on the story of the song. Though the angels appear to the shepherds in the first verse, most of the carol focuses on the journey of the wise men, giving the carol an Epiphany focus. The fourth verse is one of my favorites: 

“This Star drew nigh to the Northwest; O’er Bethlehem it took it’s rest.

And there it did both stop and stay, Right over the place where Jesus lay.”

Click here to read all nine verses of The First Noel.

Click here to hear Claire Crosby and Family sing The First Noel

*Image courtesy of Jon Tyson and Unsplash
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God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – The Christmas Carol That Angered Scrooge

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is one of the oldest Christmas carols still popular. It was most likely first published in 1760 but it was centuries old by this time. The lyrics, sung in a minor key, center around the joy experienced at the news of Christ’s birth – Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O tidings of comfort and joy!”

The first line is unusual to modern English speakers because it’s not a phrase we typically use. Different sources give different meanings for the first phrase of the song. However, most commonly, the word “rest” is translated as “keep” and the word “merry” is translated as “harmony” or “in harmony.” With this understanding, “God Rest Ye Merry” probably really means something like “May God keep you in peace” or “God keep you in harmony.

The Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen even made an appearance in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol when Scrooge terrifies carolers with his foul temper: 

“At the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’, Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”

It’s interesting that Scrooge attacks the carolers as they are singing the very lyrics he most needs to hear – “Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.” As the song states, regardless of social class or distinction, the love and power that exists in the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is far greater than anything that could possibly disturb or dismay us. If only Scrooge would have heeded the words to the song, he could have saved himself from a very disturbing evening.

Click here to hear God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by Rend Collective

*Image courtesy of S&B Vonlanthan and Unsplash

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The Christmas Carol That Was Sampled (possibly) by an 80’s Rock Band

Adeste Fideles, is a Latin hymn which is translated O Come, All Ye Faithful. The official authorship has been given to John Francis Wade (1711-1786), whose name is included on most if not all of the earliest manuscripts. Even so, the lyrics and tune appear to be the result of a collaboration of several people over hundreds of years, although what we sing today is a 19th century version of an 18th century compilation.

Some believe that Adeste Fideles is not actually about Christ, but is instead about Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of James II, England’s last Catholic king. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie led a rebellion to restore the Catholic House of Stuart to the English throne. Fideles is believed to mean Faithful Catholic Jacobites. Bethlehem is also believed to be a term for England. If this is true, the song is actually a war cry shouting out, “Come and Behold Him, Born the King of the English.” 

More recently, others believe that the 1980’s rock band Twisted Sister sampled the melody of their biggest hit, We’re Not Gonna Take It from O Come, All Ye Faithful. The melodies of the songs are very similar, but it’s purely coincidental. Jay Jay French, lead guitarist of Twisted Sister stated in a radio interview that the band discovered the similarities and recorded a version of O Come, All Ye Faithful for their Christmas album A Twisted Christmas. 

I suppose I can ignore the possibility of O Come, All Ye Faithful having its origins with Bonnie Prince Charlie if it results in a song that God can use to get a rock group like Twisted Sister to sing “O Come, Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!”

Click here to hear Adeste Fideles by Andrea Bocelli

Click here to hear O Come, All Ye Faithful by Tasha Cobbs

Click here to hear O Come, All Ye Faithful by Twisted Sister 

*Image courtesy of Gareth Harper and Unsplash.

The Christmas Carol Written From Personal Experience

Pastor Phillips Brooks was a staunch abolitionist, which is probably why he was asked to speak at the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln. However, he is most remembered for writing the lyrics to the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem.

Shortly after the American Civil War, Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land which extended through the Christmas holidays. On Christmas Eve, Brooks traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback so he could attend a service in Constantine’s ancient basilica, built over the potential site of the Nativity. Of his journey, Brooks reported: “Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds…Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been.”

It was here, in the fields outside Bethlehem that Brooks first conceived of the phrase: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.” Several years later, Brooks finally completed the song and asked Lewis Redner, his organist, to write the music. The song was first performed by the children’s choir of their church. It wasn’t long before the song was included in hymnals worldwide.

Even though Phillips Brooks and his wife never had children of their own, they had a great love for children. Later in life, they met and ministered to young Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf. Brooks explained the gospel of Jesus to Keller for the first time. Keller, through her teacher and translator Anne Sullivan, said, “I’ve always known there was a God, but until now I’ve never known His name.”

Even though the third verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem was written long before Helen Keller met Phillips Brooks, it shares what the joy of salvation might have felt like to her:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. 

Click here to hear O Little Town of Bethlehem performed by Chris Tomlin.

*Image courtesy of Travis on Unsplash

The Christmas Carol That Ministered To Me

One of the sweetest Christmas carols, loved by people of all generations, is Away In A Manger. Because the author of the song was anonymous and because it was first published in a German hymnal in the mid-1800’s, people assumed the carol must have been written by Martin Luther. In fact, around the world, people began to call the song Luther’s Cradle Hymn.. However, there is no real proof of Luther’s authorship so the original source of the carol remains anonymous.

The beauty of Away In A Manger lies in its sweetness and simplicity. In a few verses, the carol shares about how God lowered Himself to be born among us in humble, crude circumstances. No wonder the lyrics ask in a sweet prayer like manner: “Be near Me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray.”

I remember praying those words many years ago when my wife and I experienced a significant loss. In the midst of my grief, I was trying to prepare to lead the musical worship for an early December service. One of the songs we were to sing was Away In A Manger. As I sang the words, sadness overwhelmed me and I broke down in tears. I prayed then sat for a long while, contemplating the lyrics of the song. Before the session was over, I had written these two new verses for Away In A Manger:

No Longer A Baby, He grew to a man

Sent to us from Heaven to fulfill God’s plan.

He died on a cross to atone for our sin

Then rose from the dead to be alive again.

This Precious Lord Jesus Is All That We Need,

If We Make Him Our Savior and Our Lord Indeed,

O Please, Wondrous Jesus, Be With Us Today,

Fill Us With Your Spirit, We Now Humbly Pray.

Click here for an interesting arrangement of Away In A Manger by Moira Della Torre.

*Image Courtesy of Kelly Sikemma and Unsplash

The Christmas Song That Is Grammatically Incorrect

It was 1984 and Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia was preparing for their well known Living Christmas Tree presentation. Dr. Jerry Falwell, asked a virtually unknown singer/songwriter/comedian named Mark Lowry to put the program together. Lowry’s plan was to connect Christmas songs with play-like dialogue. 

As Mark Lowry prepared the music and the dialogue, he shared with his mother, Bev Lowry, that he wanted to capture the true essence of the first Christmas. Bev replied, “You know, if anyone knew Jesus was virgin born, it was Mary… and her silence at the cross is proof, I think, that her story was indeed true.” Mark Lowry turned his reflections into part of the dialogue for the play, which was wildly successful. However, the words he had written continued to live on him for years. 

In 1991, after Mark Lowry joined the Gaither Vocal Band, he told Buddy Greene, a renowned songwriter who was touring with the band, about the song. Greene asked to see the lyrics so Lowry wrote them down for him. Within thirty minutes, Greene had composed the melody of Mary, Did You Know? Mark Lowry loved the tune and began making preparations to record the song. 

Some sources report a humorous debate during this time about the song between Gloria Gaither, wife of Bill Gaither, and Mark Lowry. Gloria said that the main line of the song was grammatically incorrect. She asked, “Shouldn’t the line actually be ‘Mary, do you know?’” Mark smiled and replied, “My version sings a lot better.” If you try singing the song with “do” instead of “did,” you will probably agree with Lowry.

Even though Lowry loved the song, he was concerned that the range of the song was greater than his own so he asked Michael English, fellow Gaither Vocal Band member to record the song. English agreed and released the song on his debut album. Even though the album was released in January, Mary, Did You Know? became an instant hit and has since been covered by over 500 artists. While more of a Christmas song than a Christmas carol, It has truly become a modern Christmas classic.

Click here to hear Mary, Did You Know performed by Mark Lowry and Voctave

*Photo courtesy of Phil Hearing and Unsplash

The Christmas Carol That Needed A Little Help

The Christmas Carol That Needed A Little Help

Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, was an early leader in the Methodist Church. It has been reported that in his lifetime, he wrote over 6,000 hymns in order to teach the poor and illiterate sound doctrine. One Christmas day, as he walked to church, he was inspired by the sounds of the London church bells to write a new Christmas Carol. It was then that he quickly penned the lyrics to “Hark, How All the Welkin Rings.”

Charles Wesley’s new carol first appeared in 1739 in Hymns and Sacred Songs. It was intended to be sung to EASTER HYMN, the tune of Christ the Lord is Risen Today.

Here are the first two verses of the original song: 

Hark, how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of kings;

Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”

Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies;

Universal nature say, “Christ the Lord is born today!”

Yeah, kind of different, huh?

A few years later, George Whitefield, a student turned colleague turned rival of John and Charles Wesley, adapted the lyrics into the version we now sing. Whitefield selected a new tune titled MENDELSSOHN and He published the newly revised version in 1757 under its new title Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. 

Although Whitefield rarely gets credit for the changes, his contributions to the carol helped leave a wonderfully revised version the whole world seems to prefer. 

Listen to both versions below and judge for yourself.

Click here to hear Hark! The Herald Angels Sing performed by Nat King Cole

Click here to hear Hark, How All the Welkin Rings performed by the Boys of Worcester Cathedral Choir. 
*Image courtesy of Chad Madden and Unsplash

The Christmas Carol Written by a Former Nazi Soldier

In October, 1962, there was a 14 day standoff between both the Soviet Union and Cuba and the United States. The Soviets had been spotted constructing bases for ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. If the missiles had launched from these bases, they could strike anywhere in the continental United States. A confrontation was only averted when the bases and missiles were dismantled at the insistence of the President of the United States. During the standoff, however, neither side acted. If they had, there could very well have been mass nuclear destruction in all three countries. 

During this standoff, composer and lyricist Noel Regney began struggling with severe depression and flashbacks from World War II. Regney had been drafted into the Nazi army where he was forced to serve until he escaped and joined a group of French Resistance fighters. He later moved to Manhattan where he worked in the music industry. One day, as he walked the streets of New York, he noticed mothers pushing their babies in strollers. This led him to think about a time when God had given men the opportunity for true peace. Regney went home and penned the lyrics to the song Do You Hear What I Hear? He took the lyrics to his wife, Gloria Shayne, who composed the melody and the musical accompaniment. The song was recorded that November, released in December, and sold 25 million copies during its first holiday season. 

In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Regney said, “I am amazed that people can think they know the song – and not know it is a prayer for peace. But we are bombarded by sound and our attention spans are so short that we now listen only to catchy beginnings.”

It’s quite possible that Do You Hear What I Hear? isn’t a Christmas song at all, but simply a song about peace clothed in Christmas symbolism. Some believe the star “with the tail as big as a kite” actually represents a missile with great exhaust. Others claim that the “child who shivers in the cold” is not one child but poor children everywhere (to whom we should bring silver and gold). Hmm… I don’t know. 

Whatever you believe about the song, praying for peace is a good thing. God the Father is sometimes described as Jehovah Shalom, the God of peace and Jesus, in Isaiah 9:6 is called the Prince of Peace. This Christmas, may we all pray to the God of Peace for true peace to come to our cities, our countries, and our world. 

Click here to hear Do You Hear What I Hear? performed by Bing Crosby.

*Photo courtesy of Diego PH and Unsplash

The Christmas Carol That Saved Christmas Eve

Silent Night – The Christmas Carol that Saved Christmas Eve

It was Christmas Eve, 1818, and Pastor Joseph Mohr was getting nervous. For the first time in history, it looked as if it was going to be a Silent Night at the Christmas Eve service at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorff, Austria. Recent flooding from the Salzach River had put their church organ out of commission and he only had a few hours to come up with a musical alternative. He needed help, and he needed it fast.

Surely filled with anxiety, Mohr walked through the cold to visit his friend Franz Gruber, a school teacher and choir master, who lived in the neighboring town of Arnsdorf bei Laufen. With him, Mohr brought a poem he had written two years prior when walking through a peaceful snowclad forest. It was the epitome of peace to him at the time. Now, that peace was gone, but he had high hopes that Gruber could set the poem to music in time for that evening’s service. Gruber accepted the challenge and within a few hours had composed the melody for Stille Nacht or Silent Night. 

Because the church organ was out of commission, Gruber composed a simple arrangement  for guitar and voice. Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr traveled back to Oberdorff, where, after a short rehearsal, the two men stood before the people of the St. Nicholas Church and performed their original song. A local choir quickly learned the tune and joined the two friends as they introduced this new Christmas carol to the church, to Austria, and ultimately to the entire world. 

Just a side note: This is the original St. Nicholas Church building in Oberndorff, Austria. It and most of the town, were eventually forced to move or rebuild because of continual flooding.

Click here to hear a version of Silent Night by Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood, and Reba McIntire

Click here to hear Stille Nacht by the Dresden Choir.

*Image courtesy of Tina Witherspoon and Unsplash

The Christmas Carol That Helped Save A University

American spiritual songs are difficult to date because they were passed down orally without publishing or recording. Such was the case with the Christmas song Go,Tell It On the Mountain. It became a Christmas classic because of the efforts of John Wesley Work.

John Wesley Work was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. He studied Latin and history at Fisk University, but his great passion was music. In 1872, he was asked to lead the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a ten member touring vocal ensemble commissioned to save the University. In a bold move, the ensemble was sent on an eighteen month tour and was given the entire University treasury for travel expenses.

Go, Tell It On The Mountain and other spirituals were a regular part of the student singing at Fisk University, but were not part of the original repertoire of the ensemble. This is understandable because the songs were associated with slavery and represented recent history many of them wanted to forget. However, the school’s treasurer encouraged them to expose the world to the rich history of spirituals in this tour. The response was overwhelming and by the time they reached New York in December of that year, their concerts consisted primarily of choral arrangements of spirituals. 

Over the course of their 18 month tour, the Fisk Jubilee Singers grew to a full choral ensemble. Led by John Wesley Work, they performed a host of spirituals to both white and black audiences across the United States and Europe, including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria. This phenomenal tour resulted in both the school and the musical style earning an international reputation. Fisk University was saved financially and Go, Tell It On the Mountain was on its way to becoming a Christmas staple.

Click here to hear Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of Go, Tell It On The Mountain. 
Click here to read more about the history of Fisk University.