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.

The Christmas Carol written by an Atheist, composed by a Jew, and translated by a Transcendentalist.

I once attended a worship service when the congregation attempted to sing O Holy Night. At the end, the worship leader shook her head, and said, “Well, that was awful.” As hard as it can be to sing, congregations around the world love this beautiful song. It has a majestic yet mysterious sound. It is regarded as holy but acknowledges the darkness within each of us. It also has a unique story.

It was Roquemaure, in southern France, in 1843. The parish priest wanted to commemorate the renovations of the church organ, so he commissioned a poem from the local poet and wine merchant Placide Cappeau. While on an overnight stagecoach to Paris, Cappeau penned Minuit, Chretiens, or Midnight, Christians. The priest was extremely pleased with the poem, especially because the author was an outspoken atheist. However, the lyrics were so beautiful, the priest pushed forward and shared them with Adolphe Adam, a prolific Jewish composer. The resulting Christmas Carol was titled Cantique de Noel. It premiered in 1847 featuring a local opera singer Emily Laurey.

Cantique de Noel became instantly popular with Christians across France. However, once word reached the church officials that Cappeau was an atheist who publicly spoke out against the church, the song was banned from liturgical use in France. Even so, the song continued to spread outside the church and grew in popularity.

Later, in 1855, John Sullivan Dwight, an American music critic and Unitarian Minister translated the song into English. He was a Transcendentalist who believed there was goodness (and possibly holiness) in everything and everyone. His translation liberties can be seen in our current version of O Holy Night. when the evening itself is seen as holy. For Dwight, the night was holy in and of itself, not simply because of its connection to Jesus’ birth. Most people missed this completely because the chorus includes the lyric, “O Night when Christ was born.” The song then continued to grow in popularity across the English speaking and French speaking worlds. 

The song is believed to have even played a part in the Franco-Prussian War. On Christmas Eve in 1870, French troops sang Cantique de Noel from the battle trenches. In the stillness, German soldiers heard the singing and were moved. In response, they sang a carol by Martin Luther. This impromptu Christmas worship resulted in a 24 hour truce in honor of Christmas. Now, there is a strong possibility that this never happened, but the story spread across France making the song wildly popular which resulted in its eventual reinstatement in the liturgy of French churches.

So, there you have it. O Holy Night was a song commissioned to celebrate an instrument, written by an outspoken atheist, composed by a devout Jew, translated by a Transcendentalist, banned from church use in France, finally used as an instrument of peace in a time of war. Most people sing it without concern to its origin, which is probably just as well, but it does go to show you that God can work through the most unlikely of sources to create something beautiful.

Click here to hear a version of O Holy Night sung by Carrie Underwood on the Tonight Show.

*Image used courtesy of Ales Krivec and Unsplash

The Christmas Carol with the Nasty Tune

In 1865, William Chatterton Dix, a businessman in Bristol, England, became ill. His sickness caused a near death experience which left him with severe depression. During his recovery, however, Dix became an avid reader of the Bible and experienced a personal revival of sorts. His reading led to his writing of several poems, songs, and hymns, including  the beloved Christmas carol What Child Is This? For the tune of his new song, Dix chose the tune from the well known English folk song Greensleeves. 

Greensleeves was a popular English folk song probably written in the 16th century. The lyrics of the song contain numerous references to a lady in green sleeves who cheated on her beloved. Popular legends claim that King Henry VIII composed the song for his mistress then wife Anne Boleyn, but there doesn’t seem to be much historical evidence for that theory. A more likely possibiliy is that the song was written about a loose young woman, possibly a prostitute, whose dress developed green sleeves because she frequently engaged in sexual activities in the great outdoors. Greensleeves could just as well have been titled Grass Stains.  


Can you imagine the looks they gave each other in church when What Child Is This? was sung for the first time in church? It would be like a modern composer setting Christian lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On. However, it’s my guess that in 1865 that no one really thought much about the meaning behind Greensleeves and were simply happy to know the tune to the new Christmas carol. 

The truth is, the tune itself is amoral. It’s neither bad or good. It’s simply music. And I, for one, am happy that the tune Greensleeves was redeemed in a way and now helps us worship Jesus.

Merry Christmas.

Click here  to hear What Child is This? performed by Take 6.
Click Here to hear a version of Greensleeves performed by Tim Foust.

Image courtesy of David Beale and Unsplash

So Different From This Hell I’m Living

I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living.
The lyrics above were sung by Fantine, a fictitious factory worker turned prostitute mother in the musical Les Miserables. It’s been reported that in preparing for the role of Fantine, actress Anne Hathaway tried to envelope herself in sadness. She even sent her husband away from her for a time because his being near her made her too happy to play the role accordingly. Her plans certainly succeeded for she played the role flawlessly.
However, the words she sang are all too often the very true unsung anthems of countless people in our world today. These victims of life live in all corners of society, silently marking time with their steps and lives, all the while watching their dreams being pulled further and further away. I think if people everywhere spoke honestly, they would…

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