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

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

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

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

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.