Traditionally, bells are rung at Christmas to announce the advent of the season. More so, they are rung to proclaim the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is certainly understood in the Christmas song Come On Ring Those Bells. It is considered by many to be contemporary Christian music’s first major contribution to well known Christmas classics. Even though the song has a country feel, it was actually written and composed by an Englishman and made popular by the daughter of Norwegian immigrants.
The song was written by Andrew Culverwell. He was originally from Somerset, England. He studied acting for a while before realizing he had a talent for writing and composing music. Culverwell wanted to make a difference for Christ, so he joined a contemporary Christian music group in England. He later moved to the United States to begin a solo recording career.
Culverwell wrote the song in 1976. The very next year, Come On Ring Those Bells was recorded and released on an album by the same name by Evelyn Tornquist Karlsson, better known to the world as “Evie.” The song was nominated for a Grammy award that same year. In this author’s opinion, it paved the way for future Christian artists to record the modern Christian songs we now all enjoy.
Click here to listen to Come On, Ring Those Bells by Evie.
For some people, the Christmas season hasn’t begun until they’ve heard The Hallelujah Chorus of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. For others, all they know about The Hallelujah Chorus is that it plays when Clark Griswold finally gets his Christmas lights working on Christmas Vacation. Either way, both sides most often agree that it is a great piece of music.
George Frideric Handel was born in Germany in 1685. Even though he was a talented musician and composer, he flunked out of college. He moved to Hamburg, Germany when he was eighteen and began to write operas, but he was only slightly successful. In hopes of greater inspiration, he relocated to Italy and began writing oratorios, large-scale religiously themed musical works for orchestra and voices performed without costumes, scenery, or action. It wasn’t long before George became known as the most acclaimed composer in all of Europe. A few of the top composers in England suggested that he move to London to be near them for creative interaction. Handel loved the city, the language, and the English theater, so he took them up on their offer, moved to England, and became an official British subject in 1727.
George’s success continued in England. He was famous, rich, and powerful, at least for a while. Personal and financial issues began to plague him which impacted his work and his health. Before his 40th birthday, he suffered several strokes, was plagued by rheumatism, and began losing his eyesight. He went from living in riches in an extravagant home to lodging in a small home in a poor section of London.
At the height of his poverty, Handel was contacted by Charles Jennens, a wealthy eccentric, whose ideas were as unusual as his bank account was large. Jennens had an idea for a new oratorio based around the biblical teaching about Jesus, the Messiah. The scriptures inspired Handel. He locked himself in his study and worked night and day. In seven days, he wrote the Christmas section of Messiah. The second portion, known as The Redemption Story, took another nine days. The final section, called The Resurrection and Future Reign of Christ on Heaven and Earth, took a final seven days.
The first performance of Handel’s Messiah took place on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. He was nearly blind, but could still tell that the crowd was extremely appreciative. A few months later, he brought his new oratorio to the London stage. King George II attended the second night of the performance. The king was so moved by the first few notes of the Hallelujah Chorus that he stood to his feet. Everyone else in attendance followed suit. When the piece ended, Handel couldn’t see the king or the audience standing, but he could hear the thunderous applause. He felt then that he had written a timeless classic, destined to help the generations celebrate the birthday of the King of kings.
Click here to hear the Royal Choral Society perform The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
It was 1988 and country singer/songwriter Skip Ewing was tired. After a long season of recording and performances, he left Nashville and headed home to California to spend Christmas with his family. Even though he had seen some success and his family and friends considered him famous, he wasn’t satisfied with his accomplishments and felt sad about the condition of the world and especially the state of his own family. Skip’s parents had divorced when he was young and his family seemed extremely dysfunctional. Throughout his journey, he prayed God would move in some significant way during the holiday season.
As he walked through the front door of his grandmother’s home in California, Skip was confident that God had not answered his prayer. Throughout his family visit, however, a song concept began to form in his mind. To gather his thoughts, he hid from his family in another room and tried to write down his thoughts. He later told Jim Lewis of United Press International, “My whole family was in my grandmother’s living room around the piano singing Christmas carols. I was in my cousin’s room with my hands over my ears trying to hear myself think.”
The lyrics Skip penned were from the perspective of Joseph after the birth of Jesus. Joseph had it tough. He had to endure the ridicule and possible rejection of others then assist in the delivery and raising of a son which wasn’t his child. Like many parents who embrace children who aren’t identified with themselves biologically, Joseph took Jesus as his own son and loved him dearly.
When Skip finally emerged from the bedroom, his grandmother asked him to debut his new song for the family. He took his guitar and sang “It Wasn’t His Child” for the very first time. He could tell by his family’s response that he had written a very unique and meaningful song.
The song was later released on Skip’s album The Will to Love which, ironically, is not a Christmas album. It has been covered by numerous artists including Sawyer Brown, Trisha Yearwood, and Reba McIntire.
Click here to listen to It Wasn’t His Child performed by Tim McGraw.
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.
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
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.
Click here to hear What Child is This? performed by Take 6. Click Here to hear a version of Greensleeves performed by Tim Foust.