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.
Click here to hear Silent Night as performed by Josh Groban
*Image courtesy of Thomas Galler.
**Today’s post is a repost from 2021 at special request.
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.
It was the 14th century, a dark time where poverty and hopelessness were extremely common. However, the Suso family was doing ok in the finance department. They had the means for their son Heinrich to become part of the ruling class. but he had other plans. Heinrich had seen the suffering and injustice experienced by the common man and wanted to make a difference in their lives and in the world. So, instead of living the life of luxury available to him, Heinrich became a Dominican monk and worked his hardest to lift the spirits of those people he knew who had very little cause to rejoice about anything. Strangely enough, this was not a common practice of most clergy at the time and Heinrich received a good deal of persecution.
Good Christian Men, Rejoice was an attempt by Heinrich Suso to encourage those suffering throughout the world. The lyrics were originally in Latin, then quickly translated to German. The song is a true folk song which has been translated and modified in various languages and cultures. Once, it was even reported from Moravian missionaries in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that the song was sung in thirteen different European and Native American languages in one gathering.
Even though Good Christian Men, Rejoice is ancient and has run the gambit, its message is everlasting to men (and women) of all nations:
Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice!
Give ye heed to what we say: Jesus Christ is born today!
Ox and ass before Him bow, and He is in the manger now;
Christ is born today! Christ is born today!
Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice!
Now ye hear of endless bliss; Jesus Christ was born for this!
He hath ope’d the heav’nly door, and man is blessed evermore.
Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!
Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice!
Now ye need not fear the grave; Jesus Christ was born to save!
Calls you one and calls you all, to gain His everlasting hall.
Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save!
Click here to hear Good Christian Men, Rejoice by Reawaken Hymns
When I was a child, to feign off boredom in church, I used to thumb through the hymnals. Once, when I was visiting a friend’s church, I came across the Christmas hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Tired of people telling me to be quiet, I moved on. The next time I remember hearing the song, I was in college. I borrowed my friend’s Cynthia Clawson Hymnsinger cassette tape (Ok, so I’m old) and listened to the song multiple times. I found it mysterious and even somewhat haunting, but honestly, I paid little attention to the lyrics.
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence is one of the oldest Christmas hymns still in use. It’s based on the Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn in the Liturgy of St. James. This liturgy was thought to be the work of James, the brother of Jesus, but now it’s believed that it was written during the 4th century and is often referred to as the Liturgy of Jerusalem.
Using portions of the Psalms, Isaiah 6, and Revelation 4, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence compels the worshipers to engage in welcoming the Incarnation of Christ and gain a sense of actually entering into the Holy of Holies. Obviously, it was written from the perspective that the bread and wine actually transform into the body and blood of Jesus during communion. To add to the dramatic flair, It was sung as the communion bread and wine were carried into the place of worship.
During the liturgy, the leader would say, “We remember the sky, the earth and the sea, the sun and the moon, the stars and all creation both rational and irrational, the angels and archangels, powers, mights, dominations, principalities, thrones, the many-eyed Cherubim who say those words of David: ‘Praise the Lord with me.’ We remember the Seraphim, whom Isaias saw in spirit standing around the throne of God, who with two wings cover their faces, with two their feet and with two fly; who say: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabbath.’ We also say these divine words of the Seraphim, so as to take part in the hymns of the heavenly host.”
No matter your stance on what happens to the bread and wine (or juice) during communion, it is easy to see how this Christmas hymn would enhance the worship experience of these ancient Christian worshipers. What better way to celebrate the birth of our Savior than to focus on his life’s purpose of giving His life, His blood, His body for us.
Check out the lyrics written below.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lord, in human vesture – in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day,
That the pow’rs of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six-winged seraph, cherubim, with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the Presence, as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia! Alleluia, Lord most high!”
Click here to hear Cynthia Clawson’s short arrangement of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Click here to heard the full version by Fernando Ortega
I was first introduced to We Three Kings as a child through its parody. On the school bus, other kids and I sang: We three kings of Orient are smoking on a rubber cigar; It was loaded, it exploded, now there are only two… Unfortunately, the Wise Men in our version didn’t learn from their mistakes because one by one they were exploded by the loaded rubber cigar. Then we sang, “Silent Night…”
Yes, it was childish and silly, but I was a child.
The first time I heard the legitimate version was in church, where three deacons dressed in bath robes and head pieces trying to portray the three kings as they followed the star searching for the Messiah. I laughed quietly when I saw them, not only because they looked funny, but because I thought it was kind of hokey to include the Christmas carol in the church production (Again, I was a kid and didn’t know any better). I later learned that the carol was actually written for a Christmas production in 1857 by composer John Henry Hopkins, Jr. He served as a music teacher at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. He desperately desired to write a song which featured the gifts presented by the wise men to baby Jesus.
We Three Kings originally contained five verses. The first and last verses were meant to be sung by all three wise men. Each of the verses in between were written as a solo for the wise man carrying gold, frankincense, or myrrh. Each solo describes the purpose of each respective gift. God was a gift for a king. Jesus was born King of kings. Frankincense was often carried by priests in worship of the Lord. Jesus Himself was and is God. Myrrh was a spice used in burial. This signified Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Verse 1: We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.
Refrain: O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.
Verse 2: Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never, over us all the reign. (Refrain)
Verse 3: Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high. (Refrain)
Verse 4: Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb. (Refrain)
Verse 5: Glorious now behold Him arise; King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia, sounds through the earth and skies. (Refrain)
Check out this version of We Three Kings by the Hound and the Fox and Tim Foust.
Over the years, I’ve heard hundreds of Christmas carols and songs. I’ve sung in dozens of Christmas choirs and even directed multiple Christmas musicals. To top things off, last year I started blogging about the origins of Christmas Carols. I asked my social media friends to submit their favorite Christmas carols for me to research. When numerous people submitted The Friendly Beasts, I thought it was a joke because I was totally unfamiliar with the song. Fans of Garth Brooks, Burl Ives, Johnny Cash, and Harry Belafonte were not impressed.
The Friendly Beasts originated in 12th century France, probably by Pierre de Corbeil who was the Bishop of Sens. The melody of the donkey portion was originally sung during the Fete de l’Ane or Festival of the Donkey. Instead of focusing on the birth of Jesus, this festival actuallyfocused on the holy family’s flight to Egypt. During the Catholic mass for this festival, a donkey was often ridden or led into the church building.
Over the years, the festival shifted from the Holy family’s flight into Egypt to Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. As time passed, The Friendly Beasts featured verses highlighting the cow, the sheep, the doves, and the camel. As Jesus is born, each of the “friendly beasts” experience a magical event where they are each able to sing about the gifts they are offering to Jesus:
The donkey gave transportation for Mary to Bethlehem
The cow gave its manger as a place for Jesus to sleep
The sheep gave their wool for a warm coat.
The doves coo the baby Jesus to sleep.
The camel carried the wise men who brought gifts to Jesus
Some connect this song to old beliefs that all animals have the gift of speech at midnight on Christmas Eve. One comment I read said, “If God gave Balaam’s donkey the ability to speak (Numbers 22), why wouldn’t he do the same to the animals of the Nativity? Exploring this would be a post (if not a research paper) of its own. I understand that the story is more legendary than biblical. But, it’s still a sweet notion to think that the animals in the stable were able to participate in honoring Jesus at his birth.
It also brings to mind Psalm 148:7-13 – Praise the Lord from the earth, you creatures of the ocean depths, fire and hail, snow and clouds, wind and weather that obey Him, mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all livestock, small scurrying animals and birds, kings of the earth and all people, rulers and judges of the earth, young men and young women, old men and children. Let them all praise the name of the Lord. For His name is very great; His glory towers over the earth and heaven!”
Click here to hear The Friendly Beasts by Garth Brooks and friends
One of the sweetest Christmas songs I heard as a child was Sweet Little Jesus Boy. Like many, I assumed it was a spiritual first sung by the slaves of the American South. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the song was written in 1934 by Robert MacGimsey, a white lawyer.
MacGimsey was born in Pineville, Louisiana and grew up with black domestic help including “Aunt Becky,” his caregiver. When he was an infant and young child, Becky sang spirituals to young Robert. She and other workers in the MacGimsey home gave Robert a rich background in the gospel music of the south.
Robert MacGimsey grew to adulthood and began practicing law, but he also wrote and published songs throughout his life. No matter where Robert traveled, he never forgot his Aunt Becky and the songs she sang to him as a child. In fact, Robert focused his life’s work on making African-American folk music of the South known and accessible by the world.
Sweet Little Jesus Boy was written because of a personal experience. One Christmas Eve, MacGimsey was walking through the snowy streets of New York City. He was appalled by the number of people visiting various nightclubs who chose to celebrate Christmas by getting drunk instead of focusing on who Jesus was and why He came into the world. To Robert, Christmas was a time of worship and praise. So, he penned the lyrics to Sweet Little Jesus Boy as an apology to Jesus because, as goes the refrain, “We didn’t know who you was.”
Sweet Little Jesus Boy was written to reflect the lives of black Christians during the Civil War. Robert MacGimsey once stated that as he wrote the song, he “pictured an aging black man whose life had been full of injustice standing in the middle of a field giving his heart to Jesus in the stillness.” As you read through the lyrics below, you can almost picture this taking place.
Sweet little Jesus Boy-they made you be born in a manger.
Sweet little Holy Child-Didn’t know who You was.
Didn’t know You’d come to save us, Lord;
To take our sins away.
Our eyes was blind, we couldn’t see,
We didn’t know who You was.
Long time time ago, You was born, born in a manger low,
Sweet little Jesus Boy, the world treat You mean, Lord,
Treat me mean, too,
But that’s how things is down here-
We don’t know who You is.
You done told us how, we is a trying’!
Master, You done show’d us how, even when You was dyin’.
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 Wadsworth Longfellow was dining alone at his home when he received a telegram with the news that his son 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 younger son Ernest traveled to Washington D.C. where they learned that, although serious, Charley’s wounds were not as horrific as they had initially been told.
Three weeks later, on Christmas Day, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 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 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.
Click here to watch the trailer for the new I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day movie set to open in December in theaters. Ironically, I knew nothing about the movie when I first posted this blogpost this morning. If you see it, let me know what you think.
*Photo courtesy of Maximillian Zahn
(Note: This is a repost from 12-25-21. Tomorrow, on 12-1-22, I’ll begin 25 days of new posts featuring the stories behind our most favorite sacred Christmas Carols.)
American spiritual songs are difficult to date because most were passed down through the generations 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 officially studied Latin and history at Fisk University, but his other 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 spiritualswere 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.
(Note: This is a repost from the 2021 Christmas Season. New Christmas Carol Stories will begin being posted daily on December 1, 2022)
I love Christmas carols. Now that we’ve made it past Thanksgiving, it’s awesome that we’ll be hearing them more on the radio and tv, online, and in worship services. Last December, I posted the stories of our most beloved Christmas carols. While this year, I’ve posted more about my diet and physical fitness struggles, I plan to release posts sharing the stories of 25 more posts on December 1-25. I’ve posted links to those from last year below. If you have a favorite Christmas carol you’d like for me to research and share, post it in the comments or send me a private message. Merry Christmas!