What Child Is This? – The Christmas Carol With The Nasty Tune

In 1865, William Chatterton Dix, a businessman in Bristol, England, became ill. He grew so sick that he had 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 possibility 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 called Grass Stains.  

Ewwww!

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 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 Peter Hollens.
Click Here to hear a version of Greensleeves performed by Tim Foust.

*Image courtesy of Mario La Pergola

O Come, O Come Emmanuel – The Ancient Christmas Carol With The Surprise Ending

The original author of O Come, O Come Emmanuel is unknown, but it was most likely an 8th or 9th century monk or nun. Roughly 1000 years later, an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale discovered the song while reading Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum, an ancient book of Latin poetry and music. 

Neale lived in the Madeira Islands near the continent of Africa, where he had started an orphanage, a school for girls, and a ministry to reclaim prostitutes. He spoke many languages, including Latin, and was able to translate O Come, O Come Emmanuel into English. He first played and sang it for the people he served, who were considered the lowest of society. It was so well received that Neale included the song in his 1851 collection titled Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences.

The song is written as if you are in the first century and you are awaiting the actual birth of the Messiah. An anticipation is there for what Jesus would bring. The original Latin text contains seven antiphons (verses) which work together to help the reader or singer focus on the coming Christmas. Most modern versions do not include all seven and rarely in the same order as the original. Here are those verses in order and their related meanings:

  • O Sapentia (Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (Hebrew for God)
  • O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse) 
  • O Clavis David (Key of David)
  • O Oriens (Dayspring)
  • O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
  • O Emmanuel (God with Us)

You can see from the order above that the 8th and 9th century Christians who declared these verses sang them in the opposite order than most people today. Back then, they wouldn’t sing the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” verse until Christmas Eve. They did this because it was the fulfillment of the song and of the expectation of the Messiah. 

The original Latin text creates a reverse acrostic which is not fulfilled or seen until the last verse is sung. When the ancient worshipers finally sang this verse on Christmas Eve, the reverse acrostic was solved for all the see. The message it proclaimed was “I shall be with you tomorrow.”

Click here to hear For King and Country’s version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Click here for Anna Hawkins version in English and Hebrew filmed in Israel

*Image courtesy of Tim Umphreys

The Hallelujah Chorus – The Christmas Choral Song That Made The King Rise To His Feet

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.

*Image courtesy of the Birmingham Museum Trust

O Holy Night: The Christmas Carol Written By An Atheist

I once attended a worship service when, after a failed congregational singing of the Christmas carol O Holy Night, the worship leader stopped the music, looked out at the people, and said, “Well, that was awful.” As hard as it can be to sing, congregations around the world love to at least hear the carol sung skillfully each year. It has a majestic yet mysterious sound. It is regarded as holy but acknowledges the darkness within each of us. It also has a heck of a 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 written work 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 strong, the priest pushed forward and asked Cappeau to share it with Adolphe Adam, a prolific Jewish composer. The resulting Christmas Carol was titled “Cantique de Noel” and premiered in 1847, featuring a local opera singer Emily Laurey.

Even though “Cantique de Noel” was penned by an atheist, composed by a practicing Jew, and performed by a secular artist, it 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, Cantique de Noel 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 and believed there was goodness (and possibly holiness) in everything and everyone. He took some translation liberties with the song. This can be seen in our current version of O Holy Night when the evening itself is seen as being 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. 

It is believed to have even played a part in the Franco-Prussian War. On Christmas Eve in 1870, French troops started singing “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 so both sides could celebrate 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 the song sung by Carrie Underwood on the Tonight Show.

*Image courtesy of Markus Spiske

Mary, Did You Know? – The Christmas Song That’s Grammatically Incorrect (According To Some)

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 on this 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 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 Tommee Profitt featuring Jordan Smith.

*Image courtesy of Omar Lopez

**Today’s post is an edited repost from 2021’s collection on Christmas Carol Origin story. Included by special request.

Carol of the Bells – The Christmas Song Born In Ukraine

Carol of the Bells is a favorite Christmas song for millions. Interestingly enough, this haunting, fun Christmas tune owes its origin to a Ukrainian winter well-wishing song whose lyrics had nothing to do with Christmas, or even bells for that matter. 

The original song, titled Shchedryk was written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich. The title is a derivative of the Ukrainian word shchedryj (say that three times fast) meaning bountiful. It tells the story of a swallow flying into a home declaring to its inhabitants that spring is coming soon and that they will have a plentiful new year. Leontovich had been commissioned by choir director Oleksander Koshyts to write a song for a Christmas concert based on Ukrainian folk melodies. He found the famous four note melody and the original lyrics in an anthology of Ukrainian folk melodies and adapted it for choir.

Shchedryk, in its new form, was first performed during a time of intense political struggle in Ukraine. To help their national situation, the Ukrainian government tasked Oleksander Koshyts (who had commissioned Shchedryk from Leontovich) with leading a Ukrainian choir tour across Europe, North America, and South America to promote Ukrainian music. Before their tour was complete, Koshyts choir had performed over 1,000 concerts. This precursor to Carol of the Bells became globally popular as the choir continued to introduce it around the world. It was first performed in the United States to a sold-out Carnegie Hall audience on October 5, 1921.

It wasn’t long before Peter Wilhousky, an American choir director, heard Shchedryk. The repetition of the tune reminded him of bells, so he wrote a new version of the song with new lyrics for his choir. Even though the song had been published in Soviet Ukraine twenty years earlier, Wilhousky published Carol of the Bells in 1936. It wasn’t long before the new version of the song was being performed regularly during the Christmas season across the United States.

Merry, merry, merry Christmas.

Click here to listen to Carol of the Bells as performed by St. George’s Chapel Choir at Windsor

*Photo courtesy of Phil Hearing

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In – The Christmas Carol That Proves That Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

In the movie Edward Scissorhands, Alan Arkin sings I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In while stapling artificial snow to the roof of his home. Just like that movie, the lyrics to that Christmas carol are really confusing. In a nutshell, they indicate that three ships with Jesus and Mary as their passengers sail into Bethlehem (which is surrounded by land) on Christmas Day (on Christmas Day).

The story behind I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In seems far-fetched and somewhat morbid, but it proves that truth is often stranger than fiction.

In 313 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. His mother, Helena, a well known believer in Christ, taught her son what she knew about the faith. Constantine sent Helena to the Holy Land to find proof of his new religion and to bring back as many symbols and relics as she could acquire. With the help of merchants, private citizens, and a few scam artists, Helena returned with several souvenirs: notably the cross of Jesus and the bones and skulls of the three wisemen. Constantine was so thrilled with the remains of the wise men, he promptly placed them in a fancy golden coffin and then donated them to the Bishop of Milan. 800 years later, the bones of the Magi were taken (some say stolen) by order of the pope and enshrined in a cathedral in Cologne, Germany. To this day, the shrine of the Magi still lie in the Cologne, Germany cathedral.

The 12th century boatmen who delivered the caskets to Cologne, Germany sang as they worked. As they traveled, the song morphed into a song about the skeletons of the wise men they were delivering to Germany. 

Kind of weird and morbid, huh? 

By the 16th century, the song had made its way to England and Scotland. The folk singers, bards, and minstrels changed the lyrics to be about the Holy Family arriving in Bethlehem, not by donkey, but by sailing ship. The folks of rural England and Scotland had no idea of biblical geography so no one seemed to mind that it’s technically impossible for ships to sail into Bethlehem. Some versions of the songs simply have the holy family waving while sailing by on Christmas Day. Some have Joseph steering the ship while others fail to mention him at all.

So, out of a questionable conversion, early religious artifact scam artists, royal naivete, papal “thievery”, and a morbid sea shanty came a light hearted fun Christmas song used for singing and dancing, which, in the end, I suppose, is fine, especially on Christmas Day (on Christmas Day). 

Click here for a fun version of I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In by Blackmore’s Night

*Professional photo at top courtesy of Jamie Morrison. Secondary photo is an actual photo of the Shrine of the Magi and is used courtesy of the Cologne Chapel in Koln, Germany.

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. 

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 Wasn’t His Child – The Christmas Song Written Out Of Dysfunctional Family Frustration

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.

*Photo courtesy of Josh Applegate

Good Christian Men, Rejoice – The Christmas Carol Meant to Encourage

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

*Image courtesy of Kolby Milton