Tahlequah Daily Press

December 24, 2013

Christmas music’s interesting origins

By SEAN ROWLEY
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Reminiscing is a cherished part of the holidays, and many treasured memories are intertwined with Christmas hymns and carols.

For many, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the music. Whether festive of spiritual, the songs put people in the holiday mood.

“I’d have to say my favorite it Silent Night,” said Rev. James Graham of the First United Methodist Church. “I love that hymn. There is a song in the Methodist Hymnal I really like, ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel.’ I also enjoy ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.’”

A few other hymns or carols often cited as favorites are “Away in a Manger,” “12 Days of Christmas,” “O Holy Night,” “The First Noel,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Joy to the World.”

It may seem as if such songs have been around forever, but each has its own origin. Many date to the 18th Century.

William B. Sandys, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, must receive some credit among speakers of English for popularizing a number of modern hymns and carols. His book, “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern,” from 1833, marks the first publications of the modern versions of “The First Noel,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Hard the Herald Angels Sing” and “I Saw Three Ships.”

“The First Noel” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” are English hymns of unknown authorship, and may date to the 16th Century. Whatever their age, both were first published by Sandys in modern English. Many hymns in the book subsequently became popular during the holiday’s resurgence in Victorian Britain.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was a solemn song when Charles Wesley composed it in 1739, but Wesley’s colleagues, George Whitefield and Felix Mendelssohn, successively got hold of it and adjusted it to make it more upbeat.

The author of “Away in a Manger” is not certain - probably collaborative - though it is one of the more recent hymns, becoming popular in the late 19th Century. Publication of the first two verses occurred in 1884 and the third verse was published in 1892.

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William Chatterton Dix, during a months-long recovery from a life-threatening ailment at age 29, wrote “What Child Is This” in 1865, setting it to the music of “Greensleeves.”

The English religious poet Isaac Watts wrote “Joy to the World,” which was published in 1719 in his collection of works ponderously titled “The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.” “Joy to the World” is believed to be the most-published Christmas hymn in the U.S.

Germany deserves credit for two immensely popular holiday songs: “O Christmas Tree” and “Silent Night.”

The modern lyrics of “O Tannenbaum” were written by Ernst Anschutz in 1824. The song itself was written by Melchior Franck in the 16th Century.

“Silent Night’s” history is well-documented. The lyrics were written in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber, the music by Joseph Mohr, a priest at St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf.

Like many area churches, the First United Methodist Church incorporates music of the holidays into its Christmas observances.

“We had several services this past Sunday,” Graham said. “We had a service particularly focused on children with lots of Christmas songs. We will have special candlelight and communion services at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. We will sing the Christmas carols that everybody loves and the traditional story will be read. There will also be special music by the choir and instrumentals.”

srowley@tahlequahdailypress.com