• Lauren Straley

The Forgotten History of Two Famous Christmas Carols

Christmas lantern dusted with snow

We hear them throughout the season, the harbingers for Christmas. They can be heard on every radio station, TV commercial, and musical instrument. You can find them on opera stages or bellowing through a horn at a middle school concert.

Can you guess what they are?

* Carols! *

These famous tunes ring before, during, and after Christmas. Where did carols come from and how did they gain their popularity?

Carols belong to a longstanding oral tradition and are rooted in church celebrations. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, Church’s used carols as a way to honor reverent religious holidays and were not used to celebrate Christmas until the 13th century under the influence of St. Francis of Assisi. He introduced Christmas carols and these new tunes were a change from the darker more somber songs that preceded them.

A carol is simply defined: a song or dance that promotes glee and joy. But the practice of caroling, not confined to a church wall but the door-to-door roots have an interesting past. Some historical accounts suggest that caroling comes from feudal societies, where the poor of the land would have to “sing for their supper.”

Carols are a treasured part of the Christmas tradition and many of them have quite interesting tales to share. I have investigated the origin of two famous songs: Silent Night and O Holy Night. These stories are filled with perseverance, wit, royalty, and sometimes war. Read on to discover the stories of these two captivating carols.

It’s An Austrian Thing

Row of glowing candles

You cannot experience a Christmas season without hearing the song Silent Night. Allow me to drop you into our storybook setting of Salzburg, Austria to begin our tale.

Anna lived a simple life. As a weaver, she was accustomed to hard work and wages that only kept food on the table for a week. In 1791, something wonderful happened: Anna fell in love. Her sights were set on a young soldier stationed in Salzburg and the two quickly became lovers.

Her love left in the early fall of 1792, and in December of that same year Anna bore a son who she named after his father, Joseph Mohr. Anna worked hard to give Joseph a good life. As a single mother she had to make many sacrifices for his well being, and one of the main ways she did this was through prioritizing her son’s education.

Anna was a religious woman and brought Joseph up as a Catholic. This devout young man had a calling to the priesthood, and after completing his training in the seminary Joseph was assigned the role of assistant pastor for St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, about 10 miles from his hometown.

Joseph’s time at the church led him to meet one of his dearest friends, Franz Gruber a musician who ran the music department at St. Nicholas. The winter of 1818 would bring about a hymn that would make one of the largest impacts on Christmas music. On December 23, 1818 Joseph was said to have visited his mother and on the walk back was struck by the stillness of the nature around him. The snow glistened as the moon’s light reflected off the melted water in the road, the air still, and all was calm. Inspired by this fairy-tale spot, Joseph wrote a poem and he called it Silent Night, Holy Night. Many historical accounts disagree as to when Joseph wrote the poem, but what we do know is that he wrote it sometime in 1818.

When he returned to Oberndorf, he found out that the organ in the church had fallen into disrepair making it unable to be used for Midnight Mass. In haste, Joseph sought out Franz Gruber, the church’s musician, and asked him to create a tune for his poem. Gruber threw together a song in less than a day to be played on his guitar. Silent Night made its debut in the world in an Austrian church in 1818.

The song did not stop there. After it grew in popularity, it garnered the attention of royalty. The King of Prussia, Frederick Wilhelm IV became so enthralled by the melody that he ordered it to be sung throughout the kingdom during the Christmas season.

Silent Night was translated to English in 1863 by Jane Campbell and made it to America by 1871 to be sung by congregations for over 100 years.

A French Twist

String of lights

My dad sang O Holy Night at a Midnight Christmas Eve service one year. He sang in French, and it was more lovely than any English arrangement I had ever heard. Little did I know that almost 200 years ago in a humble French town this song was sung for the first time.

To tell you the story of O Holy Night, we must travel back in time to a town called Roquemaure located in the south of France comfortably nestled on the Rhône river. Roquemaure in the 19th century bore nothing to boast of. Its humble setting providing the backdrop for the homes of many villagers. A crucial structure to the people was the Church in the center of town. Unfortunately, the church’s organ had to be replaced as it had broken. The repairs took longer than expected, but it was said to be ready on the Eve of Christmas in December 1843. The pastor wanted to commemorate such an accomplishment with a poem, which led him to a man by the name of Placide Cappeau.

Cappeau was an interesting character: plagued by misfortune after his friend accidentally shot and amputated his right hand, but that did not stop him from becoming a master of the written word. Monsieur Cappeau made his living by writing poetry and was quite a renowned poet of the time. He also made his way as a wine merchant. Accepting the task from the priest, Cappeau began to write. He drew inspiration from the gospel of John to conjure up images of what the birth of Jesus may have been like.

On a carriage ride from Paris to Roquemaure, he finished his composition “Minuit, Chrétiens,” or “Midnight, Christians.” So pleased by the outcome, the priest suggested that Cappeau bring his poem to the lauded composer of the time, Aldophe Adams. By the mid 1800s, Adams had been well-known for composing many operas and ballets including the much beloved, Giselle. He greatly enjoyed Cappeau’s poem and in 1847 debued the resulting carol, “Cantique de Noël” or “Christmas Carol,” sung by Emily Laurey, a soprano in the French opera.

The song was a hit. Almost immediately the tune could be heard humming on the lips of every person who had heard it. With the rise of its popularity came an interesting discovery about its author. Cappeau was a proud and proclaimed atheist. Such scandal and religious outrage caused the song to be banned from French liturgy. But the people couldn’t let it go.

The tune continued to grow in popularity in the secular realm until it found its way into the ears of Unitarian minister and music theorist, John Sullivan Dwight. Dwight, being so moved by the music and the lyrics, became compelled to translate it for an English-speaking audience. So in 1855 he did just that and gave it the title, O Holy Night.

As a Transcendentalist, Dwight believed that each thing in the world held an inherent goodness, and he used this philosophy to make some adjustments to Cappeau’s lyrics. The most notable change can be found in the chorus. A direct translation from Cappeau’s original poem would read “Christmas, Christmas, here is the redeemer.” Whereas Dwight changed it to say “O night divine, O night when Christ was born.” For Dwight, his translation better captured the holiness of the night itself, and went on to become one of the most beloved carols for over 150 years.

But this song’s story does not end here. France fell on hard times in the early days of 1870. The Franco-Prussian War proved a brutal defeat for French troops who fell to German occupation. The winter of 1870 left soldiers bitterly cold. As the time for Christmas neared, Adam’s tune “Cantique de Noël” remained popular among the French people and it is said that French troops gathered in the trenches and sang it to pay homage to the holiday. Upon hearing this declaration, the German troops began to sing the hymns of Martin Luther and the two sides held a 24-hour cease fire to allow their fellow men the chance to celebrate Christmas.

Fa La La

Knowing where something comes from can help inform our perception of how it has evolved. When you sing these carols this year, remember the journey they took to get to you and the life that they will continue to have in the future.

Open score of music

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