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 Christmas Carol Origins Posted on 12-2-2004
WOTR News Article Have you ever wondered about the history of the songs of Christmas? Where did these carols come from? What were the people like who penned these great hymns?

Well, there's a book that I think would be pretty fascinating to read; it's called "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" by Ace Collins. The book focuses on the "true, fascinating stories of the inspiration, heartache, trials, and faith that inspired some of the greatest Christmas carols, hymns, and popular songs will enrich the joy and celebration of the Christmas season. Each in its own way expresses a facet of God's heart and celebrates the birth of his greatest gift to the world--Jesus, the most wonderful Christmas Song of all.'

Here's one interesting excerpt:

ANGELS, FROM THE REALMS OF GLORY

Angels, from the Realms of Glory - possibly the best-written, sacred Christmas carol of all time - helped launch a revolution that continues to impact millions of lives today. At its heart is its writer, an Irishman born in November of 1771.

James Montgomery was born in Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland. Montgomery's father, John, was an Irish Moravian missionary. When his parents were called to evangelistic work in the West Indies, the child was sent to a Moravian community in Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland. By the time he was seven, James was at Fulneck Seminary, Yorkshire, England. Five years later, the parents James hardly knew died on the mission field.

Perhaps because of the distance from and the tragic loss of his parents, Montgomery never was very interested in his schooling. Flunking out of seminary, he became a baker's assistant for a short time. By the age of twenty, the young man was little more than a vagrant, moving from job to job, often unemployed, and homeless for weeks at a time.

Montgomery's only interest was writing. He spent what little money he had on pencils and paper, taking hours to com-pose poetic odes on everything from loneliness to faith. Though no publisher was interested in his work, the radical editor of the Sheffield Register saw something in the young man's raw talent. For the next two years Montgomery got paid to do what he most loved to do - write stories. He also learned firsthand about the hardships of being an Irishman under English rule. At the age of twenty-three, when the newspaper's owner was run out of town for writing radical editorials concerning Irish freedom, the missionary's son took over the Register.

In an attempt to quell the British government's wrath, Montgomery changed the paper's name to the Sheffield Iris. Yet he didn't change its editorial stance. Just as his parents had strongly rebelled against the strict rules and rituals of England's official church, James was bent on carrying on a written war for Ireland's freedom. At about that time, he also became an active leader in the abolitionist movement. His fiery editorial stance twice landed him in prison. Yet each time he was released, he returned to the Iris and continued his printed war for freedom on all fronts.

When Montgomery was not waging an editorial crusade against English rule and slavery, he was reading his Bible in an attempt to understand the power that motivated his parents' lives and ultimately led to their deaths. In time, his Scripture study and rebellious zeal would blend and send the young man on a new mission. One of the first hints of this change was revealed on Christmas Eve 1816.

Irishmen, who hated all things British, probably carefully studied the newspaper each day, hoping to find some Montgomery- penned passage that would inspire more to join their revolution. It is certain that local government officials who read the Iris often wished to nail the man who was so often a thorn in their side. Yet on December 24, 1816, readers discovered a different stance from the fiery editor. On that day, his editorial did not divide Irish from English, but rather brought everyone who read the Iris closer together.

Written in the same poetic verse that Montgomery had employed during the aimless wanderings of his youth, "Nativity" - what would eventually become the carol "Angels, from the Realms of Glory" - told the story of angels proclaiming the birth of a Savior for all people, English and Irish, rich and poor, Anglican and Moravian. Eloquent, beautiful, and scripturally sound, Montgomery soon touched more lives for Christ with the stroke of his pen than his parents did in all their years of missionary work.

Still, when read between the lines, there was a bit of social commentary in "Nativity." A verse long-deleted from the carol speaks of a society that needs to right some wrongs. That lost stanza also reveals the writer's personal journey in finding purpose and meaning in his own life:

"Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence"
Mercy calls you. Break your chain."


As Montgomery would soon find out, his poem would break chains, but not those he had envisioned. The impact of "Nativity" would actually foreshadow the writer's future, since he would come to revolutionize music and thinking in the English church.

As often is the case with inspired work, irony stepped in and took an important role in revealing "Nativity" to a mass audience.

Angels, from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o'er all the earth"
Ye who sang creation's story,
Now proclaim Messiah's birth.

Chorus:

Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ the newborn King.
Shepherds in the fields abiding,
Watching o'er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant Light.

Chorus

Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar"
Seek the great Desire of nations,
Ye have seen His natal star.

Chorus

Saints before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear.


The Story Behind Silent Night

"Silent night! holy night!
All is calm, all is bright,
'Round yon virgin mother and Child!
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace."


Silent Night is probably the most well known of all Christmas carols. However, there is some controversy as to its origin, and there are a few different stories about how this song was written.

Here is one account:

In 1818, a roving band of actors was performing in towns throughout the Austrian Alps. On December 23 they arrived at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg where they were scheduled to perform the story of Christ's birth in the Church of St. Nicholas.

Unfortunately, the St. Nicholas' church organ wasn't working and would not be repaired before Christmas. (Note: some versions of the story point to mice as the problem; others say rust was the culprit) Because the church organ was out of commission, the actors presented their Christmas drama in a private home. That Christmas presentation put assistant pastor Josef Mohr in a meditative mood. So, instead of walking straight to his house, Mohr took a longer way home. His path took him up over a hill overlooking the village.

From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Reveling in the wintry night's majestic silence, he gazed down at the glowing scene. His thoughts about the Christmas play he had just seen reminded him of a poem he had written a couple of years earlier. The poem about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside.

Mohr decided those words would make a good carol for his church to sing the following evening at their Christmas eve service. However, he didn't have any music to which that poem could be sung. So, the next day Mohr went to see the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. Although he only had a few hours to come up with something, by that evening, Gruber had composed a musical setting for Mohr's poem which could be sung with a guitar (since the organ was broken).

On Christmas Eve, Gruber and Mohr sang their new composition to their little congregation to the accompaniment of Gruber's guitar.

Weeks later, well-known organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived to fix the St. Nicholas church organ. When he finished, Mauracher stepped back to let Gruber to test the instrument. When Gruber sat down, he began playing the melody he had written for Mohr's poem. Deeply impressed, Mauracher took the music and words of "Silent Night" back to his own Alpine village, Kapfing. There, two well-known families of singers -- the Rainers and the Strassers -- heard it. Captivated by "Silent Night," both groups put the new song into their Christmas season repertoire.

Others say that isn't exactly true, and provide this as the origin of the famous carol:

The Christmas Eve of 1818 was at hand. Pastor Joseph Mohr of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf decided that he needed a carol for the Christmas Eve service. The little poem he had written two years earlier while serving at the pilgrim church in Mariapfarr just might work. Perhaps this poem could be set to music. He hurried off to see his friend, Franz Xaver Gruber, who was a schoolteacher and also served as the church's organist and choir master. Maybe he could help. He did.

In a few short hours Franz came up with the hauntingly beautiful melody that is so loved and revered to this day. At the request of Joseph, who had a special love for his guitar, Franz composed the music for guitar accompaniment. Just short hours later, Franz stood with his friend the pastor, Joseph, in front of the altar in St. Nicholas church and introduced "Stille Nacht" to the congregation.

I Saw Three Ships

The tune of this carol is a traditional English folk song and the words of the cong (of which there are several versions) were written by wandering minstrels as they travelled through the country. In the original version of the carol, the Three Ships were the ones taking the supposed skulls of the wise men to Cologne cathedral in Germany. However, since the Middle Ages when it was first written, there have been many different lyrics with different Bible characters being on the ships. The most common lyrics used today are about Mary and Jesus travelling to Bethlehem. These lyrics:

I saw three ship come sailing in,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
I saw three ship come sailing in,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three?
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And what was in those ships all three?
on Christmas Day in the morning.

Our Saviour Christ and His lady,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
Our Saviour Christ and His lady,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

And where they sailed those ships all three?
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And where they sailed those ships all three?
on Christmas Day in the morning.

All they sailed in to Bethlehem,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
All they sailed in to Bethlehem,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

And all the bells on earth shall ring,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

And all the angels in heaven shall sing,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And all the the angels in heaven shall sing,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

And all the souls on earth shall sing,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And all the souls on earth shall sing,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

And let us all rejoice again,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And let us all rejoice again,
on Christmas Day in the morning.


Hark! The Hearald Angels Sing

The words to this great Carol were penned by Charles Wesley -- you probably will recognize that name as it was his brother, John, who became the founder of Methodism. During Charles' lifetime, he wrote over 600 songs (quite a catalog for any songwriter)! One of his most famous lyrics is Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, which many theologians say is the entire Gospel of Christ in one song. The melody for this familiar carol was composed by the famous Felix Mendelssohn almost a hundred years after Wesley wrote the text. How did the words and music come together? Here's the scoop behind the carol...

The little known fact is that neither Charles Wesley nor Felix Mendelssohn would have wanted this music to be joined with these words. Felix Mendelssohn, a Jew, had made it very clear that he wanted his music only to be used for secular purposes. Charles Wesley, on the other hand, had requested that only slow and solemn religious music be coupled with his words. However, in the mid Nineteenth Century, long after both Mendelssohn and Wesley were dead, an organist named Dr. William Cummings, joined the joyous Mendelssohn music with Wesley's profound words to create the carol we know and love today!

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