Surprising Inspiration Behind 6 Loved Christmas Carols

We breathe music in this family. Hubby’s often playing the piano, kids listening to radios and mp3s. And these days, singing carols. Ones like “Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells…”

But seriously.

Music is my favorite part of Christmastime. Carols play as I clean the house, fold the week’s mountain of laundry, and play with the kids. I crank it up and sing when the kids argue or whine. Or when the obligatory glass of milk splatters on my floor. No matter what’s happening, carols lift my spirits.

You can imagine my joy when I discovered that like many hymns of past eras, familiar carols have amazing stories. Couldn’t resist sharing a few here:

Seeking Hope
I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863)

Longfellow endured the death of his first wife. Then his second. Then his son was critically wounded in the Civil war. On Christmas Day, 1863, His heart heavy, he heard the bells of the local church began to ring. As he listened, he penned the words of this familiar carol of hope.

“I heard the bells on Christmas day, their old familiar carols play. And wild and sweet the words repeat, of peace on earth, good will to men” (verse 1)

Overcoming limitations
Silent Night! Holy Night! (Joseph Mohr, 1818)

You know how life gets stressful when you’re most seeking peace? Mohr had a moment like that preparing for Christmas Eve service in Austria in 1818. A beautiful new song written …an organ that wouldn’t work! Almost ready to read it as a poem to his congregation instead, he asked a friend to write music for his guitar to accompany the words. Much ado to birth one of the most beloved songs of peace at Christmas.

Healing through grief
O Little Town of Bethlehem (Phillips Brooks, 1865)

A famous preacher in Civil War America, Brooks was deeply discouraged by the War, and even more so as he’d preached for President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral the year before. He needed to get away from the grief. On a wild whim, he took sabbatical in Israel. While on a hillside overlooking Bethlehem, he felt some of the first peace he’d felt in a long while. Thus was born this sweet song.

Strength for life’s battles
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (Unknown writer, Middle Ages)

Written so long ago, the original intent of the song’s language is lost to most of us. But to listeners of the Middle Ages, “God rest ye, merry” meant “God make you mighty.” Who of us doesn’t need a little more strength for the challenges that scare us or we feel like we just can’t face?

Overcoming division and prejudice
O Holy Night! (Placide Cappeau, 1847)

When amateur poet Cappeau had his Jewish friend Adolphe Adam compose the music for this Christian carol, France banned it. In 1865, when abolitionist pastor and editor John S. Dwight discovered it, he fell in love with lyrics proclaiming freedom to the captives, “the weary world rejoicing.” Later, this carol was the first song ever to be broadcast by radio, across our whole divided globe.

Inspiration through illness
What Child Is This? (William C. Dix, 1865)

I love this story: insurance agent by day, gifted song-writer by night. Then he fell quite ill. While bedridden, he wrote multiple songs (most are better known in England), including the wonder-filled, spirit-calming “What Child is This?” Deep faith from desperate illness still pours beauty through this carol after all these years.

What’s your story this season? Are you battling something? Facing prejudice? Grasping for health? Longing for peace? What would your spirit-song’s lyrics be?

God rest ye, merry friends!

Information Sources:

  • The World’s Greatest Christmas Carols: Stories And Music of The Best-Loved Carols. Shawnee Press,  2007.
  • William C. Dix
  • O Holy Night
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