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How Popular Christmas Carols Came About

by Lynn Jebbia

Christmas Carols are sung mostly during the holiday season but most of us find ourselves humming them periodically during the course of the year. They come out of our mouths mindlessly and we rarely stop and wonder where they came from. Most revolve around the birth of Christ but the variety, history and popularity of Christmas carols is fascinating. Two of the most popular songs of all time are Christmas carols.

Silent Night - was a poem written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, in 1816. It became a Christmas carol on Christmas Eve in 1818 in Obendorf, Austria, a village near Salzburg, when Joseph decided he needed a carol for Christmas Eve services. He gave the poem to his friend Franz Xavier Gruber who wrote the melody in a few hours. It was composed for the guitar which was Joseph's favorite instrument. It is the most famous Christmas carol of all time.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman - was first published in William Sandy's "Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern" in 1833. The author is unknown. Most people sing and interpret this song as God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman thinking it means for merry fellows to rest. The rest wasn't intended to mean lie down but to keep as you are, to stay merry. Rest ye merry means to remain peacefully content and so the true meaning of the song is hoping God will bestow this contentment on the gentleman. Even Dickens misinterpreted the comma as God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman when he refers to it in "A Christmas Carol". Scrooge didn't like the carol being sung at his keyhole speaking of merriment. Bah Humbug.

What Child is This - with words written to the melody Greensleeves. It originated in Elizabethan times and is mentioned by Shakespeare in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" when it is played as traitors are hanged.

Jingle Bells - was written by James Pierpont in 1857 for a Thanksgiving program at his church in Boston. Everyone liked it and so it was repeated at Christmas and it has been a Christmas song ever since.

O Little Town of Bethlehem - was composed by Lewis Redner with words by Bishop Phillips Brooks in 1868. The Bishop had been to the Holy Land a few years earlier and was inspired by looking down on Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer - A twentieth century carol created for Montgomery Ward by Robert May. Montgomery Ward asked May to write a Christmas story to be given out to shoppers during the holidays. May was inspired by the tale of the Ugly Duckling and his own sad youth as a small, shy child and created the idea of the reindeer outcast shunned by the other reindeers because of his bright red nose. He wrote the story in rhyming couplets. It almost didn't get published because his boss at Montgomery Ward thought that the public would view the red nose as caused by drinking. May eventually acquired the copyright for the song and it was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. It is the second best selling song of all time with White Christmas being the first. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer is also a popular Christmas ornament with a festive Christmas wreath hung around his neck. 


About the Author
Lynn Jebbia is the owner of Acadia Wreath Company, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, handcrafts fresh Maine balsam fir Christmas wreaths, Christmas Centerpieces and Kissing Balls.

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