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Could a Christmas Song Stop a War?

Nativity sceneYou have no doubt heard the beloved Christmas song, O Holy Night, which is played and sung around the world, beautifully proclaiming the night our Savior was born in a manger in Bethlehem!  But, when I searched more deeply into the origins of this beloved carol, I was somewhat surprised by what I found.

Here is how the story goes:  A parish priest in a small town in France commissioned a local poet and wine commissionaire to write a poem for the village’s Christmas Eve mass.  Placide Cappeau read the account of Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Luke one night while traveling to Paris, and finished the poem “O Holy Night” by the time he reached the city.  He asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adam, to compose the music for his poem, and three weeks later, the beautiful song was sung for the first time in the village on Christmas Eve 1847.

Initially, Cantique de Noel, the song’s French name, was widely sung and loved by the Church in France, but when some of the leaders learned that Cappeau was a socialist, and the musical composer, Adam, was a Jew, the song was uniformly denounced as unfit for church services.  But, as is the case so often with truly great music, the common French people loved the song and continued to sing it!

The song came to the United States via John Sullivan Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War, who translated it from French into English in 1858.  He was greatly moved by the line in the third verse:

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother;

and in His Name all oppression shall cease….

Dwight published the words of the song in his magazine and quickly found favor with the people in the North during the war.

Even though the song was banned in France, it was still popular among the people. On Christmas Eve, 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian War, an unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked onto the battlefield, and started singing the song’s first line in French.  After he had sung all three verses, a German soldier emerged and started singing, “Von Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her….”, the beginning of a popular hymn by Martin Luther.

Fighting stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day!   Soon afterward, the French Church re-embraced the beloved song, Cantique de Noel, known to us in this country as O Holy Night.  It continues to be sung around the world and will no doubt remain on the list of most beloved Christmas songs!  I believe wherever this song is sung, a quiet, reverent atmosphere of praise and worship to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is created.

I love to play this song each Christmas and have combined it with the Italian carol, Gesu Bambino, in this live performance I did in Utah at Canyons Church a few years ago.  I hope you will enjoy this and worship the King of Kings with me!

 

(For more of my music videos, including this one, please visit my You Tube channel, Rebecca Baker Bafford).

Where Did Christmas Carols Come From?

DSC00671.jpgWhat would Christmas be without those all familiar and beautifully sung carols we have undoubtedly heard since childhood? Did you ever wonder how they came to be called “carols” and what their origins are?

In France, these songs are called appropriately “noels”, from the French word meaning “Christmas”. Perhaps that explains the title of one much-loved carol, “The First Noel”. The first known Christmas hymns may be traced to fourth century Rome, where Latin hymns were austere statements of the theological doctrine of the Incarnation in opposition to Arianism. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Christmas “sequence” or “prose” was introduced in northern European monasteries, and in the twelfth century monks began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something much closer to the traditional Christmas carols we take for granted.

Soon a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in regional native languages developed, particularly in France, Germany and Italy. Christmas carols in English first appeared in 1426 in a book of twenty-five “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of “wassailers”, or carolers who went from house to house singing and indulging in a brew called “wassail”, a hot drink made from wine or cider, spices, sugar and usually baked apples. It was traditionally served in a large bowl to warm the carolers. Many of these traditions continue to this day, especially where snow and ice make wassailing so inviting!

Many Christmas carols popular today were first printed in “Piae Cantiones”, a collection of late medieval Latin songs first publichsed in 1582. Some of these include “Christ was born on Christmas Day”, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”, and “Good King Wenceslas”. Another favorite, “Adeste Fideles” (O Come All Ye Faithful), may have originated in the thirteenth century. Carols gained popularity after the Reformation in the countries where Protestant churches gained prominence and as well-known reformers like Martin Luther authored carols, encouraging their use in worship. The Lutheran reformation warmly welcomed music.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought several more well-known carols, including “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, younger brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church; “Joy to the World” written in 1719 by Isaac Watts, to a tune attributed to ideas of a work by Handel, and based on Psalm 98, first published in England in 1833; “Silent Night” written in 1818 by Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber (see my blog on the history of “Silent Night”) and first performed on Christmas Eve in Oberndorf, Austria; and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” written in 1868 by a Philadelphia Episcopalian priest, Phillips Brooks, who had been greatly inspired after traveling on horseback between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 1865. His organist, Lewis Redner, added the music.

The publication of Christmas music books in the nineteenth century helped to widen the popular appeal of carols and in the twentieth century composers and arrangers such as John Rutter and Benjamin Britten have continued to broaden the tradition with more beautiful songs of the Savior’s birth! As recently as 1865, Christmas-related lyrics were adopted for the traditional English folk song, “Greensleeves”, becoming the internationally popular Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” These beautiful hymns, known as “Christmas carols”, can be sung at anytime during the year, because they present so majestically and lyrically, the truths of the birth of the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, who came to bring hope and salvation to every person who believes on Him! He truly is the “reason for the season” and can bring “joy to the world” to all who trust in Him! May you have a blessed and Christ-centered Christmas!
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A Word About Worship

Worship[1]Perhaps all of us have memories of walking in a forest or looking up at the stars on a clear night while worshipping and praising God for His creation!  However, how many times have we sat in a church pew on Sunday morning being critical, apathetic or “just there” physically, while our minds wandered to other subjects?

Even ministers, experts, and worship leaders have admitted they have had this experience, so should the rest of us be surprised if we also have trouble worshipping at times?  We face many obstacles in today’s active lifestyle and, in addition, Satan does his best to distract us and obstruct our true worship.  His desire to receive our worship instead of God results in his best efforts to distract and stop us from truly worshipping our Lord!  If successful, he has won half the battle. (Isaiah 14:12-14)

In 1961, the late A. W. Tozer rebuked evangelicals of his generation for their inadequate worship, in his book “Worship:  The Missing Jewel of the Evangelical Church”.  In 1982, Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror published a response in “Worship:  Rediscovering the Missing Jewel”.  They wrote, “The jewel is still missing, but at least now many of us know it, and miss it, and want to find it.”

For years some churches have prided themselves on free and spontaneous worship, while others have been equally proud of their staid and reverent attitude towards it.  Perhaps both have a point.  Could the ideal worship encompass both ends of the spectrum?  God is a God of balance and symmetry, and yet we as human beings tend to be off-balance on many issues, swaying first to the right and then to the left, when God is saying that somewhere in the middle we often find the ideal!

In a 1996 issue of “Moody” Magazine, published by Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, Bruce Shelley wrote an article titled, “Then and Now:  How Have Cultural Changes Altered our Expectations in Worship?”  In his informative article, Mr. Shelley details the explosive issues faced by churches attempting to change musical styles in their worship in order to improve their worship experience.  Although the need to do this was basically acknowledged by most, making it a non-controversial issue of the time, the difference of opinion as to how this should be accomplished was considerable.  In addressing the feelings that stir older members when churches change music styles, he told of the sanctified outrage he met with when he mentioned having drums in a service…”like a match dropped on a haystack!”  The room erupted in a corporate groan, followed by an outburst of laughter.  Remember, this article was written nearly twenty years ago when the changes in contemporary church worship were in their infancy.  Shelley went on to elaborate that churches across the country are “torn between the tug of tradition and the pull of style”.  Seniors want harmony; boomers want beat.  “What can be done to relieve this tension?” he asked.

Today, nearly twenty years later,  the “boomers” are the seniors in churches and the “millennials” have undertaken an even more radical approach to worship, shunning nearly all inferences to traditional church hymns or music of any sort, and imitating only the latest songs from the top “Christian” rock bands of the day or trendy pseudo-pop artists.  No matter that the music is absolutely “unsingable” to the average congregation (it sounds great on the radio where thousands of dollars have been spent to sync, digitize, loop and process each song); the lyrics trite and shallow; not to mention that the keys are pitched for high-voiced rock singers, not your average housewife or “man on the street” with zero musical ability.  Is it any wonder that when a person chances to look around the congregation, most of the audience is standing in silence, not even trying to sing?  Is this the way those attempting to come into God’s presence through corporate worship are encouraged to participate?

It is a fact that “loud cymbals” and “high sounding cymbals” are mentioned as a part of worship in Psalm 150:5 and elsewhere in the Psalms.  However, many other musical instruments used in praise and worship to God are mentioned, as well, such as the harp, lyre and ten-stringed instruments.  Should these be toned down and smothered in favor of the cymbals?  Could there be a musical balance that is pleasing to God that makes way for many instruments and styles of music?  Does the Psalmist speak about jubilant shouting in one psalm, as well as “waiting on God” and the “stillness of His presence” in another?  Are some of the anointed older hymns and songs of the past being shunned in favor of trendy fluff  with little or no theological or Bible-based soundness… not to mention, being poorly written from a musical standpoint, generally limited to three chords?  Who decided this appalling trend in music?

Perhaps, as “boomers” reach old age and “millennials” mature into middle age, there will be another generation that will emerge, seeking balance and wondering whatever happened to the hymns of old or the worship songs anointed of the Holy Spirit to bring people into a place of worship not readily experienced anymore.  Will they, then, return to the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” mentioned in Colossians 3:16?  I pray they will!

The Story of “Silent Night”

Silent night nativity sceneThe beautiful and much-loved Christmas carol, “Silent Night”, has a very interesting story behind it….I thought you might enjoy hearing how this most famous carol came to be written!

The year was 1818 and a roving band of actors was traveling through the Austrian Alps performing their re-enactment of the story of Christ’s birth in towns all over the area. On December 23 they arrived at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg, where they were scheduled to perform that evening in the small Church of St. Nicholas.

Unfortunately, the church organ was broken and unable to be repaired until after Christmas. Undeterred, the acting company simply moved their Christmas drama to a private home. In attendance that evening was assistant priest of the church, Josef Mohr. The beautiful presentation put him in a meditative mood, and instead of walking straight home that night, he took a longer route which included a quiet path up a hill overlooking the village below. As he looked down from the hilltop on the peaceful, snow-covered village, he reveled in the majestic silence of the wintry night and, gazing upon the picturesque winter scene, remembered a poem he had written a couple of years before about the night the angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on another hillside far away in Judea.

Mohr, who was very determined to introduce music in the mother tongue of the Austrian and German people, instead of insisting they sing songs and hear sermons in Latin which was not understood by anyone, decided that the words he had written might make a good simple carol for his congregation the following evening at their Christmas eve service. The only problem was he had no music to which the poem could be sung! So the next day Father Mohr went to see the church organist, Franz Gruber. The organist had only a few hours to compose a melody for Mohr’s poem, and due to the fact the organ was inoperable, he had to come up with an extremely simple melody and chord pattern that could be sung with a guitar! Gruber managed to do just that,  and by the time of the Christmas eve service, he had composed a simple but beautiful musical setting for the poem, one which could easily be sung by the common people and whose accompaniment could  be strummed on the guitar. They had just introduced a Christmas carol that could be sung without an organ!

On that Christmas Eve in 1818, the congregation heard for the very first time the beautiful carol, “Silent Night”, sung by Gruber and Mohr, who also accompanied them on his guitar!

Weeks later, when the organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived to repair the organ, he heard Gruber play his composition as he tested out the newly refurbished instrument. Deeply impressed by the beautiful, melodious carol, Mauracher took copies of the music and words to “Silent Night” back to his own Alpine village of Kapfing. Two well-known singing families, the Rainers and the Strassers, heard and were captivated by the beautiful new song, putting it into their Christmas season repertoires.

The Strasser sisters spread the carol across northern Europe. In 1834, after they performed it for King Frederick William IV of Prussia, he ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas eve! Twenty years after it was written, the Rainers brought “Silent Night” to the United States, singing it (in German) at the Alexander Hamilton Monument located outside of New York City’s Trinity Church.  Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber had maintained their church work in relative obscurity through the years.  It was not until people began asking years later, as its popularity at Christmas increased, “Who wrote this beautiful song?” that  Gruber’s son spoke up and said, “I know the story of this song!” and produced a copy of it after his father’s death.  Josef Moore died of complications from tuberculosis when he was not quite 56 years old, and is buried in the courtyard of a school he started in a small town in Austria during his priesthood.  Neither man ever knew the worldwide scope of the song they had penned that Christmas Eve in a small town in the mountains of Austria!

In 1863, “Silent Night” was translated into English from the original German, and today the words of “Silent Night” are sung in more than 300 different languages around the world!  It has been recorded musically by over 740 artists all over the world, making it the most recorded song of all time!

The original German lyrics go something like this:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schlaft, einsam wacht;
Nur das traute heilige Paar,
Holder Knab im lockigten Haar;
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh’, Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh’.

Did God in His sovereignty allow a simple church organ to “break down” and be out of commission at a most important time so that someone would compose a simple song, one that ordinarily would not be thought of as nearly complex enough for the traditional organ masterpieces of the day, that would be sung around the world as a best-loved rendition of His birth? Did God anoint two men who were moved by the events recorded in Matthew and Luke to compose perhaps the most famous of the carols that are sung all over the world to this day? I believe He did! I am thankful that they were obedient to the Holy Spirit’s prompting to pen the words and music that will go down in history as one of the greatest songs ever written:

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, Holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight; 
Glories stream from Heaven afar;
Heavenly hosts sing, “Allelujah”;
Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born!

May we remember the true meaning of the season as we celebrate His birth! Be blessed as you worship Christ the newborn King and, if you have not done so, why not allow Him to enter your life today as your Lord and Savior! I wish you all a Blessed Christmas and wonderful New Year filled with the wonders of His Love!