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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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