Thursday 31 December 2015

Carol of the Bells

This Ukrainian folk chant, originally called Shchedryk, was written by choir conductor Alexander Koshetz to celebrate the New Year.  It talks about a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the bountiful year that the family will have.  Originally the Ukrainian New Year was in April, but after the country was Christianized, the New Year moved to January, thereby making it a song sung at Christmas time.

The song was first performed by students at Kiev University in 1916.  However, after the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, the song lost its popularity.  The Ukrainian National Chorus brought the song to America in 1919 where it experienced a revival.

Peter Wilhousky rearranged the carol with new lyrics for American orchestras.  The melody reminded him of handbells and therefore he renamed it the Carol of the Bells.  It was first aired by NBC, performed by their radio network orchestra during the Great Depression. 

The Robert Shaw Chorale recorded the Carol of the Bells in 1946  Wynton Marsalis played it on his album Crescent City Christmas Card in 1990, with the role of the bells carried by the brass section.  Marillion released an extended version for charity in 2013.

Wednesday 30 December 2015

The Rocking Carol (Little Jesus Sweetly Sleep)

Little Jesus sweetly sleep, do not stir;
We will lend a coat of fur,
We will rock you, rock you, rock you
We will rock you, rock you, rock you:
See the fur to keep you warm
Snugly round your tiny form.

This Czech Christmas carol was collected by Miss Jacubikova and translated into English by Percy Dearmer in the late 1928 for the Oxford Book of Carols.  Dearmer was a clergyman with an interest in social gospel and rescuing neglected carols.  The tune for the song is similar to that of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  The rhythm is similar to that of a lullaby.  This carol could have accompanied cradle rocking, a practice started in Germany during Medieval Times.  The carol was popularized by Julie Andrews in the 1960's (

Peter Warlock's "Bethelehem Down"

When he is King we will give him the King's gifts
Myrrh for its sweetness and gold for a crown
Beautiful robes, said the young girl to Joseph
Fair with her first born on Bethlehem down.

In 1927, journalist and poet Bruce Blunt and composer Peter Warlock were broke and living in the country in Britain.  Blunt wrote the poem Bethlehem Down and Warlock composed an accompanying tune. The pair submitted it to a Christmas carol contest run by the Daily Telegraph, winning first prize and financing a night of heavy carousing on Christmas Eve in London town.  With a hit on their hands, Blunt land Warlock decided to call themselves Carols Consolidated.

The piece was performed at King's College in Cambridge in 2010.  Sting sang the song on one of his albums (

Tuesday 29 December 2015

John Jacob Niles' "I Wonder as I Wander"

A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile.  She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she too was unwashed.  Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins...But best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.

In 1933, in the Appalachians of North Carolina, John Jacob Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by an evangelical group that had been kicked out of town by the police.  A young, impoverished girl stood on a platform and sang three lines of a song over and over again.  Niles tried seven times to get her to sing the entire song, but all he could get out of her were the same three lines, each time in exchange for a quarter.  Singing in exchange for money would not have been an uncommon sight during the Great Depression.  However, this young girl, who called herself Annie Morgan, was anything but common.  Something about her struck a chord with Niles:  the contrast between her dirty, ragged clothes and her natural beauty.

Niles was moved to write a three stanza folk song, I Wonder as I Wander, using the girl's "haunting melody".  He first performed the song on December 19, 1933 at North Carolina's John C. Campbell Folk School.  It was first published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.  Joan Baez recorded the song in 1966 (  The carol has been performed as one of the Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England.

Monday 28 December 2015

Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)

O Come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, o come ye, to Bethlehem
Come and behold him, born the King of angels
O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
Christ the Lord.

Will the real John please stand up?  The 17th Century Christmas carol Adeste Fideles has been attributed to three composers:  John Francis Wade (1711-1786), John Reading (1645-1692) and King John IV of Portugal (1604-1656).  The earliest copies of the carol all bear the signature of Wade. who included the hymn in his own publication of Cantus Diversi in 1751.  The oldest known version, dating from 1759, is held by Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England.

English Catholic priest, Frederick Oakeley, translated the hymn into English in 1841.  Four verses were added to the original four.  The present harmonization is from the English Hymnal of 1906.  O Come all Ye Faithful is one of the Nine Lessons and Carols sung at King's College in Cambridge, England each Christmas.

Adeste Fideles was recorded by Bing Crosby at Kraft Music Hall in 1944 (

Sunday 27 December 2015

William Chatterton Dix's "As With Gladness Men of Old"

As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold
As with joy they hailed its light
Leading onward, beaming bright
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led by Thee.

William Chatterbox Dix languished in bed, stricken by an illness.  Rather than feeling sorry for himself he took out a pen and paper and wrote a new hymn praising God.   Called As With Gladness Men of Old,  it would be accompanied by music composed by Konrad Kocher in 1838  This is the same tune as For the Beauty of the Earth, a hymn often sung at Thanksgiving.  As With Gladness Men of Old, which soon became known as a Christmas carol, was first published in Hymns of Love and Joy in 1867.  Only a year before the hymn was published, Dix was stricken with a near fatal illness, which triggered the onset of depression. However, from this tragedy came many new compositions, some of Dix's best hymns (

Saturday 26 December 2015

Isaac Watt's "Joy to the World"

Joy to the world
The Lord is come
Let Earth receive her King
Let every heart 
Prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the World, written by Isaac Watts in 1719, is based on Psalm 98 in the Bible.  Rather than glorifying God's entry into the world as a newborn baby, the carol heralds God's triumphant return to Earth at the end of the age, bringing Salvation to humanity.  The song was adapted and arranged from an older melody by Lowell Mason in 1839.  As late as the 20th Century, Joy to the World was the most published hymn in North America.  It was the final hymn at my childhood church's Christmas Eve service every year.
In 1965, the Supremes recorded Joy to the World for their Christmas album Merry Christmas.  Andy Williams recorded the song for his Christmas Present LP in 1974.  Faith Hill recorded the song for her Joy to the World album in 2008.  For an a cappella performance, visit


Friday 25 December 2015

Johnny Mark's "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"

Robert L. May created the character of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for a colouring book for the department store Montgomery Ward in 1939.  In its first year, 2.5 million copies of the book were distributed.   His brother in law, Johnny Marks, wrote a song about the famous reindeer.  Gene Autry's recording of the song hit number one on the Billboard charts the week of Christmas 1949.  Autry's record eventually sold 25 million copies, a record not broken until the 1980's.  In 1964, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer premiered on television.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Joseph Mohr's "Stille Nacht" (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.

It was Christmas Eve of 1818 and Pastor Joseph Mohr of Obendorf, Austria, had a dilemma:  his church organ had been destroyed by a recent flooding of the nearby Salzach river.  How would he get music for the Christmas service at St. Nicholas Kirche?

Mohr grabbed a poem he had written two years before and headed to the nearest village where the church organist, Franz Gruber, lived.  Gruber proceeded to write the hymn Stille Nacht, but with guitar accompaniment. 

The hymn was performed many times over the next several decades.  John Freeman Young wrote the English version, of three verses rather than the original six, in 1859.  Today, the carol has been translated into 140 languages.  The Christmas carol was simultaneously sung by German and English soldiers during the Christmas Truce of 1914.  To listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Silent Night, visit

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Cecil Frances Alexander's "Once in Royal David's City"

Once in royal David's city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that Mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little child.

Once in Royal David's City was a poem written by Cecil Frances Alexander and first published in 1848 in the hymnbook Hymns for Little Children.  A year later, the English organist Henry Lord Gauntlett set the poem to music.  Cecil Frances Alexander is also known for her hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.

The King's College Choir in Cambridge, England has been singing the song since 1919 in its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  Following Doctor Henry Mann's arrangement, the first verse is sung by a boy chorister, the second by the choir, and the third by the congregation.  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has recorded the song

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Placide Cappeau's "Cantique de Noel" (O Holy Night)

O Holy Night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
O night divine
O night divine.

Placide Cappeau was a one handed businessman who wrote poems as a hobby.  He was also the mayor of the French town of Roquemaure.  Cappeau composed a poem, Cantique de Noel, which a friend of a friend, Adolphe Adam, put to music.  The tune, sometimes called by its first line "Minuit Chretiens" was first performed at a Christmas Eve midnight mass in Roquemaure in 1847.  

Cantique de Noel was translated into English by Sullivan Dwight as O Holy Night and was first broadcast as a violin piece on a Massachusetts radio station on December 24, 1906.  The song focusses on the birth of Jesus and the redemption of humanity.  Both Cappeau and Dwight were abolitionists and therefore when the latter translated the lines of the second verse, he included:  "Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother/And in his name all oppression shall cease."

Minuit Chretiens has been recorded by Mireille Mathieu in 1968 on her Chante Noel album.  Celine Dion recorded O Holy Night on her 1998 album These are Special Times (

Monday 21 December 2015

Ernst Anschutz' "O Tannenbaum"

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
Your branches green delight us
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
Your branches green delight us.
They're green when summer days are bright
They're green when winter snow is white.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Your branches green delight us.

Leipzig, Germany organist Ernst Anschutz wrote the lyrics to the Christmas song O Tannenbaum in 1824.  The words to the song describe the tannenbaum, or fir tree's, constancy and faithfulness.  It is unchanging through the seasons.  Anschutz based his song on a Silesian folksong "Ach Tannenbaum" by Melchior Franck.  Anschutz added two verses to the song, which became associated with Christmas once Christmas trees became popular in the 19th Century.

O Christmas Tree, the English version, was arranged by Vince Guaraldi for A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965  The famous scene of Charlie Brown and his friends dancing around the sad evergreen that he picked out at a tree lot is accompanied by the Guaraldi's arrangement.  Aretha Franklin's A Very Special Christmas 2, features O Christmas Tree.  Tony Bennett featured the song on A Swinging Christmas in 2008.

Sunday 20 December 2015

James Pierpont's "Jingle Bells"

Dashing through the snow
In a one horse open sleigh
Over the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bobtails ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to laugh and sing
A sleighing song tonight!

In 1850, James Pierpont sat down at the Simpson Tavern in Medford, Massachusetts and wrote the lyrics to One Horse Open Sleigh.  Mrs. Otis Waterman, who was present at the time, called it a "merry little jingle"; hence, the tune became known as "Jingle Bells".  The Christmas song was not published until 1857, after James Pierpont moved to Savannah, Georgia, to fill the position of organist at the Unitarian Church.  The charge, of which his brother was the pastor, was known for its abolitionist leanings.  Even after the church closed due to its stand against slavery, Pierpont remained in Savannah as he married the mayor's daughter, Eliza Jane Purse.

Jingle Bells talks about going for a ride on a sleigh, reminiscent of the 19th Century sleigh races in Salem, Massachusetts.  At one point, the sleigh gets "upsot" which is the past tense for upset or turned over.  The word "Jingle" is used as a verb rather than an adjective, as the bells were used by a driver to alert other sleighs of his approach.  

The Edison Male Quartette was the first to record the song, on an Edison cylinder, in 1898 as part of a Christmas medley called the Sleigh Ride Party.  In 1943, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters recorded Jingle Bells which placed 19th on the charts.  The Christmas song had the distinction of being the first song broadcast from outer space in 1965.  Astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra smuggled a harmonica and sleigh bells on board their space craft, Gemini VI, to provide the music.(

Saturday 19 December 2015

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing ye dismay
Remember Christ our Saviour 
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray
Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was written by an Englishman in the 16th Century.  Light and exuberant in tone, it was the peasants' response to the church's somber, dark Latin hymns.  While at first it was sung outside of the church walls, it gradually gained acceptance within the church as well.  In 1760, the carol appeared in print for the first time, set to an English melody.  In 1843, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen had the distinction of being the only carol in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  By the late Victorian era, the song was the nation's favourite. (,_Gentlemen)

English has evolved over the centuries and therefore the meaning of the title needs clarification. Today "rest" means to relax.  However, back in the 16th Century it meant to keep.  "Merry" means happy today, but back then it meant to be mighty.  In other words, the title means God keep you mighty, men.  

Bing Crosby recorded God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen on his White Christmas Album in 1942.  Nat King Cole also recorded the carol on The Magic of Christmas album in 1960.  To hear the Trans- Siberian Orchestra version, click here

Friday 18 December 2015

Katherine Kennicott Davis' "Little Drummer Boy"

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A newborn king to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king, pa rum pum pum pum
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.

Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote her first composition at the age of 15.  She studied at the New England Conservatory of Music as well as a Paris school.  Although she has written over 600 compositions, perhaps her most famous is "Little Drummer Boy," performed by dozens of recording artists over the years.  The carol, originally titled "Carol of the Drum" in 1941, is based on the Biblical verse Isaiah 1:3.  It talks about a little boy who is invited by the Three Magi to visit the baby Jesus.  While the Magi have fine gifts like gold, frankincense and myrhh, the poor drummer boy has nothing fit for a king.  But he does have talent:  he plays a song on his drum for the baby Jesus.  

Some say the story is similar to that of a 12th Century legend told by Anatole France called Le Jongelur de Notre Dame (Our Lady's Juggler).  Legend goes that a juggler juggled the a statue of Mary.  Mary was so pleased that she smiled at him and threw him a rose.

The Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music fame, first recorded the song for Decca Records in 1955.  But it wasn't until 1958, when the Harry Simeone Chorale recorded the carol, that it first came to prominence, topping the charts for four successive years.  The album, originally titled "Carol of the Drum" was reissued as "The Little Drummer Boy:  A christmas Festival" a few years later. 

In 1977, Bing Crosby and David Bowie did a duet of "Peace on Earth" and "Little Drummer Boy" on Crosby's last television Christmas special.  

Thursday 17 December 2015

Jay Livingston & Ray Evans' "Silver Bells"

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks,
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there's a feeling of Christmas
Children laughing, people passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner, you hear
Silver bells, silver bells,
It's Christmas time in the city
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring
Soon it will be Christmas day.

In 1950, Paramount Pictures approached the song writing duo of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and asked them to write a Christmas song for their new picture, The Lemon Drop Kid.  Livingston, inspired by a bell sitting on his piano, penned Tinker Bells (others claimed that he was inspired by the Salvation Army bells).  However, his wife Lynne Gordon pointed out that "tinkle" is a slang word for urinate so the piece was changed to Silver Bells.

Later that year, Bing Crosby and Carol Richards recorded the Christmas song with Decca Records. The Lemon Drop Kid premiered, starring bob Hope and Carol Richards, who sang the song.  The piece was not expected to be a success; Nat King Cole placed it on the B-side of his album.  However, the song took off on the charts and was recorded by numerous singers.  Livingston and Evans, with hits like Que Sera, Sera and  Buttons on Bows, and now Silver Bells, were called "the last great songwriters in Hollywood". (

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Mark Lowry's "Mary Did You Know?"

Mary did you know
That your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know
That your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered will soon deliver you.

Mark Lowry sat down in 1984 and composed words for the Living Christmas Tree at his church.  Little did he know that his words would become one of the most recorded modern Christmas songs, recorded by 400 artists

"I started thinking and wondering if Mary realized the power, authority and majesty that cradled in her arms that first Christmas.I wondered if she realized that those little hands were the same hands that scooped out oceans and formed rivers.  I just tried to put into words the unfathomable."

The result was Mary Did You Know?  However, it was seven more years before the words were put to music by Buddy Greene.  In 1991, Christian singer Michael English recorded the Christmas song.  Five years later it was recorded by Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd.  Mark Lowry realized that the song had gotten away from him, though, when it was recorded by Natalie Cole and Donny Osmond.  My favourite version is sung by Rascal Flatts.  I cannot think of a song that captures Mary's thoughts better than this one. 

Tuesday 15 December 2015

George Ratcliffe Woodward's "Ding Dong Merrily on High"

The carol "Ding Dong Merrily on High" originated in a 16th Century French dance music called "Orchesographie", composed by Jehan Tabourot.  The specific tune was called "Le branle de l'Official".  Centuries later, in 1924, George Ratcliffe Woodward wrote Christian lyrics to accompany the French tune.  The new Christmas carol was published in The Cambridge Carol-Book.  The topic of bells is appropriate considering that Woodward was a fan of bell ringing.  The song is known for its Latin refrain "Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!" (

Monday 14 December 2015

John Mason Neale's "Good King Wenceslas"

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight,
Gathering winter fuel.

King Wenceslas was neither a king or a Wenceslas.  He was a 10th Century Catholic duke from Bohemia named Vaclav.  After his death, he was promoted to the position of king and his name was changed to the Latin name Wenceslas.

Duke Vaclav, known for his good deeds, practised good servant leadership.  He set out on December 26, the Feast of Stephen, to deliver alms to a poor peasant.  The harsh winter weather slowed him down.  HIs page was about to give up.  However, the Duke coaxed him onward, telling him to follow his footsteps through the deep snow.  People started calling him Vaclav the Good.

The Duke's brother, Boleslaw the Bad, assassinated him, after which a cult following developed for the fallen leader in both Bohemia and England.  The people considered him to be an example of a "rex justus" or "righteous king".  Therefore, the Duke was promoted to King.  A 12th Century preacher explained: 

But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God's churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.

John Mason Neale wrote a hymn for the "King", with the help of Thomas Helmore, which was published in Carols for Christmas-Tide in 1853.  Neale chose a 13th Century melody "Tempus adus floridum" to accompany the lyrics.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Noel Regney & Gloria Shayne's "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite.

In October of 1962, Noel Regney walked down the street in Manhattan, discouraged and disillusioned.  The world was on the brink of war:  America and the U.S.S.R. were arguing over missiles recently built in Cuba, aimed at the United States.  Rather than enjoying the autumn colours in their backgrounds, people were building bomb shelters.  The tension was so real, they could feel it.

Noel Regney was no stranger to war.  Born and raised in France, he had been drafted by the Germany Army during the Second World War.  Unbeknownst to the Germans, he went underground as part of the French Resistance.  Wounded during the war, some suspect he was hit by the French, to protect his identity from the Germans.

Noel Regney survived the war and in 1952, he immigrated to the United States.  The composer was smitten by a young singer named Gloria Shayne.  After a whirlwind courtship, the couple married.  Shayne was a talented lyricist, Noel a talented composer, so the two teamed up to write songs.  "Rain, Rain Go Away" was one of their trademark tunes.

However, in October of 1962, their arrangement changed.  As Noel walked down the Manhattan streets with a heavy heart, he looked up and spotted two babies in carriages.  He was struck by their joy and innocence.  They gave him hope.  Back at his apartment, he started to compose a Christmas song about the hope that the two babies brought, despite the world being on the brink of war.  Noel's wife, Gloria, wrote the music.  Do You Hear What I Hear? was the result.

"Pray for peace, people everywhere" became Noel's plea.  The two babies became the "little lamb".  "A star in the night" brought hope.  A "child sleeping in the night", the baby Jesus, brought "goodness and light".  Noel and Gloria struggled to perform the song at first, explaining:  "Our little song broke us up.  You must realize there was a threat of nuclear war."

The carol was first recorded on Thanksgiving of 1962 by the Harry Simeone Chorale.  However, it was Bing Crosby who made it a hit with his recording of October 1963 (  The carol was by far the biggest hit for Noel and Gloria Regney.   

The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved after a few weeks, in large part thanks to President John F. Kennedy's levelheadedness and diplomacy (see and  Sadly, the President didn't get to enjoy the peace that resulted as he was assassinated only a year later in November of 1963.

Saturday 12 December 2015

Bob Wells' & Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song"

And so I'm offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety two
Although it's been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you.

On a blistering hot summer day in 1945, singer Mel Torme showed up at the Toluca Lake House. Inside, Bob Wells, trying to think of ways to keep cool, sat down at his piano, grabbed his spiral pad and scribbled the phrases:  "Chestnuts roasting...Jack Frost nipping...Yuletide carols...Folks dressed up like Eskimos."  The chestnuts came from Bob Wells' childhood in Boston where street vendors would serve them in paper cones at Christmas time.  

The words caught the eye Mel Torme who started composing music for them.  "I think you might have something here," he said.  Forty minutes later, a hit was born.  

The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded The Christmas Song, subtitled Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, in 1946.  Nat King Cole was the first black American to record a Christmas standard.  A second recording came later that year, this time accompanied by strings.  A 1953 Nat King Cole recording included a full orchestra.  The 1961 recording, however, is considered to be the most well known.

Mel Torme recorded the song as part of At the Crescendo in 1954.  A 1970 recording by Mel Torme included an introduction.  

All through the year we waited
Waited through spring and fall
To hear silver bells ringing, see wintertime bringing
The happiest season of all.

Friday 11 December 2015

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas"

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.

Last night my husband, daughter and I were treated to a Christmas concert at my son's school, Hamilton District Christian High.  For a small school, they have some big talent.  A quarter of the student body was up on stage singing,  harmonizing, playing and even dancing up a storm.  We were treated to a classic rendition of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas featuring an introductory solo by my son, Thomas.  He did Bing Crosby proud! 

Even though I watch the movie White Christmas every year, I didn't realize that the song has an introductory verse, one not performed in the film. 

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-forth --
And I'm longing to be up North.

I decided to research the history of the song.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas is the best selling single of all time, selling 100 million copies over the past several decades.  Legend has it that, in 1940, composer Irving Berlin was staying at the La Quinta Hotel in California when he was inspired to write the song.  That would explain the introduction which talks about Beverly Hills and L.A.  Apparently, Berlin made it a habit of staying up late at night and composing tunes. 

Bing Crosby's rendition of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas was first recorded on NBC's radio show The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day in 1941.  A second version was recorded by Decca Records in 1942, again with Bing Crosby.  That was the year that Crosby sang the song in the film Holiday Inn.  Surprisingly, though, it was Be Careful It's My Heart that overshadowed White Christmas at first.  The song did resonate with listeners, however, and within a short time, it sat at #1 on the Billboard charts, returning to the position in 1945 and again in 1946.

Twelve years after Holiday Inn premiered, White Christmas made its debut on the silver screen, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen.  Thanks in large part to the Irving Berlin score, White Christmas, featuring the song I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, became the highest grossing film of 1954.  Just as the song had resonated with listeners, the movie resonated with the audience. 

Since the original recording, the song has been recorded by over 500 singers.  Some have included the introductory verse including Barbra Streisand, Karen Carpenter and Bette Midler.  Many people still prefer Bing Crosby's version.  Ironically, Crosby gives all the credit to Irving Berlin.  "A jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully," claimed the crooner. 

Note:  A play was written in the early 2000's which is being performed at the Dunfield Theatre in Cambridge, Ontario this month.

Thursday 10 December 2015

James R. Murray's Away in a Manger

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

James R. Murray of Philadephia wrote the lyrics for the carol Away in a Manger for the Lutheran Song Book of 1885.  The music, known as Mueller, was composed in 1887.  The third verse was composed by John T. McFarland in 1904.  William Kirkpatrick composed an alternate tune in 1895.  Some believe that Martin Luther himself composed the original carol.  However, the hymn is not found among Luther's works.  It is more likely that the hymn was simply composed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Luther.

Sir David Willcock's version of the carol is often performed by English choirs.  Petula Clark recorded a version of the carol on her 1958 EP A Christmas Carol.  Jazz guitarist Royce Campbell recorded a version on his CD A Solo Guitar Christmas (

Wednesday 9 December 2015

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In

I saw three ships come sailing in 
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

This 16th Century English carol talks about three ships that came sailing into Bethlehem on Christmas Day.  However, the closest body of water to the birthplace of Jesus was 20 miles away (the Dead Sea).  It is suspected, therefore, that the three ships refer to three vessels carrying relics of the three wise men to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th Century.  

Another interpretation suggests that the three ships refer to King Wenceslaus of Bohemia sho bore the coat of arms "Azure three galleys argent".  King Wenceslaus is mentioned of course in the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas.  

A third interpretation points to the three camels that the three wise men road through the desert following the Star in the East to Bethelehem where they presented their gifts to the baby Jesus.

The parent tune for the hymn is "Greensleeves".  The first printed version of the carol appeared in the 17th Century.  It was published by Willliam Sandys in 1833.  Nat King Cole recorded the carol in 1960 on his album The Magic of Christmas (

Tuesday 8 December 2015

O Come O Come Emmanuel

O come o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
Who mourns in lonely exile here
Until the son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Monks used to perform O antiphons in the 8th Century, relating the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah.  In the 12th century, one of the antiphons, which referred to the Messiah as Emanuel, was adapted into a poem Veni, Veni Emmanuel.  The words were united with a Franciscan funeral hymn, heavily influenced by a Gregorian chant, written in the 15th Century.  By the 19th Century, John Mason Neale translated the Latin lyrics into English and the modern day carol was performed for the first time.  Neale's version was published in Hymni Ecclesiae in 1851.

Unlike later Christmas songs which highlight the lighter part of Christmas (Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town), early Christmas carols (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear) focus on the fight between God and the Enemy.  A later version of O Come O Come Emmanuel mentions:  "Free thine from Satan's tyranny."  How ironic that our mighty Saviour comes in the form of a helpless baby. 

Monday 7 December 2015

Charles Wesley's Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.

Charles Wesley, the brother of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote the lyrics for Hark, How All the Welkin Rings, Glory to the King of Kings in 1739.  In 1753, Charles' colleague, George Whitefield changed the lyrics, changed the title and had it published in Hymns and Sacred Poems.  In 1840, the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn composed the music for the hymn as part of a cantata to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Gutenberg Printing Press.  Five years later, organist Dr. William Cummings used Mendelssohn's melody to accompany Wesley's lyrics.  Wesley intended the hymn to be slow and solemn while Mendelssohn made it upbeat.  The current version is somewhere in between the two versions.  The hymn is always included in the Nine Lessons and Carols Service in Cambridge, England each year.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Edmund Sears' "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"

"It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
'Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven's all gracious King.'
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing."

In 1849, Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts was discouraged about the state of the world.  Europe was on the verge of a revolution.  The United States was at war with Mexico.  And Sears was on the verge of a nervous breakdown after seven years of hard work. He poured his thoughts out on paper, composing the poem "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear".  The poem was published in the Christian register on December 29 of that year.  Rumour has it that the carol was performed by Sears' parishoners on Christmas Eve, but no one knows what tune they used.

Two tunes have accompanied the carol over the years.  "Carol", the American tune, was composed by Richard Storrs Willis.  "Noel", the British tune, was composed by Arthur Sullivan.  

Listen to the words the next time you sing the carol.  Sears talks about "woes of sin and strife" and "two thousand years of wrong" and "man at war with man".  It reminds me of our time:  the terror in Paris, the shootings in San Bernardino, the Syrian refugees.  Times have not changed.  But the Christmas message remains the same:  a baby changes everything.  

Saturday 5 December 2015

Go Tell It on the Mountain

"Go tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born."

In 1907, John Wesley Work, a professor at Fisk University in Nashville, made an arrangement for the spiritual Go Tell it on the Mountain and had it published in Folk Songs of the American Negro.  Some people believe that John's father, Frederick Jerome Work was the composer of the song, but most believe that it was an old Negro spiritual handed down orally from plantation to plantation since 1865.  

In the 1960's, the song took off when it was recorded as "Tell it on the Mountain" by Peter, Paul & Mary.  The Negro spiritual became a Civil Rights anthem, belted out on protest marches as well as in churches, and concert halls.  Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer combined "Go Tell it on the Mountain" with the old spiritual "Go Down Moses" to create her own version of the song.  

To listen to the Peter, Paul & Mary version of the song in its entirety, visit

Friday 4 December 2015

John Henry Hopkins Jr.'s "We Three Kings"

"We three Kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star."

John Henry Hopkins Jr., the son of pioneer parents from Ireland and Germany, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He worked as a journalist while he studied law.  However, when he graduated, he felt called by the Holy Spirit to become a pastor.  He entered the General Theological Seminary of New York.

At the Seminary, Hopkins put his writing skills by founding and editing the Church Journal.  He also put his artistic talent to work, designing stain glass windows.  In 1857, as musical director of the Seminary, Hopkins was asked to write a new carol for the Christmas pageant. Likely with his young nieces and nephews in mind, Hopkins wrote "We Three Kings of Orient Are". He presented it to his nieces and nephews on his Christmas visit to Vermont, where he also saw his father, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the state.  

Six years passed before We Three Kings was published in "Carols, Hymns and Song.  Later, it became the first fully American carol to be published in England where it appeared in Christmas Carols Old and New. (

To listen to the carol, visit

Thursday 3 December 2015

Jester Hairston's "Mary's Boy Child"

"Long time ago in Bethlehem 
So the Holy Bible says
Mary's boy child, Jesus Christ
Was born on Christmas Day."

Jester Hairston starred in both To Kill a Mockingbird and In the Heat of the Night.  However, he is not known for these roles, but rather for a Christmas song that he wrote in 1956.  He not only acted but also wrote music.  The grandson of slaves, he desired to keep the Negro spirituals alive.  In 1956, his roommate asked him to write a song for his birthday, which he did.  The song, titled He Pone and Chocolate Tea, featured a calypso beat.  

At Christmas, the Schumann's Hollywood Choir asked him to write a Christmas song for them.  Hairston took the birthday song, changed the lyrics and re-titled it "Mary's Boy Child".  Singer Harry Belafonte asked permission to record the song on his album "An Evening with Belafonte".  The song rose to #1 on the U.K. Charts in 1957.  Mahalia Jackson also sang the song, only under the title "Mary's Little Boy Child".  To listen to the Harry Belafonte version, visit

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Phillip Brooks' "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

"O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by."

Phillip Brooks was a 6 foot 6 inch pastor from Philadelphia's Church of the Holy Trinity who could preach 200 words per minute.  One year, he travelled to the Holy Land for a visit.  On Christmas Eve, he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the journey that Mary and Joseph took, to preach at midnight mass.  The awesome experience remained etched on his memory.

Three years later, in 1868, the pastor wrote the lyrics to O Little Town of Bethlehem while the church organist, Lewis Redner, wrote the music, to be performed by the children's choir.  Nothing earth-shattering happened at first.  However, in 1874, Rev. Huntington of All Saints Church in Worcester, Massachusetts had the hymn published in his church hymn book.  

While the Christmas song became a popular one in the United States, it was not until 1906 that O Little Town of Bethlehem made it to the shores of England when it was published in an English hymnal.  While the original tune is known as St. Louis, a later tune was used called Forest Green.  In 1922, the carol was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern.(

To listen to O Little Town of Bethlehem, visit

Tuesday 1 December 2015

James Gillespie's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"

"If you don't wash behind your ears, Haven, Santa won't come to see you." 
(James "Haven" Gillespie's Mother)

In September of 1934, James "Haven" Gillespie was a New York City vaudevillian turned songwriter who had fallen on hard times financially.  To add to his misery, his brother passed away.  Right after the funeral, he got a call from Edgar Bittner of Leo Feist publishing asking him to write a Christmas song.  Feeling too overcome with grief, Gillespie initially rejected the idea.

However, one subway ride changed everything.  Gillespie started to recollect Christmases spent in Kentucky with his brother, along with seven other siblings, in which his mother would warn them that Santa Claus was watching.  "If you don't wash behind your ears, Haven, Santa won't come to see you," reminded his mother.

Within fifteen minutes, Gillespie had penned the lyrics to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town".  He called in composer John Coots to write the music.  On Thanksgiving of 1934, the song was featured on the Eddie Cantor Radio Show.  The song was an instant hit.  An average of 25,000 orders per day were taken for the sheet music.  In the decades since its debut, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" has been recorded by everyone from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Jackie Gleason to Bruce Springsteen to Justin Bieber.  And to think that James Gillespie almost passed up the opportunity to write it.

Note:  To listen to the song, visit