Pastor shares stories behind your favorite Christmas songs

To make the point that we really needed Christmas cheer this year, Chicago radio station WLIT 93.9 FM started its 24 hours of holiday music daily just after Halloween.

It was a fitting gesture when considering that, of all the different aspects that make the holidays what they are, it's the fun, merriment and solemnity of various types of Christmas music that always stand out.

"More than any other season, music is a major part of the celebration of Christmas," said the Rev. William Beckmann of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Aurora. "The songs of the Christmas season are so familiar that most of us can sing them from memory."


However, it's quite likely most of us don't really know the stories behind how our favorite songs came to be. Beckmann touched on some of our favorites this week in his annual Christmas presentation, this year scheduled via Zoom, to members of his Tri-Cities Exchange Club.

How to categorize music:

To start with, Beckmann points out, there is a difference between songs, hymns and carols during the Christmas season.

A Christmas song is about Christmas, but generally not very religious, while a hymn is a religious song written for the purpose of praise or a prayer addressed to God. A carol is a traditional song at Christmastime that celebrates and mentions the birth of Christ.

Like a lot of Christmas traditions, many carols were pagan songs that families sang in their homes with friends and family at the time of the winter solstice.

"People sang them while dancing in a circle," Beckmann said. "Greeks started it, and Romans picked it up. From there, the custom spread across Europe."

Some Christmas songs actually didn't have much to do with Christmas.

"Let It Snow," "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "Winter Wonderland" never mention anything about the holiday, Beckmann said.

"'Sleigh Ride' doesn't mention Christmas, but instead mentions a birthday party," he added, while "Jingle Bells" was written to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Longevity for 'Night':

With a run of 262 years, "Silent Night" ranks as the world's most popular Christmas carol. It's been translated into more than 300 languages.

Father Joseph Mohr wrote the words in 1816 when he was the priest in the small town of Mariapfarr, Austria. He collaborated with musician and teacher Franz Gruber to put the song together.

For the first time, the two men sang all six stanzas, with the backing of a choir, in front of the main altar of St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve in 1818.

"What inspired Mohr to write the poem is unknown," Beckmann said.

The song has had some staying power, including Christmas Eve of 1914 when German and American troops joined in a choral cease-fire in Flanders to sing "Silent Night" together on the battlefield.

Those three 'ships':

The song "I Saw Three Ships" is an English folk song with many versions, with the most popular being about Mary and Joseph "sailing" into Bethlehem, Beckmann said.

Because there was no body of water within 20 miles of Bethlehem, it's more likely the "ships" referred to actually were camels.

"Camels were sometimes referred to as 'ships of the desert,'" Beckmann added.

That good king:

Even though a song about "Good King Wenceslas" made it sound like he was active in giving to the poor on the day after Christmas, the Feast of St. Stephen, Beckmann contends the story in the carol was probably made up just to encourage people to give to the poor.

In England during the Middle Ages, Wenceslas was actually a duke who was not old enough to assume the throne when his father died. He had a tough life with some unsavory family members, including a jealous brother.

Beckmann said historians believe the brother, with the possible help of their mother, plotted to murder Wenceslas. He was killed at the church door on St. Stephen's Day by three of the brother's henchmen.

Did you hear that?:

In an atmosphere of significant unrest between the U.S. and Soviet Union in 1962, fresh off the Cuban missile crisis, a couple of talented French musicians who had moved to the U.S. were working on a new Christmas song.

Noel and Gloria Regney were successful songwriters and a record producer was asking for a Christmas song, and Noel came up with "Do Your Hear What I Hear?"

"It was mostly a song for peace, but it lost some of its pacifist focus," Beckmann said. "Columbia Records claimed it was too serious for a Christmas tune, pointing to the line 'Pray for people everywhere' as a bit too much during times of nuclear fears."

The song didn't become a Christmas season hit until Bing Crosby gave it international success in 1963, which gave it the feel of "a more generically Jesus-themed Christmas song," he added.

What it all means:

Beckmann closed his presentation by reminding us all of what Christmas Day means.

"Christmas is the only religious holiday in America that is also a national legal holiday," Beckmann said. "In 1836, Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas an official holiday. By 1880, all other states followed."

President Calvin Coolidge told Americans that "Christmas is neither a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in Christ-like mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas."

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