Origins of America's favorite Christmas carols
An intrepid researcher tracks down the stories behind America's best-loved Christmas carols.
(Page 2 of 3)
"Kay, your carol is on the air, all the time, everywhere on radio!"Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"What carol?" asked the surprised Davis.
"The Little Drummer Boy."
Davis's carol was becoming a hit, with a new title, some minor changes, and no mention of her as composer and lyricist. Able to prove authorship, she secured both credit and royalties, and, of course, a place in the pantheon of American Christmas carol creators.
Harvard University and the town of Cambridge are home to several carols. For example, the Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, wrote the words to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."
John Sullivan Dwight, cofounder of the Harvard Musical Society, translated the 19th-century French carol, "Cantique de Noël," known in English as "O Holy Night." Harvard was also home to the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who taught there, and on Christmas Day 1863, while still grieving his wife's death in a home fire in 1861 and his son's injury in the Civil War, he wrote a poem he called "Christmas Bells."
Clancy says: "Longfellow heard church bells pealing with the good news of Christmas, causing his demeanor to change." Indeed, Longfellow's poem concludes famously: "With peace on earth, good-will to men!" Set to music, we know it today as "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
The folk carol "I Wonder as I Wander" brought Clancy to the town square in Murphy, N.C., where in July 1933, a young girl had sung without accompaniment at her father's revivalist meeting. In the audience that day was John Jacob Niles, a folk singer and collector of folk songs. Niles paid the girl to sing the song for him and captured several lines of verse, to which he soon added additional lyrics and music.
In 1934 Niles published "I Wonder as I Wander" in his volume "Songs of the Hill-Folk." Three-quarters of a century later, Clancy's video camera captured the words of longtime Murphy Mayor William Hughes: "It's a beautiful melody.... You can hear the voice of Appalachia."
In Philadelphia, at the Church of the Holy Trinity overlooking Rittenhouse Square, there's a triptych behind the altar commemorating the church's connection to "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The words to this classic American carol were completed in 1868 by Trinity's young rector Phillips Brooks (later the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts) and the music by the church's organist, Lewis Redner.
Further digging into the life of Brooks revealed that he greatly admired Abraham Lincoln, and when the slain president's body lay in state inside Independence Hall during the Philadelphia train stop en route to Springfield, Ill., the rector delivered a sermon at his church on the life and death of America's Civil War president. Months later, still grief-stricken by the assassination and the horrors of the Civil War, Brooks took solace in a trip to the Holy Land.