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Origins of America's favorite Christmas carols

An intrepid researcher tracks down the stories behind America's best-loved Christmas carols.

(Page 3 of 3)

"Brooks was impressed by Christmas Eve services at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and as he sat on a hill looking back at the village of Bethlehem, while shepherds still watched their flocks at night, he felt at peace," Clancy notes. "He later told friends, 'That experience was so overpowering that forever there will be a singing in my soul.' "

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That singing became first the poem "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and then the famous carol.

"Do You Hear What I Hear?" took Clancy to New York City, to the corner of East 50th Street and Lexington Avenue inside what is now the Benjamin Hotel. In the early 1950s, when the hotel was called The Beverly, a classically trained composer named Noël Regney was smitten with the pianist in the hotel's dining room and married her several months later. According to Clancy's research, Regney and pianist Gloria Shayne wrote "Do You Hear What I Hear?" as a hymn of peace borne out of a sense of desperation and fear of war during the looming Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus the added resonance of the song's words: "Pray for peace, people everywhere!"

Another stop in New York landed Clancy at 17 Beekman Place in Greenwich Village, now the mission of Luxembourg to the United Nations but for decades the home of Irving Berlin, one of America's greatest composers. Berlin wrote such classics as "God Bless America," "Easter Parade," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and "Puttin' on the Ritz," but he believed his best song was the holiday song "White Christmas." Ironically, Dec. 25 was always tinged with sadness for Berlin. He lost an infant son on Christmas Day in 1928. Late in life he became more and more reclusive. Six years before his death in 1989, carolers gathered outside Berlin's home. "A group was singing 'White Christmas' and other songs in front of his townhouse," Clancy says. "His maid invited the entire group into the home, and Berlin greeted them all and admitted how touched he was."

Almost certainly, however, the carolers did not sing the entire song. For while some may know that it's the only Christmas carol to win an Oscar (Best Music in an Original Song, sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 movie "Holiday Inn"), almost no one knows that "White Christmas" actually has a first, rarely sung stanza that Berlin wrote as a lead-in to the now famous "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." The forgotten words are these:

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- fourth

And I'm longing to be up north.


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