This is the time of year for Christmas music. Maybe you and your family play Christmas carols while you decorate the tree or bake cookies. Maybe you've gone caroling in your neighborhood or at a local retirement home. Or maybe you just hear holiday tunes at the mall or on the radio.
Have you ever wondered where some of the popular songs and carols came from? Here are the stories that are told about the creation of three of them.
From the time he was little, James Pierpont had been a talented musician. He lived in Medford, Mass., and his father was pastor at the Unitarian Church there. One day in 1840, Pierpont's dad asked him to write some special music for the church's Thanksgiving Day service.
While Pierpont thought about it, he was distracted by young people outside. They were having sled races in the snow. So he stepped out to watch. And the experience made him remember when he used to sleigh with friends.
Soon he had a tune in his head. He walked to a neighbor's house and told her about his melody. She had the only piano in town, so she let Pierpont get to work. When he finished his little jingle, he strolled home to put words to his music.
You probably know how the song turned out. With outdoor winter fun on his mind, he wrote about dashing through the snow in a sleigh drawn by horses.
After the choir performed Pierpont's song on Thanksgiving, churchgoers begged for more. So the choir sang it again at Christmas. The tune was so catchy that visitors to the church took it home with them and passed it on to friends and family.
Eventually, Pierpont moved to Savannah, Ga. It was there, in 1857, that he finally published his song officially. Soon, it caught on around the country. But Pierpont probably never guessed people would still be singing it more than 160 years later!
'Joy to the World'
This carol wasn't the work of just one person. One man wrote the words, and another composed the popular tune – nearly 100 years apart!
In 1674, Isaac Watts was born in Southampton, England. When he grew up, he complained to his father about how boring he thought church music was. He wished it was more lively and inspiring. So Watts's dad asked him why he didn't write something better. And that's just what Watts did. Eventually, he composed more than 600 hymns and hundreds of other poems.
One of these works was "Joy to the World," based on words from Psalm 98 in the Bible. During Watts's time, though, the poem was sung to the tune of another well-known hymn.
Here's where the next character in the story comes in. Lowell Mason was born in 1792 in Medfield, Mass. (not far from Medford, Mass., where James Pierpont would later be born). Many people thought he had musical talent. But he moved to Savannah, Ga. (just as Pierpont would) and worked as a banker.
Still, he spent time on his music and sent a book of songs he composed to several publishers in the Northeast. But the publishers rejected it. Finally, several years later, a musical society in Boston agreed to print his songs.
Later, Mason moved to Boston, where he became musical director for some local churches. Like Watts, he wrote hundreds of new hymns.
In 1836, Mason wrote a tune inspired by parts of a famous musical piece, "Messiah," by George Frideric Handel. Three years later, he paired his new tune with Isaac Watts's poem, "Joy to the World," and a popular new hymn was born.
'The Christmas Song'
You might know this as "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," which is the song's first line, not its title. And you might already know that it isn't as old as some other popular Christmas songs. It was written in 1944 by two men in show business.
Mel Torme was a famous singer, songwriter, and performer. His friend, Robert Wells, wrote songs' lyrics, or words. One summer day in California, the two men got together because they'd been hired to produce songs for two new movies.
But the day was sweltering hot, and when Torme arrived at Wells's house, he found Wells trying to cool off by thinking of winter scenes. Torme saw that his friend had written down some of these icy thoughts: "Chestnuts roasting...," "Jack Frost nipping...," "Yuletide carols...," and "Folks dressed up like Eskimos...." Torme was inspired.
Instead of working on their assignment, the two men put their heads together and made Wells's words into a song.
Forty minutes later, the music and lyrics were finished! They hurried to see another friend, the famous singer Nat King Cole. When they showed him their song, Cole wanted to record it. He did, and when it was released in 1946, "The Christmas Song" climbed to the top of the music charts.
The song reached the Top 10 four more times during the next eight years. And it was eventually recorded by more than 100 other singers, including Mel Torme himself.
Sources: "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas," by Ace Collins, and online sources.