Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet. I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding. And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas. Not the commercialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course. Those things, I did and do despise. But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends. Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke. Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite). Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks for the Word became flesh.

And the music. The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing. So, in celebration of the season, here are some thoughts about three of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.

O Holy Night

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular churchgoer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France. Over the years, its popularity has risen and fallen, but it remains one of my personal favorites.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This song from the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a musical starring Judy Garland, Leon Ames, and Mary Astor, and directed by Judy Garland’s future husband, Vincente Minelli. The story deals with a prosperous attorney who is planning to move his family from St. Louis to New York – in spite of the family’s opposition. In the movie on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland sings this song to her little sister, portrayed by the very precocious Margaret O’Brien.

Originally, the song was supposed to be very bitter and sarcastic – even including the lyric, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.” But Garland refused to sing such a grim line, and her opposition inspired the songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane to come up with the more optimistic, “let your heart be light.”

Hallelujah Chorus (from the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah)

“Messiah” is an English-language oratorio composed by Georg Frederic Handel in 1741. The words were compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Version of the Bible. The work was in three major parts: Part 1 deals with prophecies about the birth of Jesus taken from the book of Isaiah and other Old Testament passages, as well as a brief section from the Gospels. Part 2 deals with the Passion of the Christ and ends with the “Hallelujah” Chorus; Part 3 covers the resurrection and His glorification in heaven. Parts 1 and 2 make up the “Christmas” portion of the oratorio, and are often performed, either in part or in whole, during the holiday season.

I was first exposed to “Messiah” as a freshman in college when our choir sang the Christmas portion with a local high school orchestra. The “Hallelujah” Chorus is an amazing work, with four vocal parts singing back and forth to each other – “And He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings! Forever and ever! and Lord of Lords! Hallelujah!” – all while the orchestral strings, brass, and drums are furiously praising God with their instruments.

It’s tradition that audiences will rise to their feet during “Hallelujah.” The legend is that at the oratorio’s London debut, King James II was overcome with emotion during its performance, and sensing the Presence of God in the music, he rose to his feet, for even royalty must stand in the presence of Divinity.

It’s Christmas time. Who’s ready to sing?

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church; meanwhile, French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”

Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress…

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed.

With the Christmas story from Luke in mind, Cappeau began to imagine actually being in Bethlehem and watching the events of that night unfold, and he soon completed the poem, which he entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church and became part of the socialist movement, and French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” (Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress.)

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,

And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin, and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

(The above material taken from “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins, Copyright (c) 2001, Andrew Collins. Published by Zondervan.)

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

One of my favorite versions of this hymn is by Point of Grace. I hope you enjoy it.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.

Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet.

I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding.  And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas.  Not the commericialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course.  Those things, I did and do despise.  But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends.  Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke.  Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite).  Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks that the Word became flesh.

And the music.  The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing.

I have recently upgraded this blog, and I now have the ability to put music on here (and video, for that matter).  So, in celebration of the season, at the bottom right of this page, you will find ten of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.  Some of them are sacred, some are not; some are traditional, others are new.

In my next column, I will tell the story behind my favorite Christmas carol, but meanwhile, from me to you, here’s some Christmas cheer.

Rejoice.