Christmas Season, Christmas Songs

Christmas Season, Christmas Songs

Written by Head of School Eric Bradley

My first education job was as a history teacher. To this day, I love finding odd or little known stories in history, one of my favorite things about teaching the subject. A few weeks ago, I came across an article about Do You Hear What I Hear and its connection to the Cuban Missile Crisis. This led me to read about several other Christmas songs and their background.

  • Do You Hear What I Hear — Noel Regney was born in France and educated at the best music schools in Europe.  When the Nazis took over France during WW2, he was forced to serve in the German army. Regney began working for the French Underground while serving as a Nazi soldier, an incredibly stressful and dangerous situation. In one instance, he knowingly led a group of German soldiers into an ambush, getting shot himself in the process, allegedly in order to provide more cover for his role as a spy. Imagine the emotional toll of being in this type of situation. Shortly after the ambush incident, he deserted from the German army and spent much of the rest of the war in hiding. After the war, he worked in France briefly before moving to New York City where he served as a songwriter for TV shows and commercials. In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was asked to write a Christmas song. Imagine being in this position — come up with a Christmas jingle while everyone in the country is consumed with the the threat of nuclear war. In this environment, working with his wife, they created Do You Hear What I Hear, which they intended to be a prayer for peace in the middle of the Cold War. “A star dancing in the night with a tale as big as a kite” might have been meant to represent something much more menacing. Here is the last stanza:

Said the king to the people everywhere

Listen to what I say

Pray for peace people everywhere

Listen to what I say

The child, the child

Sleeping in the night

He will bring us goodness and light

He will bring us goodness and light

  • O Holy Night — This song was written in 1847 by a French poet, Placide Cappeau, when asked by the local parish priest to compose a Christmas poem. After writing the poem, the author decided it would be better as a song, and asked a Jewish composer friend to set the poem to music. The song became quite popular and spread throughout French churches. However, years later, when Cappeau renounced the church and declared himself a socialist, the song was officially banned by the French Catholic church. The ban had little effect as the song was already very popular among churches throughout Europe. Shortly after, American abolitionists fighting against slavery helped spread the song throughout the United States. Think of the third stanza being sung in the United States on the brink of the Civil War, “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.”
  • Joy to the World — This song was written in the early 1700s by Isaac Watts, but was not intended to be a Christmas hymn, but rather, a song about the second coming of Christ. The lyrics were based on Watts’ interpretation of Psalm 98:4-9 which opens, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.” While it is interesting to think through the lyrics with the idea of the song being about the second coming, the central idea of the song does work for the incarnation as well — “Joy to the World, the Lord has come! Let Earth receive her king!”

All of these songs are fascinating on their own, but like many things in life, they take on more meaning when you look into them more deeply. In these three songs, we are reminded that God works in ways we do not fully comprehend.

  • In Do You Hear What I Hear, a man who experienced the horror of war first-hand, penned a beautiful prayer for peace, hoping for a better future for all of our children.
  • In O Holy Night, a socialist poet and a Jewish musician, two men who had no connection or commitment to the Christian faith, combined their talents to create a powerful song that celebrates “The Thrill of Hope” that comes in the form of the Christ child.
  • In Joy to the World, a hymn intended to honor the triumph of the second coming of Christ has become one of the most recognized of all Christmas songs. Now, knowing the background of its origin, when I hear the song in the future, I will think not only on the joy of the incarnation, but also of the incredible promise of our King’s return.

As we prepare for the Christmas season and all of the busyness that may entail, I encourage you to stop and think about the incredible way that God may be moving in your life and the lives around you, and never lose sight of the incredible, awe-inspiring, life-changing message of Hope that came to us in the form of the Christ child. A hope that continues on still today.

Merry Christmas, Eric Bradley

“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,

It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth;

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

‘Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn;

Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices!

O night divine! O night when Christ was born.

O night, O holy night, O night divine.

Placide Cappeau, 1847