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Christmas Carols 2012

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

A few notes about our favorite notes: Christmas carols.

First, let’s consider what a “carol” is. “It’s the song that everyone knows and everyone sings, from aged grannies, babes in arms and all together, thanks to angels, saints, and simple folk,” according to The Great American Christmas Almanac, published by Penguin Books in 1990.

Away in a Manger. Which tune is the “right” one? How old is it, and where was it first heard?

The tune I think most of us associate with this simple song begins with a simple descending scale, and has no definitive claim. Both its text and its musical setting are labeled “American.” Many want to attribute both to Martin Luther, but this appears to be groundless.

To my surprise, the “other” setting of this carol, Cradle Song, was written by William Kirkpatrick in about 1885, in Philadelphia.

Which reminds me that America gave us another carol, one that I would have pegged as Old English. Not so. It’s also “one of ours,” O Little Town of Bethlehem.

While rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in Philadelphia, Phillips Brooks visited the Holy Land. After he returned, he had a dream of the stars suspended over the shepherds’ field near Bethlehem.

On Christmas Eve 1868, Brooks asked his church organist, Lewis Redner, to write a song for Sunday School children. (What’s this about, preachers asking for brand new music for Christmas season, on 48 hours notice? Do I see a pattern?)

He had a dream in which the carol’s words are essentially complete, and collaborated with Redner to finish music for the children to sing at the Christmas Day service.

Most students of sacred music accept the story of Silent Night when Christmas is saved by our hero, the Austrian Father Joseph Mohr.

The parish organ, you see, had at last given up the ghost, and would need a technician. On Christmas Eve. Not likely.

Another version of the story is simply that the priest asked composer and local schoolmaster Franz Xaver Gruber to write something that could be used to accompany his guitar on Christmas Eve, 1818. It was an instantaneous success.

Sing, sing at Christmas time. I couldn’t pick a favorite carol. For sheer emotion, I guess O Come All Ye Faithful is my choice. It’s a rare Advent that I don’t tear up at the triumphant climax of old Adeste Fidelis, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and the soaring Angels We have Heard on High. And of course, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Carol of the Bells – it’s impossible to list all the “favorites.”

However you sing and however you celebrate, have a blessed holiday season.

God bless.

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