Some history behind your favorite Christmas music


One of my favorite things about Christmas is the music. Once my family gets our tree up and decorated (never before Thanksgiving, that’s my standard) my playlist is nothing but a mixture of Christmas songs. It’s mostly old school, too, with artists such as Andy Williams, Perry Como, and Nat King Cole.

Some traditional secular songs make my list. The chaotic fun of Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” joins “Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season.” Other selections not quite from that era include Alabama’s “Christmas in Dixie,” The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love,” and “Christmas Must Be Tonight” by The Band, released in 1977.

The ones pointing to Christ occupy a special place for me. My wife had always wanted to get married during Christmastime, so on Dec. 13, 1997 the sanctuary of College Heights Baptist Church in Gadsden, Alabama reflected the greenery and decor of the season during our wedding. The “Silent Night/Away in a Manger/O Holy Night” medley from Steven Curtis Chapman’s “The Music of Christmas” album played while my groomsmen lit the candles. I still listen to that album as if no other Christmas music was created post-1995.

Recently I asked Index readers on Facebook about their own Christmas music favorites. Some familiar names popped up. I thought I’d provide them here with a little bit of background you may not have known.

“O Holy Night.” This was the song that started as a French poem and almost was swept into the dust bin before an American abolitionist picked up on its message of freedom. In 1843 a church in a small French town had its organ renovated. To celebrate, the priest asked a local wine merchant/poet who had shown no interest in religion, Placide Cappeau, to write a poem celebrating the event, titling it “Cantique de Noel.” Cappeau ended up wanting it to be a song and asked Adolphe Charles Adams, a gifted composer, to put it to music.  

Adams did so in 1847. Well-received at first, the public turned on the song also known as “Minuit Chretiens” (Midnight, Christians) upon learning Cappeau was a socialist and Adams a Jew. A decade later American abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight discovered it and translated the song , renaming it “O Holy Night,” into English. Tremendously popular among Christian and secular artists alike, the song regularly appears as one of the favorites during Christmas.  

“Mary Did You Know?” The lyrics to this modern classic were written by Mark Lowry and sung by Michael English on the latter’s 1991self-titled solo debut album while both were members of the Gaither Vocal Band. The song’s beginnings came seven years earlier, though, when Jerry Falwell asked Lowry to write the Living Christmas Tree program at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.

In writing the speaking part for Mary, Lowry said he began to think about how Jesus’ mother could understand the concept of the baby she held. Lowry wrote a poem about it and, in 1991, asked his friend Buddy Greene to put music to it.

“Away in a Manger.” There’s some controversy as to its roots. Considered an American song written in the late 19th century, some said it had actually been a hymn composed by Martin Luther to sing to his children. “Away in a Manger” first appeared in an 1885 collection titled “Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses.” Nat King Cole and Linda Ronstadt are among those who have recorded versions of it.

“Silent Night.” The original story settles in the Austrian village of Obendorf in 1818. Joseph Mohr, the priest’s assistant at St. Nicholas Church, faced a dilemma approaching the Christmas Eve service when the church’s organ stopped working, either due to damage from mice or rust, according to which story version you hear. A repairman wasn’t available, so Mohr took a walk and from a hill saw the peaceful town. Inspired, he wrote the lyrics to “Stille Nacht,” which was performed at the service.

In 1995, a manuscript of the song in Mohr’s handwriting from 1886, two years prior to the original story, was discovered. It could have been a song Mohr had written, but not put to music until Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdort, composed the melody in 1888.

“Silent Night” has remained a favorite ever since for candlelight services and times when a musical instrument isn’t handy. The song was central to a legendary truce that broke out between British and German soldiers in World War I.

Those historic songs have a way of connecting us not just to Christ, but Christians around the world celebrating the same event. While playing them in the background around the house or in our car, let’s not miss the words they share in a time when it’s needed more than ever.

Christmas, history, music