The Story Behind “The First Noel”

the-first-noel

Like so many other Christmas songs “The First Noel” has mysterious beginnings in either France or England. It was a folk song that was written by and for the peasants hundreds of years ago. By the 19th century it made its way into the church, where so many of the carols that we sing today were banned and frowned upon, and became mainstream and popular.

The First Noel” is one of the few surviving early Christmas standards that can genuinely be earmarked as a folk song. Whoever was responsible for writing this carol was obviously incredibly enthusiastic about Christmas and fully understood the wonder of Christ’s birth, but didn’t have a full grasp on the Scriptures that told the story of that birth. During the Middle Ages, this was often the rule rather than the exception. When “The First Noel” was written, there were very few Bibles in circulation. Most were either in churches or monasteries and were written in Latin. Common people rarely saw a Bible in person, and even if they would have, they probably wouldn’t have been able to read the words in the sacred book, since most people living in those times were illiterate.

This was probably the case with the composer of “The First Noel.” With no ready Bible to guide him, the writer drew from the stories he had been told about the events of Christ’s birth. Most he recounted accurately, but he erred when he depicted the shepherds following the star to Christ’s birthplace. The Bible does not mention the star with the shepherds, only with the wise men.

During the middle ages the Viking custom of the Yule log became commonplace in England. It was basically the trunk of a tree that was hollowed out and filled with various spices and lit in the fireplace every year for good luck. Christians “baptized” this custom by reinterpreting the symbols from a biblical perspective.

In England, “The First Noel” was sung each year by many peasants as they lit the Yule log. Therefore, this became the song that started the entire Christmas season. Especially for children, this carol meant the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year. Down through the ages, the tradition of the Yule log carried with it the music of this folk carol. Though its words and music were not written down, “The First Noel” survived…

“The First Noel” finally was published by William Sandys in 1833. A lawyer by trade, Sandys loved music and spent his spare time collecting both French and English folk songs. In his book on Christmas folk songs he included “The First Noel.” Already a favorite with the peasant class, by the mid–1800s, when the Church of England began to use new songs during services, “The First Noel” found universal acclaim.

One other thing I wanted to mention about the song is the meaning of Noel. I imagine most people don’t know it and have often wondered. It simply means “Christmas” and, unfortunately, I have no interesting story to mention about its origins.

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The Story Behind “O Holy Night”

o holy night

The interesting thing about “O Holy Night” is that it was not created by anyone who was a genuine Christian. It began as a poem written by a Frenchman who was a commissionaire of wine in response to a request by his parish priest for a poem to be used at midnight mass on Christmas. Placide Cappeau used the text of Luke to imagine what it would have been like to be in the manger when Jesus was born. After he complete the poem Cappeau asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, a Jew, to help him turn the poem into a song.

As Adolphe studied “Cantique de Noel,” he couldn’t help but note its overtly spiritual lyrics embracing the birth of a Savior. A man of Jewish ancestry, these words represented a holiday he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the Son of God. Nevertheless, moved by more than friendship, Adams quickly and diligently went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’s finished work pleased both poet and priest. It was performed just three weeks later at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Neither the wine commissionaire nor the composer was prepared for what happened next.

Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song—which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France—was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed “Cantique de Noel” as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.

John Sullivan Dwight, an abolitionist, translated the song into English and brought it to the U.S. by publishing it in his magazine and multiple songbooks. For Dwight the song spoke to the issue of slavery and taught us that Christ came to liberate all men from the bondage of sin. Naturally, the song became popular in the North during the Civil War.

In France, the song remained in a condemned status until an American performed what some people thought was a miracle using the song.

Adams had been dead for many years and Cappeau and Dwight were old men when on Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden—a thirty-three-year-old university professor in Pittsburgh and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison—did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would.

Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle—hearing a voice somehow turned into electrical waves and transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel.

Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t know that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. Yet after finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast—but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.

“O Holy Night” has gone on to become one of the most popular Christmas songs, with sales copies in the tens of millions. It took a very strange and circuitous religious journey from its inauspicious beginnings to its current status. Its lyrics do a good job of capturing the hope of the gospel. “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.”

 

 

Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire: Christmas in July

roasting chestnuts

The background of “The Christmas Song” is probably the most amusing story of all Christmas music because it was written in the intense heat of a July in Southern California. We have the song today because of two men, Mel Torme and Robert Wells. Mel was a famous entertainer who grew up in show business and became an actor and songwriter. Robert was also a songwriter and good friend of Mel’s.

Mel tells the story:

I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil. They started, ‘Chestnuts roasting…Jack Frost nipping…Yuletide carols…Folks dressed up like Eskimos.’ Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off.”

Ace Collins gives us the rest of the story:

It had been chestnuts that started Wells’s strange train of thought. He had seen his mother bring in a bag of them to stuff a turkey for dinner. Wells was thrown back to the days when he saw vendors selling chestnuts on New York City street corners. Yet while Wells was after nothing more than an attempt to “think cold,” Mel caught a glimpse of a song in the phrases he had written. With the temperature in the nineties and both men sweating through their clothes, they got to work on what was to become a Christmas classic. It took just forty minutes. The assigned movie title songs were pushed aside as Wells and Torme climbed into a car and drove away to show off their latest song…

From the moment Torme stopped in at Cole’s Los Angeles home and played “The Christmas Song” on his piano, Nat loved it. Sensing the song was a classic, he wanted to record it before Torme could offer it to anyone else. Within days, Cole had rearranged the song to suit his voice and pacing, and cut it for Capitol Records. His instincts about the song’s potential were right. Released in October of 1946, the song stayed in the Top Ten for almost two months. Nat’s hit charted again in 1947, 1949, 1950, and 1954. Though “The Christmas Song” would ultimately be recorded by more than a hundred other artists—including Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and even Mel Torme himself—none could ever break Cole’s “ownership rights.” The song was instantly and forevermore a Nat King Cole classic.

No one thought about it at the time, but Cole’s cut of Torme’s song became the first American Christmas standard introduced by an African American. The success of that cut helped open the door for Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, and Ethel Waters to put their own spins on holiday classics. It gave black audiences a chance to hear their favorite stars sing the carols that they loved as deeply as all other Christians. Thanks to “The Christmas Song,” for the first time in the commercial marketplace, Christmas was not reserved for “whites only.”

The story is that Cole wanted to record the song before Bing Crosby had a chance to make it into another hit following “White Christmas.” Crosby had already done that to Bob Hope when he tried to make a hit Christmas song. Although this song was written to help Wells think about winter whenever I hear this song I always imagine the hot weather of SoCal in July.

The Story Behind “Away In A Manger”

Nativity

“Away In A Manger” is one of the most popular Christmas carols and its history has been obscured behind false information for a long time. Our story begins in the post-Civil War era:

In 1887, American hymn writer James R. Murray entitled the tune to “Away in a Manger” as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” Murray further stated in his popular songbook, Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses, that Martin Luther had not only written “Away in a Manger,” but had sung it to his children each night before bed. As the song spread across a growing America and people began to sing it at home, in churches, and at schools, they often envisioned legions of German mothers rocking their babies to sleep each night with the strains of “Away in a Manger.” As the song became more popular, some news reports even trumpeted the song’s Teutonic heritage and the powerful inspiration that obviously could come from only the great Luther himself.

Ironically, not only did German mothers of this era not sing “Away in a Manger,” they had never heard it until the song arrived in Europe from its country of origin, the United States. Where Murray got his misinformation on Luther remains a mystery, yet because of his outstanding reputation as a writer and publisher, the story stuck.

Collins goes on to write that the song was probably written in the mid-1800s by an anonymous American. The tune was composed by a J. E. Clark. A man named Charles Hutchinson Gabriel, music director for Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, published a new version of the hymn that included the third verse. The legend of the song being written by Luther continued to grow as passing decades brought in the new century.

In 1945, as Americans again battled Germany in a world war, American writer Richard S. Hill sorted through the now seventy-year-old mystery concerning the carol’s origin. He determined that James R. Murray himself probably wrote the music long coupled with “Away in a Manger.” Yet as Murray always took credit when he composed a song, it is doubtful that he would have deflected the credit to Martin Luther. It’s more likely that Murray was given the song and simply adapted the existing German-influenced melody into four-part harmony for his book. It also seems likely that Murray received the story of Martin Luther writing the piece from the person who originally gave him the song.

Although we may never know who wrote the song we can still find inspiration in the story of the song itself. It tells us of the incredible humble birth of the greatest man who ever lived and the more I think of it the deeper in awe I fall. This song for children also reminds me of Jesus’ words teaching us that to such belong the kingdom of heaven. We must learn to become like children in order to commune with God.

Christian Music Sucks Because It’s Fake

I wanted to share this blog post because it struck a chord with me. Just the other day I realized my problem with contemporary Christian music is its lack of authenticity. This post illustrates the point well.

Snowed In

christian-music

I’ve always had a problem with Christian music. I used to wonder why, and then it hit me: it’s because it sucks. While this is now obvious, the real question is, why does it suck?

Michael Gungor from the band Gungor (which I had never heard of prior to this), wrote an excellent article on why Christian music generally sucks. It’s because it’s fake. From his article:

The false emotion that I’m talking about might be familiar to some of you. There’s just something more believable about the whispery sexy voice that is singing about sex on the mainstream radio station than the voice that copies that style of singing while putting lyrics in about being in the arms of Jesus. And it’s really not even the style or the lyric that is the problem to me, it’s the fact that I don’t believe that the singer is feeling the…

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The Story Behind “Angels We Have Heard On High”

Adoration of the Sheperds, by Carlo Maratti (1625-1713)

Today’s selection is a bit long but this hymn, “Angels We Have Heard On High,” has a long history that may go back to the apostolic age. This song reaches back to a time when Christmas was a holiday celebrated by monks in a very austere manner. They sung their songs to the neglect of the world from their monastic bubbles. Yet this song also does a great service to us by taking scriptures and masterfully transforming them into verse.

Angels We Have Heard on High” was first published in 1855 in the French songbook Nouveau recueil de cantiques, and records indicate that the song had been used in church masses for more than fifty years before that publication. During those five decades the lyrics were coupled with the melody that is still used today. Except for the verses translated into languages other than French, today the song is sung just as it was a hundred and fifty years ago. Yet for maybe a thousand years or more before that, monks probably sang this same song as they celebrated the birth of the Savior. The story may well be as old as the church itself.

The song’s four verses embrace the angels’ visit to the lowly shepherds and the shepherds’ response. For many biblical scholars, the angels coming to men who worked menial jobs in the fields and informing them of the birth of the Son of God symbolizes that Christ came for all people, rich or poor, humble or powerful. The angels’ words in Luke 2, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people,” paired with Jesus’ own parables concerning shepherds and their flocks, symbolizes that it would be the common man and not kings or religious leaders who would first carry the story of Jesus’ life to the masses.

But while the shepherds’ story of why they came to see the babe in the manger is easily identified in all the stanzas, for many who sing this old song, the chorus is an enigma. “Gloria in excelsis Deo” means, in English, “Glory to God in the highest,” a phrase that played an important part of worship at church masses dating back to 130 A.D. During that period, Pope Telesphorus issued a decree that on the day of the Lord’s birth all churches should have special evening services. He also ordered that, at these masses, after the reading of certain Scripture or the conclusion of specific prayers, the congregation should always sing the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Historical church documents reveal that monks carried this executive order throughout the land and that by the third century it was a practice used by most churches at Christmas services.

It can be argued that if the chorus was written within a hundred years of Christ’s birth, the roots of “Angels We Have Heard on High” might go back to someone who actually knew Jesus when he walked on earth. Though unproved, it is a very interesting and inspiring idea and ties in to the selfless image of a called member of the clergy bringing faith alive in order to spread the message of Jesus Christ’s birth, life, and death.

Another facet of this carol that would seem to tie at least its chorus to the very early Catholic church is the range of notes found in the chorus. While most modern carols move up and down and cover at least an octave and a half, thus testing the upper or lower limits of the average singer, the phrase “Gloria in excelsis Deo” barely moves at all. In addition, the melody used by the song never strays more than one octave and the verse moves through only six notes. This simplicity seems to tie the melody to early chants used by monks and taught to their congregations…

So why has this carol of unknown origin remained so popular for so long? Though the tune may be considered monotonous, when the simple text is read it becomes obvious that few Christmas songs so fully describe the joy that the world felt when a Savior was born in Bethlehem. The lyrics don’t just ask the singer to lift up his or her eyes and heart in wonder and observe the beauty of what God has given the world, they demand it. There can be no doubt that whoever wrote “Angels We Have Heard on High” not only believed the words found in the Bible, but relished that belief.

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We need to kill Christian music

Harmony, melody, rhythm, rhyme, dynamics — these are not the joys of the material or even the animal world. Music is a creation unique to those “made in the image and likeness of God”, namely, to human beings. To sing is to express our immense dignity. To sing at all is to praise the God who distinguishes us from all things songless.

The stakes for internet pornography

They just don’t know what’s wrong, but they know a Christian marriage isn’t supposed to feel like this. It’s at this point that I interrupt the discussion, look at the man, and ask, “So how long has the porn been going on?” The couple will look at each other, and then look at me, with a kind of fearful incredulity that communicates the question, “How do you know?” For a few minutes, they seek to reorient themselves to this exposure, wondering, I suppose, if I’m an Old Testament prophet or a New Age psychic. But I’m not either. One doesn’t have to be to sense the spirit of this age. In our time, pornography is the destroying angel of (especially male) Eros, and it’s time the Church faced the horror of this truth.

Ted Cruz: America needs spiritual revival

“I think we’re at the edge of a precipice. If we keep going down this path we’re risking losing our nation. We’re risking losing the incredible oasis of liberty.”

Ordinary vs. radical Christianity

But therein lies my point:  the ordinary moments are moments which intersect with eternity, where the meaning of our lives hangs. We’ll be judged for every errant word, yet many of us pray and write as though there is nothing more cheap than a few syllables to throw away. Focusing on the mundane isn’t a call to comfort: it’s a terrifying call to remember the judgment which we stand beneath, a judgment that exists when we drive past our neighbor whose car is stranded in the night.  ”You have never met a mere mortal,” Lewis wrote.  Nor have we had an ordinary day. – See more at: http://mereorthodoxy.com/the-ordinary-is-not-comfortable-richard-stearns-radical-misreading/#sthash.HmpdQaqk.dpuf

10th Circuit rules in favor of Hobby Lobby

A federal court has granted a preliminary injunction allowing Hobby Lobby not to comply with the HHS mandate requiring the business to furnish the morning-after pill and other abortifacient means of emergency contraception to its female employees with no co-pay. The decision comes shortly after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling against Hobby Lobby in a 5-3 decision and remanded the case to a lower court. That court had denied the Christian-owned arts and crafts chain a temporary injunction against the HHS mandate.

The text of the 10th Circuit’s Decision

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Why does God care about charity?

The pain and suffering among even the most devout followers of Christ is a sign not of His abandonment, but of a greater story at work. At the end of the day, our material comforts are of little consequence to this story. Why, then, does the New Testament appear to make charity a fundamental aspect of the Christian life? We might forget that good deeds benefit both parties, and it is likely that Christian charity has much more to do with the giver than the receiver. When we give, we display love and sacrifice. Charity is a way for us to practice these virtues and constantly lay ourselves down for another as Christ has done for us. We give not merely because someone is in need—anyone can do that—we give because we are in need.

Religion and public life

Here we come to the unifying feature of contemporary challenges to religious freedom—the desire to limit the influence of religion over public life. In the world envisioned by Obama administration lawyers, churches will have freedom as “houses of worship,” but unless they accept the secular consensus they can’t inspire their adherents to form institutions to educate and serve society in accordance with the principles of their faith. Under a legal regime influenced by the concept of public reason, religious people are free to speak—but when their voices contradict the secular consensus, they’re not allowed into our legislative chambers or courtrooms.

Why did the Boston bombing happen?

We in America have spent too many years trying to explain evil and bring order to what is essentially non-order. We have tried to reason with it, bring context to it, deny it, reconfigure it, befriend it, and negotiate with it. Our trust in logic and order and even moral neutrality is so great that we have convinced ourselves that evil must have these qualities as well. There must be some reason why Adam Lanza killed all those beautiful children in Newtown. There must be some reason why Nidal Hasan shot up soldiers at Fort Hood. There must be some reason why Islamists killed 3,000 people in New York in 2001. If we can just find the reason, we can “fix” it. We can stop it from happening.

Should Christians avoid cussing?

I think the argument being made is a bit incoherent: “She has a point. There is something absurd about the designation of particular words as profane. And yet, neither table nor elbow is in the curse category, and the majority of swear words have earned their designation according to a certain logic. Other than words associated with deity, most profanity involves associations with biological function in the areas of sexuality and waste elimination. The God-related curses are right off the table, if one takes the third commandment seriously at all. But what is a Christian to do with the remaining “strong language”?”

Christian or controversial hip hop?

Unless you’re inside the prosperity gospel or word-faith  movement, you’ve probably been concerned with the reach of these teachers. They operate impressive (I mean that!) multimedia empires and export their brand of the “gospel” to the most distant corners of the globe. That media savvy and reach has made it difficult for others to stand against the rushing tide of their teaching. But Christian hip hop has a developing, media-rich, and savvy reach of its own. It’s reaching a younger generation of believers and reaching the corners of the globe. Christian hip hop may be the first medium by which orthodox voices can effectively push back against the titans of word-faith and prosperity “gospel” teaching. When Prop, Lecrae, and shai are able to stir the ire, accolades, or pushback of theologians, secular awards panels, or ministry offices of word-faith teachers, something is happening on a different scale. We may be observing Truth’s reach being extended in a helpful and hopeful way.