The stories behind the nation's favourite Christmas carols


Christmas carols: no matter how often we hear them in shopping centres, and no matter how often we sing them in churches, we never really get tired of the old favourites. But how much do we really know about them and the people who wrote them?

O little town of Bethlehem

Written by Phillips Brooks (1835-93) after a visit to the Holy Land in 1865. He went to a midnight service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, recalling: "I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Saviour's birth." In those pre-electric days the streets would indeed have been dark and still, as the hymn says.

Brooks was the famous episcopalian minister of Trinity Church in Boston, Massachussetts. He was an imposing figure at six feet four inches tall, and a passionate opponent of slavery.

Hark, the herald-angels sing

One of the greatest hymns of one of the greatest hymn-writers, Charles Wesley (1707-1788), on its first publication it did not look quite as it does today. It has generally been improved: Wesley's first verse, for instance, was "Hark, how all the welkin (sky) rings", which would sound very odd today. According to legend, he wrote them on a starry Christmas Eve while travelling on horseback to take a service. This may well be true, as he often composed verses in this way.

The first two lines of the first verse were changed to what we have now by George Whitefield, another famous Methodist, and Martin Madan made more changes in 1760. It has got a lot shorter, too – we only sing three verses of Wesley's original 10.

It came upon the midnight clear

Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) was a US Unitarian minister who nevertheless believed in the full humanity and divinity of Christ. Another opponent of slavery, he predicted before the Civil War that America would "reap the whirlwind" for its sin.

Written in 1849, the hymn arose from a period of illness and depression which led Sears to leave a large city church and return to a country congregation where he had been very happy. But its references to "the Babel sounds" of sin and strife have topical as well as personal references. In 1848 Europe had suffered its "Year of Revolutions" in which governments across the continent had been violently swept from power and the Communist Manifesto had been published; the year before that was the Mexican War, regarded by many Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, as a scandalous land-grab. Sears looked forward to the better world that God would bring about.

Silent night, holy night

The story goes – and like most similar stories it is probably best not to enquire too much into whether or not they are true – that an Austrian parish priest, Joseph Mohr (1792-1848), found on Christmas Eve that the bellows of his church organ had been nibbled by mice and the instrument was unplayable. He had a simple Christmas poem he had written some time earlier, but no music, so he asked his friend Franz Gruber to compose something he could play on his guitar. The result was Silent Night, one of the loveliest and most haunting of all Christmas song.
True or not, in this year of remembrance the carol has a particular resonance. It was one of the carols sung on the Western Front during the first Christmas of the Great War, when British and German troops climbed out of their trenches for a day's truce. The thought of English voices singing Silent Night and Germans singing Stille Nacht has become a symbol of reconciliation and the desire for peace ever since.

Good King Wenceslas looked out

Theological purists might turn their noses up at a carol like this. It is not really deep theology or soaring poetry, after all. However, it is enormously popular and children love it because of its strong story. It was written by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), an Anglican priest who was an expert in ancient legends and early Christian writings. He picked up the story of King Wenceslas of Bohemia (part of the modern-day Czech Republic) from a book of children's stories which told of how the king (actually a duke) saw a poor man gathering sticks and set out to carry a box of rich food to him.

In Neale's retelling, as in the original, it is all about generosity. However, perhaps there is something else significant here as well. Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, was traditionally the day for giving presents – not Christmas Day, as it is now. However, December 26 is also St Stephen's Day – the 'Feast of Stephen' – which commemorates the first martyr. What are the limits of our generosity? Stephen gave his life, following in his master's footsteps.