Carols, Hymns and Songs - What You May Not Know

Dec 15, 2016

Holiday music provides a magical soundtrack to your favorite winter-time activities, but there may be more to your favorite Christmas melodies than you expect - how much do you really know about these beloved songs and carols?

Felix Mendelssohn wrote a cantata to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of the invention of the printing press. His student later combined the melody with words by Charles Wesley and it became the version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” we know today.  

“Jingle Bells” was written for a Thanksgiving program.  It was well received and performed again at Christmas time. It became one of the most well-known holiday tunes – so popular, it was the first song to be played in space.

The classic hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is at least 1200 years in the making. The text is based on one of the O Antiphons of Advent, dating back before the 9th century. It was combined with a 15th century French tune to create one of the most traditional holiday melodies of all time.

While much of today’s popular Christmas music is sacred in origin, a few secular tunes that have become widely popular. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” originates from the streets of England when carolers would use their music to impress a wealthy audience - the lyrics “bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer” was an actual request.

“Do You Hear What I Hear” was written in 1962 by husband and wife team Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker as a plea for peace in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“Deck the Halls,” a traditional Welsh tune, dates back to the 16th century and was a New Year’s Eve song, with the lyrics: “Oh! How blessed are the blisses…words of love and mutual kisses…”

In the WWI Christmas Eve Truce, German, English and French troops temporarily stopped the conflict and sang carols to each other from across the trenches. They all sang in unison - and in Latin - when Adeste Fideles started, better known today as “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

“Feliz Navidad” was written in 1970 by Puerto Rican composer Jose Feliciano. Feliciano is also known for his song “Light My Fire” made famous by The Doors.

Which came first, the movie or the song? In the case of “White Christmas,” the song was first sung by Bing Crosby in the film Holiday Inn - 16 years before the premiere of White Christmas, the movie.

“O Holy Night” was part of the first program to be broadcast over the radio. It was both sung and performed on violin by Reginald Fessenden on Christmas Eve of 1906, which would make his the first voice heard on the air.

Hear “O Holy Night,” “White Christmas” and many other holiday favorites this December on your NPR and Classical Music Service. A list of holiday specials on NWPR will help you fill out your holiday season with the perfect.