Christmas carols say it all
The Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh, Special Writer
Background text: Isaiah 9:2-3, 6
Devotional text: Luke 2
As the birth of Jesus the Christ is celebrated, one of the most joyous things we can do is sing Christmas carols. These are the birthday songs of Jesus.
While many of the carols lay out the story surrounding the birth of Jesus, some also include the plan of salvation.
Today, as we enjoy the season of Christmas, I’d like to look at the back story of two of the most popular carols we sing: “The First Noel” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
When we look up “The First Noel” in our songbooks, we find it noted as a traditional English carol, with no author.
First discovered by Davies Gilbert while looking through a book of Cornish carols found in Truro, England (that was published in 1817), Gilbert included it in his songbook, “Some Ancient Christmas Carols” published in 1823. Ten years later, William Sandys included it in his “Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern.”
The melody of the carol is basically the same as from of old. However, today we sing only six of the original nine verses.
Just how old is this hymn?
Historically-speaking, the song itself is believed to have come from a time when mystery plays were popular in the 10th and 11th centuries. These plays, musicals and dramatizations that enacted favorite themes from the Bible led to the popularization of many religious tunes.
Whereas most historians conservatively place the popularity of “The First Noel” as spanning four centuries, at around the time of miracle plays, the actuality of these performances would place it at an earlier time.
The mystery plays featured favorite Bible stories, while the miracle plays focused on the lives of the saints. Miracle plays were popular in the 13th and 14th centuries. However, the dating of this carol is further complicated by the fact that the terms mystery and miracle used for the plays became interchangeable.
Whichever it is, this lyrical carol has remained popular in Christmas Eve services around the world.
Let’s take a moment to look at this word “noel.” Originally appearing in the 1823 songbook as “The First Nowell,” the word refers to an old English greeting for wishing one another well during the Christmas season. In French, the word “noel” means birthday. Going to the Hebrew word NOrad EL, the abbreviated form, noel, is translated as “born of God.”
So, we come full circle as we remember and sweetly sing the words of “The First Noel,” the birth of Jesus, born of God, telling the story of his birth, the angelic visitation to the shepherds and the coming of the three Wise Men (found in Luke 2 and Matthew 2) to the greeting of one another with the hope of health, happiness and salvation, as we enjoy the Christmas season.
Episcopal minister Phillips Brooks wrote the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It was inspired by a trip to Israel he took in 1865. As he visited the places surrounding the birth of Jesus, the fields of the shepherds and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, he was awed and moved by the sites he saw.
During his trip, he attended the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity. The service began at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve and concluded at 3 a.m. on Christmas Day.
After returning home, his visit to the Holy Land stayed with him and influenced his thoughts and feelings. It was three years later, when Brooks put these remembrances into words. At that time, 1868, he was pastoring the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, Pa. As the Christmas season was coming, he desired to write a carol the children could easily sing during their Christmas program.
As he thought about his trip, he sat down one evening and wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Once he had the words, he then needed a melody the children would be able to sing. He turned his composition over to the church organist, Lewis Henry Redner.
Redner was the organist at the Holy Trinity Church for 19 years. He also played organ for four other churches. A real estate broker by trade, his love for music brought him acclaim as he composed music for, or took part in composing music for, 41 hymns. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was by far his best known.
The back story of the music is this: Redner awoke from sleep one night with the melody fully in his mind. He sat right up in bed and wrote it down. This is the same melody we sing today.
There is an interesting aside concerning Pastor Brooks. He became known as a Great American Preacher. It was he who developed a rapid-fire way of preaching that kept his congregants awake and alive. It is said he could give a full sermon in half the time it would take anyone else.
This carol not only includes the story of Jesus’ birth, but also alludes to salvation by the “cast(ing) out our sin.”
Here is a fifth verse we do not see in our hymnals: “where children pure and happy pray to the blessed child, where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild, where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door, the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.”