Oconee Regional Library

Best-Loved Christmas Carols: The Stories Behind Twenty-five Yuletide Favorites

Book Review Twenty-Two

December 13, 2008

What is your favorite Christmas carol? How many of you know who wrote the words and the music to it? Would you be interested in having a book that provided not only their special history but also a CD of the carols with music by the Vienna Boys Choir, the New York Philharmonic and others? During one of my recent bookstore visits, I found a book that contained all of this and more- Ron Clancy’s Best Loved Christmas Carols, the Stories Behind Twenty-five Yuletide Favorites.

The majority of us think of carols as strictly religious songs while in truth most were from secular or pagan origins and a number were anonymously written. The central theme of carols is usually love. The first collection of these songs was probably printed in England around 1521. In England, due to the extreme conservative views of the Puritans, the singing of carols was severely frowned upon and in 1647 Christmas was not observed at all. When the Puritans settled in New England, this stance toward Christmas followed with them. Elsewhere in the United States however, the December holiday was celebrated with a great deal of enthusiasm and pageantry which laid the groundwork for the American contribution to this type of music.

Here are some worthwhile notes on a few of Clancy’s chosen carols:

  • Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night) was disliked by the French church. John Sullivan, an American clergyman translated the carol.
  • The correct spelling of The First Noel is actually The First Nowell.
  • In 1843, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was used in the Dicken’s classic A Christmas Carol. That same year saw the creation of the first Christmas card.
  • Stille Nacht, helige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night) was the result of a church organ malfunction.
  • Clancy’s book reveals the symbolism for each item mentioned in The Twelve Days of Christmas.
  • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is one of the few carols with no direct mention of Christ. Its composer was the pastor of a Unitarian Church in Massachusetts.
  • Les Anges dans nos campagnes ( Angels We Have Heard on High) literally means “angels in our mountains” and tradition has it that shepherds in southern France would sing this on Christmas Eve.

Regardless of which Christmas carol is your favorite, this title provides an excellent resource to share with your family. Whether you are celebrating the birth of Christ or the Winter Solstice, music allows our soul to be more fully touched when we hear or sing these words.

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