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Carols we have heard on high

Sure, we know them all by heart. But these songs didn't just spring forth from the heavens: Real men wrote them. Who were these early carolers?

Published December 23, 2005

Traditional Christmas carols are so intrinsic to Western culture, so deeply embedded in our consciousness (no matter how religious we may be) that we don't often consider their origins. They simply seem timeless.

We're not talking about 20th century hits like White Christmas (most people know Irving Berlin wrote it) or Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (if we find out who wrote that one, he's in trouble).

We're talking about classics like Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The sheet music didn't just show up under some choirmaster's tree one year. And if the angels indeed sang over Bethlehem one night, the Bible does not record the tune.

These beloved songs are the creations of real people, some with rather interesting histories themselves.

* * *

Perhaps the most popular Christmas carol is Silent Night. It originated as a poem by a young Roman Catholic priest, Josef Mohr.

The Austrian cleric probably wrote Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! in 1816. He was posted at a church in the Salzburg region of Austria, where the frigid Alpine weather may well have inspired the lyrics' indelible picture of a town sleeping in winter's grip.

A couple of years later, Mohr was moved to the church in Oberndorf, where he asked schoolteacher-musician Franz Gruber to write a melody and guitar arrangement for the poem.

Legend has it the music was composed on Christmas Eve 1818 for performance that evening, because the organ in Mohr's church was broken. All that may or may not be so, but the pair did perform the song that night.

Stille Nacht was first performed in the United States in 1839 by the Rainer Family Singers, at Trinity Church in New York City.

The best-known English translation of the song's first three verses was made by an Episcopal priest who served at Trinity, John Freeman Young, in 1863. The other verse was translated anonymously.

Silent Night has been translated into more than 300 languages. One Web site devoted to the carol,, includes the lyrics in 121 languages, from American Sign Language to Zulu.

* * *

The history of the rousing O Come All Ye Faithful was a mystery for more than a century, with its composition attributed to everyone from 13th century saints to English organists.

By 1947, scholarly research and several rediscovered manuscripts established that the hymn was originally written in 1743 in Latin.

The writer and composer of Adeste Fidelis was John Francis Wade, a Roman Catholic Englishman who fled to France to escape the Jacobean rebellion in 1745. He worked as a music teacher and copyist.

Wade's hymn was sung in Latin with the Catholic Mass, but was translated into English for use in Protestant churches as early as 1789.

There are about 50 English translations of O Come All Ye Faithful, but the one most familiar to modern audiences was made in 1841 by Frederick Oakeley, who translated verses 1, 2, 3 and 6, and William Brooke, who translated verses 4 and 5.

Oakeley was an Anglican priest when he made his first translation, rendering the opening lines as "Ye faithful, approach ye." After he converted to Catholicism in 1845, he rewrote the lines as "O come all ye faithful/Joyfully triumphant."

* * *

The words to Hark the Herald Angels Sing were written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, founder of Methodism.

Charles Wesley wouldn't have recognized it by that title, though. His original opening lines were "Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the King of Kings."


It means "the vault of heaven." Makes sense, but it doesn't quite roll off the tongue like the herald angels do. We can thank George Whitefield (another of the co-founders of Methodism) for the version we know; he rewrote those lines in 1753.

Charles Wesley wrote more than 6,000 hymns, but his instincts weren't always on the nose. At his direction, Hark was originally set to very somber music.

In 1857, William Cummings set the words to a new melody adapted from a cantata by Felix Mendelssohn, creating the irresistibly joyous song we know.

The German composer wrote the cantata, Gott ist Licht (God Is Light), in 1840 as part of a salute to the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. An important event, no doubt, but Cummings' inspiration to pair the melody with Wesley's words granted it a much larger measure of musical immortality than it otherwise might have had.

* * *

Jingle Bells may be among the most jolly of carols, but it has its connections to controversy.

For one thing, it wasn't written as a Christmas carol. And the man who wrote it probably wasn't riding around in any sleighs, given that he was likely living in coastal Georgia at the time.

James Pierpont first published Jingle Bells in 1857. Legend has it that he performed the song that year for a Thanksgiving service at the Unitarian Universalist church in Savannah, Ga., where he was the music director.

But the song's allusions to courting and sleigh racing, both pretty racy stuff for the times, make it unlikely it would have debuted in that setting.

Pierpont's brother was the pastor of the church, and their father, who lived in Boston, was also a Unitarian minister and a passionate abolitionist.

Contrary to his family's antislavery beliefs, James Pierpont fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, writing several now-forgotten martial tunes.

Jingle Bells remains his musical legacy, a tune he wrote because "sleighing songs" were in vogue. In fact, Jingle Bells was originally titled One Horse Open Sleigh (yet another title change we can be grateful for).

Although Savannah claims Jingle Bells as its own, the residents of Medford, Mass., believe Pierpont wrote the song there, perhaps as early as 1840.

The peripatetic Pierpont lived in Medford as a young man, after he ran away to sea at age 14 and before he ran off to California for the gold rush of 1849. (He moved to Florida in 1869 and died in Winter Haven in 1893.)

The argument about where the song was written got so heated back in 1989 that the mayors of Medford and Savannah exchanged snippy letters over it. Both cities still lay claim to Jingle Bells.

* * *

The first Christmas carol many children learn to sing is Away in a Manger. Its sweetly simple lyrics about the baby Jesus and its easily sung melody (none of those Silent Night high notes) make it appealing to youngsters.

It's no surprise to find that the carol originated in a Sunday school book, Little Children's Book for Schools and Families, published in Philadelphia in 1885.

The song has sometimes been attributed to Martin Luther, but scholars have established that, although Luther wrote a number of hymns, he had nothing to do with this one.

Its writer remains anonymous, although its words have been traced to songs sung by German immigrants.

Away in a Manger has been set to at least 41 tunes, but the most familiar to American audiences was written by American composer James Ramsey Murray in 1887.

* * *

With its ravishing melody and dramatic lyrics, O Holy Night is one of the most theatrical of Christmas carols. Like Jingle Bells, it was the subject of controversy, in this case not over the song itself but over its writer and composer.

The words to O Holy Night were written in 1847 by Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant and poet who was the mayor of Roquemaure, France. Cappeau's Minuit, Chretiens (Midnight, Christians) was set to music by Parisian Adolphe Adam, composer of numerous operas and ballets, notably Giselle.

The hymn was first performed on Christmas 1847 to great success, but a few years later it was attacked by French church men who objected to Cappeau, a freethinker who opposed slavery and injustice, and Adam, who was Jewish. A French bishop said O Holy Night demonstrated a "lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion."

The song outlasted that opinion, becoming the first Christmas carol broadcast live on radio in 1906. The most familiar English translation was made in 1855 by John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister and member of the utopian community at Brook Farm in Massachusetts.

- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or


[Last modified December 22, 2005, 09:27:09]

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