The following is taken from: Upfront With NGS, Volume 8, Number 12-1, December 2008
Is There a Reason “Silent Night” was Grandma’s Favorite Carol? by Jan Alpert, NGS President
Although I play the piano and took years of lessons, I have to admit the piano just doesn’t hold my interest as much as family research. However, at least once a year I pull out the books of Christmas carols, turn on the gas logs, and play a few tunes to put me in the holiday spirit.
I happen to have a music book that contains a copy of the original version of “Stille Nacht,” written in 1818 by Austrian Franz Gruber. It’s the version I always play, I guess because it’s the one my German grandmother liked. It has more chords and sounds more like a lullaby than the modern Christmas carol. If played correctly, the baby rocking in the cradle should be asleep by the time the piece is finished. Another familiar German cradle hymn was “Away in a Manger,” composed not by Martin Luther, but by an Evangelical Lutheran Church minister in Illinois. Or is this just another story from my German grandmother? The Reader’s Digest Best Loved Christmas Carols, 1970, says, “Despite the persistence of the legend, Martin Luther did not compose ‘Away in a Manger.’ The words first appeared as a poem in a book published in Philadelphia in 1885 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of North America. The music, by an Illinois pastor, was composed for the song ‘Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.’”
The Joy of Christmas, Yorktown Music Press, Inc., 1972, lists each carol alphabetically in the table of contents, noting the country of origin. So quickly, before you finish this article, think about your favorite carols, and then see if there is a relationship between your favorites and your heritage.
Other German works include “Christ Was Born on Christmas Day,” “O Tannenbaum,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” written in the fourteenth century, and George Friedrich Handel’s “Messiah,” composed in 1741. From Handel we also have “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” and perhaps “Joy to the World.” The Reader’s Digest Best Loved Christmas Carols writes that authorities today believe “Joy to the World” was written by Lowell Mason, who took Handel’s work as inspiration. The words were written by Isaac Watt’s paraphrasing of Psalm 98.
My second favorite carol is “O Holy Night,” written by Frenchman, Adolphe Adam in 1847. I have a French Huguenot line, but clearly not a strong lineage. Other French carols include “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Pat-A-Pan.”
Some of the oldest carols were in Latin, such as “Adeste Fideles,” which we know as “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “Good King Wenceslas,” which is based on life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907-935 A.D.). “Gesu Bambin,” or “Jesus Was Born to Mary,” is a familiar Italian carol. Some of the most familiar English songs include “What Child is This,” “Here We Come A-Caroling (or A-Wassailing),” “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” From the Welsh we have “Deck the Halls.” The Reader’s Digest Best Loved Christmas Carols says, “Nowell as the English first spelled it, was an expression of joy, meaning glad tidings, called out from one person to another on Christmas Day. It was one of the first French words to be adopted by the English after the Norman invasion.” The carol of the same name has a mixture of French and English origins and originated about the seventeenth century.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” was the creation of two people working independently. The words came from a poem written by Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears, published in 1849. Richard Storrs Willis wrote the music for a different poem. The two later became combined.
To round out the selections, the Spanish have “Fum, Fum, Fum,” the Czechs have “Come All Ye Shepherds,” the Polish have “Lullaby Jesus,” and the Hungarians have carols, “Sing Shepherds” and “Hear the Angel Voices.” There are also several spiritual carols, including “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “Behold That Star,” and “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow.”
And let’s not forgot to end the year with “Auld Lang Syne.” The words are attributed to Robert Burns, the music was written in Scotland in the latter eighteenth century, and they were first heard together in 1898.
Although most of us consider these familiar songs to be American Christmas carols, many of these tunes were traditional Christmas songs, sung for many generations before they reached America’s shores.
I have to say, that no Christmas is complete for me without gathering in the sleepiness of Christmas Eve and singing "Stille Nacht". I first heard it sung this way over 40 years ago when my grandfather, who was of German descent, and whose family was only second generation American when he arrived, sang in a deep baritone those beautiful words!
I was mesmerized! Years later, I had the express pleasure of spending nearly three years abroad in Germany. To hear the beautiful carols in their native language was so touching then, and even more so now. My grandfather died in 1977, and I so miss his deep voice! This time of year, I just know that when I croak out the words to this beautiful carol he is nearby. I can almost hear him singing, "Stille nacht, heilig nacht, all es ruhig, all es glanzend, rund der junfrau, mutter und kind, heilg kleinkind so angebot und mild, schlaffen bei himmel freid, schlaffen bei himmel freid".
Until we share Christmas in heaven Grandpa, I keep this alive!