The stories behind 4 famous Christmas songs
What is your favorite Christmas song? Perhaps you love classics, such as “Silent Night”, by Gruber. Or you prefer good pop hits such as “Santa’s coming to town!” And, maybe, you are into Christmas movie soundtracks as well! Whatever Christmas music you love to hear, we bet some of those hits have an interesting story! Here, we will tell you about the origins of four popular Christmas songs.
The oldest Christmas song
According to historians, people first started associating Christmas with certain songs or music during the 4th Century, in Rome. The oldest Christmas hymn that we have a record of is “Veni redemptor gentium” (Come, Redeemer of the nations), by Ambrose of Milan. Here is a part of the lyrics translated to English:
Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth:
let every age adoring fall;
such birth befits the God of all.
By the way, Latin religious hymns and songs weren’t translated into popular languages way until the Middle Ages, thanks to the influence of Francis of Assisi.
And here you can listen to a beautiful version of this ancient piece, by the Schola Cantorum Riga and Gints Paberzs (saxophone). It may be old as time, but it truly gets us in that deep religious feelings many families around the world join into during Advent and Christmas time.
“O Christmas tree” wasn’t about Christmas at all!
This popular Christmas carol was already known by the 16th century in Silesia (a region today belonging mostly to Poland), or at least, an early version of it. Its author was Melchior Frank and titled it “Ach Tannenbaum”. The Tannenbaum is an evergreen tree, which means its leaves and branches remain green all year long. It wasn’t until 1819 when another songwriter, August Zarnack, got inspired by the folk song and turned it into a sad love ballad, comparing the evergreen tree to a faithless lover, whose feelings change the same way the tree’s colors remain the same…
So how did it turn into a Christmas song? Well, we owe the modern lyrics to Ernst Anschütz, the Leipzig organist, teacher, and composer. By that time, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was already established, and the song referring to the evergreen tree became associated with Christmas. But now we know it’s about the tree as a symbol, not of Christ’s birth, but faithfulness and reliability.
Here you can listen to a great version by Aretha Franklin’s delightful voice! And you can get to read the current lyrics.
Mystery, legend, and history in a single Christmas carol
Have you ever paid attention to the lyrics of “Good King Wenceslas”? It is another song with an interesting story. Did he ever exist? And if so, what does he have to do with the holiday?
The story, first: Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, actually lived and reign from 911 to 935. His grandfather had converted to Christianity, but his mother was a pagan, only baptized by the moment she married Wenceslas’ father. The struggles for the throne took many lives in mysterious circumstances, and Wenceslas himself was assassinated by his own brother to take the power.
People claim he was generous and gave help to widows, orphans, and any afflicted by difficulty. After his death, people considered him a martyr and a saint, and the title of King was given to him only posthumously by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. In the Czech Republic, people still venerate him: his remains rest in St Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague, and his Saint’s Day is a public holiday. A curious legend states that if the country should be in danger, his statue will come to life to defend his land once more.
What about the carol? John Mason Neale wrote the lyrics in 1853 to fit an older tune from the 13th century. Because the Feast of St. Stephen is the Second Day of Christmas (Boxing Day as they call it in England), and because it sings about generosity and the difficult conditions the king had to face to give alms to poor people, it soon became such a popular Christmas carol than even The Beatles recorded a version of it!
Here you can listen to the song by Bing Crosby.
The most modern of classics!
Every year by this time, song charts from YouTube, Spotify, and Billboards show a 1994 pop song quickly escalate back to the top. It is fun, it is cool, it is powerful, and it has the right touch of melancholy any good old Christmas carol should have to become a true classic. We are talking, of course, about Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” (here you can watch the official video in case you’ve never heard it before or, what’s more likely, you are already singing it in your head and you want to dance all around the house in your pajamas!)
When Mariah and her songwriting partner Walter Afanasieff got together to create a Christmas album, they certainly were looking for such a hit. They claim it only took 15 minutes to compose! But maybe that’s why people love it: it’s simple! Mariah took inspiration from the 1950 and 60’s songs, and it also has some Jackson-5 touch. Besides, it’s a Christmas song without religious content, it is all about love, which means anyone can relate to it.
According to an interview Mariah Carey gave in 2014, the real inspiration behind such a happy, cheerful song is sadder than it looks at first. Sure, she’s one of the most successful singers of the past three decades, but back when she was a child, she was struggling with poverty, her mixed racial identity, and feeling she didn’t fit in well anywhere.
What do you think about the story of these four Christmas songs? Did you find your favorite on the list? Tell us in the comments below!
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