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Omdahl: Odd Stories Behind Beloved Christmas Songs

By Staff | Dec 18, 2015

The glamour of Christmas and the winter season have been too compelling for secular musicians to resist the opportunity to participate in the festivities. So, intermixed with songs of praise and worship, we have a variety of interesting secular creations.

Of course, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” could not appear until Santa Claus became a defined personality and it was established that his sleigh flew through the air with the power of eight visually impaired reindeer.

Strange as it may seem, Rudolph did not originate with a songwriter but came into the Christmas scene through Montgomery Ward, the catalogue retail giant.

In 1938, Bob May, a Montgomery ad man, was broke and his wife was struggling with cancer. So to boost the spirits of his 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, he made up this story about a reindeer. Christmas came and he couldn’t afford a gift for Barbara so he made her a little booklet about their Rudolph.

As a Montgomery Ward employee, he was invited to the company Christmas party and word about his reindeer got out. His colleagues made him present the story and he won a standing ovation.

Up until that time, Montgomery Ward had been buying color books to give away at Christmas but decided to start publishing their own and there was this reindeer. With the company involved, the conversion of Rudolph to a coloring book became complicated.

First of all, there was the red nose problem. Society pretty well knew what caused red noses and the company worried that their coloring book would appear to condone alcoholism. To allay that fear, May had an artist friend make a “cute” reindeer that captured the hearts and changed the minds of management.

Initially, they thought that Rudolph should be renamed Rollo or Reginald. They also considered making him a moose. Somehow, all of these wrinkles got ironed out with Rudolph intact. Montgomery Ward printed and gave away millions of color books featuring the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Out of the generosity of their corporate hearts, they transferred title of Rudolph to Bob May, making him a very wealthy man.

Smith’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, developed some music for Rudolph but was having a hard time getting a recognized artist to gamble on singing about something as preposterous as a red-nosed reindeer. Bing Crosby said no. Gene Autry said no. But Gene’s wife said yes and that is how Autry become so identified with the song that many people still think he created it.

Not all clergy have spurned secular Christmas music. By 1864, Pastor Ben Hamby had served two churches before writing “Up On the Housetop” as an employee of a music publisher.

“Up On the Housetop” was the first song to mention Santa Claus and to introduce the idea that Santa could land reindeer on a housetop.

“Winter Wonderland” was written by Richard Smith in 1934 when he was struggling with tuberculosis in a Pennsylvania sanitarium. He died the next year and never lived to see his song become the most played among the music licensing companies. Over 200 different artists and groups recorded the song, including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” doesn’t make sense until we realize the timing. First, it gives assurance that the author would certainly be home for Christmas and then it concedes “if only in my dreams.” Sounded contradictory until we notice that it was written in 1943 from the viewpoint of a World War II soldier in the trenches.

At first, American music companies wouldn’t touch it because it was too sad. The British Broadcasting Company banned it, thinking it would demoralize the troops.

Writer Kim Gannon wouldn’t give up and won over Bing Cosby by singing it to him on a golf course. It became an instant hit, especially with the troops.

Over the past 400 years, Christendom has accumulated a wonderful collection of songs to celebrate the arrival of a redeemer for fallen man. Some songs have curious beginnings.

At the top of the list is “Silent Night”, the most popular of all Christmas songs. While one would believe that such a great song would require meditation and wordsmithing, it was really a quick cut and paste job.

On Christmas Eve of 1818, Father Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria was desperate for guitar music because the church organ had been disabled by a recent flood and he wanted a song for Christmas Eve Mass. All he had was a few lyrics he had written two years earlier.

He walked a couple of miles to see his friend Franz Gruber, church choir master and organist, and asked him to create some guitar music for his lyrics. A few hours later, Mohr and Gruber stood at the altar of St. Nicholas Church and sang “Silent Night” backed up by a local choir group.

The original manuscript was lost until 1995, when a manuscript was discovered in Mohr’s handwriting.

Another very popular Christmas song, “Joy to the World”, was not written to celebrate Christmas at all. Isaac Watts wrote it in 1719, intending it to be a song welcoming the Second Coming – not the First Coming – of Jesus.

It is alleged that Watts got his inspiration from Psalm 98. Verses 4-9 of the Psalm seem to validate this allegation.

But the song fit so well at Christmas that Watt’s intention has been disregarded for 300 years.

Watts got into the songwriting business when he complained to his father about the somber music of the day. His father told him to write something himself so he wrote “Joy to the World” and 600 other songs.

Incidentally, the music for “Joy to the World” was not written until 1839 – 120 years after the lyrics – by Lowel Mason, a bank teller with a compelling interest in music. Mason later became the first music teacher in American public schools and wrote 1,600 pieces of music.

The Mexican War and international conflicts compelled Edmund Sears to write “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”. This Unitarian pastor was greatly stressed by world conditions in 1849. Revolution was rampant in Europe and the Mexican-American War had just ended.

Sears thought the Christian message was being muted by world events so he gave his message in song. However, the stress prevailed and he eventually had a nervous breakdown.

Charles Wesley, born in 1703 as the 18th of 19 children, a deacon and elder of the Church of England, was headed for Georgia as a missionary when he encountered Moravians who taught him a new kind of hymn singing. As a result, we have “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.

While a number of self-appointed musicians tampered with the song, credit for the music has been given to Jacob Mendelsohn, son of a Jewish banker.

When war came to France, he escaped to Berlin where he joined the Lutheran Church and added “Bartholdy” to his name to prove that he was now a Christian.

The music came from a cantata commemorating the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg 300 years earlier.

Then there is “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, the authorship of which has been widely debated. Some attribute it to John Wade, some to John Reading, some to Handel, some to an order of monks and, most interesting of all, some to King John IV of Portugal.

While fending off other claimants of the throne in the 1600s, King John dabbled in music enough to gain creditability as the musician king. The song came out in Latin as Adeste Fideles and was finally translated in 1841 into English by Father Frederick Oakeley, so now we have “O Come, All Ye Faithful”.

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