Merry Christmas, and Tidings of Comfort and Joy

By Jim Ignasher

Josephus was born shortly before Christmas in Salzburg, Austria, to an unwed mother and an absent father, and as a young boy grew up knowing hunger and going without. But he was blessed with poetic and musical talents, often singing, or playing the guitar at a local church. At the age of nineteen he entered the Seminary to become a priest, and was ordained four years later.

His first assignment was to minister at a church in Mariapfarr, a beautiful village nestled in the mountains of central Austria. That winter, perhaps inspired by the way the bright moon illuminated the snow covered town and surrounding countryside, he wrote a poem which he kept along with others he’d written over the years.

Then poor health caused him to return home for treatment, and after his recovery, he was assigned to St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. It was there he befriended Franz Gruber, a school teacher who often played the church organ at mass.

Legend has it that on Christmas Eve of that year the organ wasn’t working properly, but it’s possible that Josephus simply wanted a unique musical score for his first Midnight Mass at St. Nicholas. In either case, he brought his friend the poem he’d written in Mariapfarr two years before, asking that it be set to music. Franz looked it over, and within hours presented Josephus with a sheet of music intended for the guitar, which Josephus softy played while the choir sang the words. The beautiful melody was well received by all in attendance.

Like many songs of long ago, this one could have easily faded into obscurity and lost to history, but such was not to be. The carol eventually wound up in the hands of traveling musicians, and within a few years it had crossed both borders and oceans, and has since been translated into hundreds of languages making it perhaps the best known Christmas carol of all time.

Have you guessed it yet? Josephus was better known as Father Joseph Mohr, (1792 – 1848); the poem he wrote in Mariapfarr was “Stille Nacht”, better known as “Silent Night”; first introduced on December 24, 1818.

Perhaps we like to think of Christmas carols as a relatively modern invention, but as a point of fact singing at holidays and festivals dates back more than 2,000 years, even pre-dating Christmas itself. Maybe it’s the re-makes of Christmas “classics” that give the impression that the music is more contemporary, but many of today’s popular carols are older then we might imagine.

One of the oldest carols still enjoyed today is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, written in its original form in 1739 as “A Hymn For Christmas Day” by Charles Wesley. The words have changed somewhat over the years. For example, the original version began, “Hark how all the Welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings”.

In 1843, a parish priest from Roquemaure, France, asked Placide Cappeau, a local merchant and parishioner, to write a Christmas poem for the Midnight Mass. Cappeau submitted a work titled “Cantique de Noel”, which was later given to Adolphe Adam and set to music. The song was first sung in Roquemaure in 1847, and today we know “Cantique de Noel” as “Oh Holy Night”.

Closer to home, there was James L. Pierpont, who was born in Boston in 1822. At the age of ten he attended boarding school in New Hampshire, but after a few short years, left school to join the crew of a Whaling ship. Finding sea life agreeable, he also did a stint in the U. S. Navy before returning to New England.

Here he met and married Millicent Cowee and the couple settled in Medford, Massachusetts.

James had a talent for song writing, and according to a bronze plaque in the Town of Medford, in 1850 he composed a song based on a pleasant winter’s day experience he’d had while at boarding school. Ironically, the tune wasn’t meant to be a Christmas carol, but instead one to be sung at Thanksgiving, which is why it was first performed at a Thanksgiving Day concert in Savannah, Georgia, in 1857.

The song was slow to gain popularity, even after some editing and being re-released under a new title in 1859. Yet today it’s one of the most recognizable Christmas carols.

The original title of the song was “One Horse Open Sleigh”, but we know it today as “Jingle Bells”.

In 1865 English born William Chatterton Dix was only 28-years-old when he fell ill and was bedridden. During his recovery he began reading the Bible and eventually penned the popular carol, “What Child Is This?” to be sung to the tune of a centuries-old English folk song, “Greensleeves.”

Yet there are some well known carols that are comparatively modern. “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, is but one example. The original story of Rudolph, (Who was almost named Rollo, or Reginald.), was written in 1939 by Robert L. May for a children’s book. It was later set to music, and Gene Autry’s 1949 recording of the song hit number one on the Billboard pop singles charts. Furthermore, the well known 1964 animated Christmas special (still aired to this day) has made Rudy the most recognized reindeer in the world.

And by a show of hands, how many knew that the original title of the 1951 song, “Silver Bells”, was “Tinkle Bells”? It was changed for obvious reasons.

Another relatively modern Christmas carol is “White Christmas”, written in 1940 by Irving Berlin, and first performed by Bing Crosby on his radio show on Christmas Day, 1941, shortly after America had entered World War II.

What many don’t know is that this carol has an introduction which is often omitted, which goes like this:

“The sun is shinning, the grass is green,

the orange and palm trees sway.

There’s never been such a day,

in Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the 24th,

and I am longing to be up north.”

There are those who’ve done remakes of “White Christmas”, but personally, I think Bing’s rendition is the best.

Merry Christmas, and tidings of comfort and joy.