Christmas Carol Countdown* (Wednesday Night Worship)
A survey was taken over the last several weeks and the results, though minimal, are in. Tonight, we will enjoy the top six Christmas carols of our congregation. There were five songs tied for second, and a final song that stood alone at the top of the standings. The lyrics will be on the screen, so please feel free to sing along.
At number six we have a song of mysterious origin. It is perhaps one of the first Christmas carols taught to children. It seems to date back to the latter part of the 1800’s. It has been wrongly attributed to Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation. It was said that he would sing it to his children every night. The legend grew to him singing it to children across Germany. Interestingly, though, is the fact that not a single mother in Germany was familiar with the song prior to its introduction from the United States to them. The authorship continues to remain uncertain, though many believe its roots are here in the United States. There is no question, though, that the image it paints is of a night of joy, a night of peace, a night of hope, the night of the birth of Jesus, as He was laid, “Away in a Manger.”
Number five’s authorship is pretty solid, though the two who composed it originally could only have come together by the moving Spirit of God. Noel Regney was a French classical composer who found himself in Nazi Germany during World War II and having to fight his way back into France. His love of music drew him to the United States, specifically New York City. He walked into the Beverly Hotel and was immediately drawn to a beautiful woman playing popular music on the piano. Though he spoke little English and was a classical composer and she didn’t understand French with a passion for rock and roll, in less than a month the two were married. Regney composed a poem to help him find hope in a world seemingly entrenched in war, and asked his wife to set it to music. Despite a rocky start, in 1963, Bing Crosby’s decision to record the song solidified its place in Christmas music history…let’s hear “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Our fourth-place song also has French origins. In 1847 the parish priest of a small French town asked a infrequently attending businessman, Placide Cappeau de Roquemanure, who was known for his poetry to write a poem for the Christmas Eve mass. Honored he began to write, but became so inspired by his own writing, he determined it needed to be put to music. He turned to his friend, classical composer, Adolphe Charles Adams. Despite his misgivings, Adams, a man of Jewish ancestry, set to work and put the piece to music. It was quickly embraced by the French Catholics, until Placide waked away from the church entirely and the church discovered the musician was Jewish. The church began to denounce the song, but the people began to embrace it. It was later embraced in America during the Civil War…and then in 1906, it became the first song to be heard across the airwaves, as Reginald Fessenden, chemist for Thomas Edison, spoke into a microphone reading the Christmas story from Luke, and then as he completed his reading, he picked up his violin and began playing, “O Holy Night.”
We stick with the sacred night scene as we move into the third place song, and encounter a song that arose out of desperation as much as inspiration. The location was Austria…the year 1818. Assistant priest Joseph Mohr was making final preparations for the perfect Christmas Eve service when he suddenly discovered that the church’s aged organ was worn out and wouldn’t play…after striving for hours to get it fixed, Mohr threw up a desperation prayer that God would reveal to him how to bring music to the service (he didn’t have access to Youtube 😉). God drew his mind back to a Christmas poem he had written two years earlier. Just hours before the service, Mohr made his way over to the local school teacher who also served as the church organist and told him what was going on with the organ…he pulled out the poem and asked Franz Gruber to come up with music that the choir could quickly learn accompanied by guitar. The clock continued to tick and with just hours to spare, Gruber met Mohr at the church with the guitar chords in place…after quickly teaching the song to the choir, at midnight they stood before the congregation to introduce “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” or as we know it, “Silent Night, Holy Night!”
Though its tune can be traced all the way back to the 1500’s, possibly even King Henry VIII, the hymn didn’t come to light until the 1800’s in England. Insurance man by day, but poet at heart, William Chatterton Dix was a prolific poet. It was a nearly fatal illness that brought a renewal of faith to Dix and as he recovered he became a great hymn writer. However, Dix lived in an era where Christmas was not really celebrated as we do today. The Puritan society that he was part of feared that if we set aside a special day celebrating the birth of Jesus it would be transformed into a day more of pagan rituals than a serious time of worship…given what consumerism has transformed it to, they may not have been far off. However, despite the societal norm, Dix felt compelled to write a special hymn focused on the birth of Christ. They hymn was published under the name “The Manger Throne,” then paired with the much beloved King Henry VIII tune “Greensleeves” and all the world joined Dix and the first audience of Christmas in asking “What Child Is This?”
We now find ourselves at the most requested Christmas carol of our congregation. This song is actually the newest of the songs we consider tonight. It was originally written as a poem from the perspective of a reporter interviewing Mary on her perspective of being the mother of Jesus. Unfortunately, the author could not find a suitable tune to match up with the power of the words. It was as members of the Gaither Vocal Band that words met music. Mark Lowery offered his words to musician Buddy Green and a few weeks later the song was born…recorded first by Michael English and then by Kathy Mattea the popularity of the song continues to grow as more and more of us ask, “Mary Did You Know?”
My brothers and sisters, as we continue our journey through the next nine days of Christmas, may these and all the Christmas Carols we love take such a deep root in our heart that they become part of our lives every day that we may carry the joy of Christmas into each and every day of the year.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Amen.