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Christmas Carols And Their Meaning
( Article orginally published December 1960 )
Soon the affecting strains of Christmas Carols will be wafted from every radio and TV and it's now time to trace back their history, as knowing where a thing came from makes it mean all the more.
Carol is a Latin word meaning to dance in a ring. And hack in the 1300's that it what was done in Germany while the mother rocked the cradle and family and friends sang and danced around them at Yuletide.
Wandering minstrels spread these haunting Christmas songs far and wide, and though the Puritans in England banned them during the 17th century the custom flourished underground and by the 19th century, they were adopted in the churches.
"Adeste Fidelus" (O Come All Ye Faithful) is sometimes called the Portuguese Hymn because the composer of its music is believed to be Marco Portogallo, chapel master to the King of Portugal in 1785. Historians differ about the origin of the words whether they go back to the 13th or 17th centuries. Most popular of Christmas Carols, it has been translated into 76 languages.
"Silent Night" was first heard by the villagers of Oberndorf, Austria, in 1815. Their parish priest, Josef Mohr, wrote the words and the church organist, Franz Gruber, set them to music. A visitor several years later left the village with a copy that soon was published everywhere.
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was composed by an unknown 16th Century Englishman and in the late 19th century was adopted by St. Paul's Cathedral, London.
"It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" was composed by two Americans, Edmund Sears (words) and Richard Willis (music).
"The First Noel" was sung, legends assert, by French Shepherds during the Middle Ages but was first printed in England in Queen Elizabeth's (the 1st) time.
Nothing is known about the origin of "Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly", except that it is a very ancient Welch tune. Mozart used it in a piano-violin duet.
Isaac Watts wrote many poems and religious essays but is remembered for but one Carol, "Joy to the World." Composed in 1719, it is based on the 97th Psalm. The melody is from Handel's immortal "Messiah."
"O Little Town of Bethlehem" words by Bishop Philip of Philadelphia inspired by a visit to the Holy Land. Music is by Lewis Redner, his church organist.
A century ago an English minister, The Reverend John Neal, wrote "Good King Wenceslaus," who was a 10th Century king of Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia) who became celebrated in legend for his generosity.
"Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" was written by Charles Wesley, brother of the founder of Methodism, and he got the idea while listening to church bells on Christmas morn ing, in 1730. The melody is from a cantata by Mendelssohn who protested, "It will never do to sacred words." At least some proportion of the flavor of the holiday season lies in its vocabulary. Almost unconsciously the allusions of the carols, the early morning shouts of "Merry Christmas" have a special tingle about them, of snow flurries and holly and sound of bells. Here is the stockingful of seasonal words with a few notes on their origin and history.
Chiristmas itself, of course, originally meant Christ's Mass, the religious service celebrating the Nativity. CRISTES MAESSE it was then; the religious meaning still holds true, but the word has expanded to cover the whole day and the secular celebration thereof as well. Early Christians celebrated the Nativitv on varying dates and it probably was fixed to December 25th, its now traditional date, simply because the time of the winter solstice had been sacred to a score of religious from which Christianity draws its converts. The giving of gifts at this time was a pre-Christian Roman practice which has happily held over.
XMAS is a word usually snooted as a commercialized abbreviation for Christmas. Abbreviation it certainly is, but its original use was not commercial and probably not purely as a timesaver. XMAS, with its symbol of the cross (X) for Christ, goes back to the early symbolism of Christianity when it was a persecuted and sometimes cryptic sect. Meeting places of Christians were designated with an unobtrusive X.
YULE is as hearty and Norse in origin as you'd expect. It comes from the Old Icelandic JOL, a heathen feast lasting twelve days. JOL fell at about the same time as Christ mas, and when England and Northern Europe were converted, the name simply swung over to the new festivities.
NOEL is a French borrowing, generally affected by folk who think it prettier or fancier than the simple Christmas. Its first introduction was as a synonym for Christmas carol. CAROL is a song, a gay song for dancing. It comes from Old French where it meant much the same, but nowadays it has come to mean almost exclusively Christmas song.
SANTA CLAUS is an Americanization of SANTE KLAAS, Dutch dialect for St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, an early Christian saint who died in 326 A. D. St. Nicholas was the patron saint of schoolboys and his genial patronage has by now been extended to all children.
MISTLETOE is another Old Icelandic word, then as now for the parasite vine growing mostly on apple trees, sometimes on oaks. Mistletoe was held in veneration by the British Druids, held a dark and mysterious place in their rituals and had connotations for sexual power. The latter perhaps came from the fact that the mistletoe has unusually distinct male and female growths.