There is and always has been an international language that just about everyone on earth understands. It’s the sweet, joyous, heart-breaking, soul-searching, uplifting, and love-filled language of music. During the holiday season, just about every popular vocalist, musician and orchestra has an album dedicated to the holiday season. People prepare dinners for the stories behind the songs, which are often as beautiful as the songs.
One of the most famous Christmas songs is Silent Night. The very first time this song was ever actually performed was on Christmas Eve 1818 in Oberndorf, Austria. “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” rang through a small village church at midnight Mass. According to photojournalist Bill Egan for Soundscapes, the song was sung in St. Nicholas Church by assistant pastor Father Joseph Mohr and choir director Franz Xavier Gruber. Interestingly enough, it was accompanied by Father Mohr’s guitar and not the church organ. That’s why the many variations of the story have come into play. While clever and imaginative writers have created storybooks about the song’s beginnings, including one about mice that ate through the bellows of the organ, Egan discovered that Father Mohr wrote the poem we now know as the lyrics to Silent Night. He asked his friend Gruber to add a melody and guitar accompaniment for Mass that night.
Stories persist that perhaps the organ wasn’t working, though some believe the pastor just preferred guitar music. Nonetheless the song was born. In 1816, the young poet used to walk to visit his elders. Egan said it’s easy to imagine him walking through the woods on that solemn and holy night writing the poem. The beautiful song would never have become “The Song Heard Around the World” if an organ repair man had not visited the church, seen a copy of the song and taken it with him. It then made its miraculous trip town by town, year by year.
Another favorite holiday song enjoyed by young and old alike is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The year was 1938 and Bob May, a downhearted man with his wife dying of cancer and a 4-year-old daughter, wondered what he could possibly get his little girl for Christmas. He was really down on his luck, according to urban legends expert David Emery. “Even when he was a young kid, he had a tough time. He was small-built so the other boys bullied him,” Emery explained. “He was the classic outsider.”
After college and marrying his wife, he got a job at department store Montgomery Ward during the Great Depression. After the birth of their little girl, his wife developed cancer. This wiped out all their funds for health care, and Bob May and his daughter moved into the slums of Chicago. His wife died just before Christmas, and broken-hearted Bob subsequently wrote the story of Rudolph for his daughter’s Christmas gift. The little book made its way around the department store, and eventually the company decided to publish it as a handout at the Santa display.
It’s said that by 1946, the store had distributed more than 6 million copies of Rudolph, a shy little deer who was different from all the others, much like his author. Somehow, the rights were given back to Bob May. He ended up well-off from the story. His brother-in-law made a song adaption of the story, which Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore rejected but which Gene Autry recorded, and the rest is history.
For your holiday listening pleasure:
*Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Eve & Other Stories”
*Tchaikovsky, “The Nutcracker” (Christmas Edition), Bonn Classical Philharmonic
*“Handel’s “Messiah” (Complete), The London Philharmonic Orchestra
*Leonard Bernstein, “The Joy of Christmas” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and New York Philharmonic
*Tony Bennett, “A Swingin’ Christmas”
*Katherine McPhee, “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You” (The Unbroken Deluxe Edition)
*Enya, “And Winter Came”
*Frank Sinatra, “Christmas”
*Jose Feliciano, “Feliz Navidad”