Each December, my church hosts a carol sing in which the wider community participates. About a hundred people gather — families, college students, older folks, Christians and non-Christians — to sing through the wide Christmas canon, everything from “The Grinch” to “Silent Night.” After we run through a few songs, we descend onto the downtown restaurant scene, pouring into bars and burger joints, singing a carol and then moving on to the next establishment.

Several times, I have been moved to tears when bewildered, unsuspecting patrons instinctively begin to sing along to the words of some of these ancient hymns, knowingly or unknowingly proclaiming the birth of our Savior: “Jesus, Lord at thy birth!” “Let earth receive her king!” “God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn!” While the notion of Christmas caroling is generally something sentimental, these carol sings always have a surprisingly profound effect on me. 

There is something profoundly timeless about an unrehearsed group of people singing. Just watch the end of a European football match when grown men sob out the words to “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Something about it harkens back to before the days of radio, when a common way for people to spend time together was to sing the songs they knew. Singing is an essential part of well-being, a kind of portal that lifts you out of yourself. I think it’s sad that many people today say they “can’t sing.” I want to say, “Excuse me, but aren’t you a living, breathing person?” Thankfully, people are usually stripped of this kind of insecurity during a carol sing.

Still, the real answer of the profound nature of these experiences lies far deeper than communal singing, but in the songs themselves. The strength of these songs lies in the inspired articulation of their message — the message that God is with us, that Love has, indeed, come down. Luther once said, “Next to theology there is no art which is the equal of music, for she alone, after theology, can do what otherwise only theology can accomplish, namely, quiet and cheer up the soul of man.” The magic behind the most moving Christmas carols lies in the meeting between inspired music and the inspired message of the Gospel. On top of that, it is a message that is to be shared with others. And what better way to proclaim our Savior’s birth then through singing together — perhaps a bit off-pitch, but loud and spirited just the same?

And yet, the miracle of these hymnodies can’t be explained by a simple formula. Many of these songs have stories behind their conception in which God is clearly present every step of the way. Each of them is a response to a personal encounter with the living God. Here are three brief “Behind The Music” stories of three of my favorites Christmas carols (much of this material is from Ace Collin’s book, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas). 

O Holy Night

What is arguably the greatest song ever written was co-written by a professed atheist and a Jewish composer. Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant with a passion for literature, was asked by a parish priest to write a poem for Christmas mass. On a stagecoach on his way to Paris, Cappeau read the Gospel of Luke and was undone. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he wrote “Cantique De Noel” by the end of his journey and was so moved by the poem that he asked his friend Adolph Adam, a Jewish composer, to put it to music.

After becoming widely popular in France, the song was banned after political leaders found out that Cappeau was a socialist who had apparently fallen out of faith and that Adam was Jewish. It was also the first song ever broadcast live over radio airwaves when, in 1906, a University professor had been experimenting with a new type of generator. The instrument that, for years, had been only used for morse code, suddenly projected the sound of a man’s voice. The professor’s first words were the reading from the second chapter of Luke, the story of Jesus’ birth, followed by a piece by Handel on the phonograph, followed by the professor himself playing  “O Holy Night” on his violin.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks was an Episcopal priest from Boston (and, later, Philadelphia) who, at the age of 30, traveled to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve 1865, traveling by horseback from Jerusalem, he attended a five-hour (!) Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He was deeply moved by what he experienced:

I remember standing in the old church at Bethlehem close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the wonderful night of the Savior’s birth.

Three years later, he was preparing for the Christmas season and wanted to compose an original Christmas hymn for the children to sing during their annual program. After writing the five stanzas of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” he asked his organist Lewis Redner to compose a tune for the poem. After struggling with the assignment, inspiration struck Redner on the night before the Christmas program. He awoke with the music ringing in his head, jotted down the melody and went back to sleep (note: this is exactly how Keith Richards wrote the guitar riff to “Satisfaction”). The next day, a group of six Sunday school teachers and thirty-six children sang this carol for the first time.

Joy to the World

Isaac Watts, the “Father of English Hymnody,” who wrote more than 750 hymns during his lifetime, published a book called “Psalms of David Imitated” which wasn’t paraphrasing the Psalms so much as imitating them with a New Testament perspective. Joy to the World was inspired by the last half of Psalm 98: “Make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! Let the sea roar and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it!” 

There’s an argument that this was never meant to be a Christmas song, but about the Second Coming (notice that there’s no mention of a baby in the carol). Either way, Watts was deeply moved by David’s words being put to new meaning: “I have rather expressed myself as I may suppose David would have done if he lived in the days of Christianity and by this mean, perhaps, I have sometimes hit upon the true intent of the Spirit of God in those verses farther and clearer than David himself could ever discover.” (Sidenote: the music is assumed to be written by George Frederick Handel, some saying it resembles his greatest work, Messiah).
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Our carol sing is a week away and I’m looking forward to singing each of these songs. There is something wonderful about proclaiming the good news of the Gospel in a brewery or a burger joint. Somehow, it’s both covert and completely undisguised. While those nights always seem to give us a moment of peace and joy, I take greater comfort in knowing that it’s only an echo of that great day “when peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”