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Christmas Carols and the Nativity Story
There is so much Christmas music available these days that it can be difficult to choose what to listen to when the festive mood strikes. Some Christmas songs have endured for longer than others, partially because they focus on the reason for the season—the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. These songs are my favorite.
In this compilation, I've listed 10 holiday favorites that focus on the historical meaning of Christmas. Some of these selections feature tried-and-true singers from the past, and others are sung by more modern stars that most of us know and enjoy.
1. "Mary's Boy Child" by Harry Belafonte
The first in this list of Christmas songs celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ is "Mary's Boy Child," sung by Harry Belafonte. It is one of my absolute favorite Christmas songs. It was written in 1956 by a man with the interesting and unusual name of Jester Hairston, according to Infogalactic. The original calypso rhythm was in response to a request for Hairston to write a song for a birthday.
While that song was never recorded, Walter Schumann, the conductor of the Schumann's Hollywood Choir, asked Hairston to write a new Christmas song for the choir to sing. Hairston reportedly went back to the rhythm of his former song and wrote new lyrics for it.
Being of Caribbean descent, Harry Belafonte enjoyed the song's calypso rhythm after hearing it sung by the choir. He asked for permission to record it, and the rest is history. Belafonte's version has sold over 1.19 million copies over the years. It charted number one in the UK in November of 1957 and was the first single to reach one million sales there. While there are many quality versions of the song, I don't think any come close to Belafonte's; it seems the tune was made for him.
2. "Take a Walk Through Bethlehem" by Trisha Yearwood
"Take A Walk Through Bethlehem" is among my favorite Christmas songs as well. It was written by Wally Wilson, John Barlow Jarvis, and Ashley Cleveland. Trisha Yearwood sang it on her album The Sweetest Gift. Similar to "Mary's Boy Child," it has an uplifting and unique beat that complements the lyrics nicely.
3. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" by Mariah Carey
Written by Charles Wesley (brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism), "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is a Christmas carol that made its first public appearance in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739.
The lyrics and tune were revised some over the years, with revivalist George Whitefield changing the opening couplet to the one we're familiar with today. Later, Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata for a different purpose, which was adapted by William H. Cummings to the song we now know. Mendelssohn's changes came in 1840, approximately 100 years after the hymn first appeared in the original collection.
Charles Wesley is considered to be among the most prolific poets in the English-speaking world and is credited with composing more than 6,500 hymns. Mariah Carey sings a beautiful version of the song in the video above.
4. "What Child Is This?" by Josh Groban
"What Child is This?" was written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865, but it wasn't published until 1871, when it made its first appearance in a collection called Christmas Carols Old and New that was released in the UK.
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While recovering from a severe illness, Dix experienced a personal spiritual renewal that resulted in his writing of several hymns, including "What Child Is This?" The lyrics were later set to the well-known tune of "Greensleeves."
No one is sure who paired the lyrics with the tune, but some believe it was John Stainer, as suggested in the third edition of The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump and Stories of the Great Christmas Carols by Renfrow and Montgomery. Josh Groban shares his version of the classic tune in the video above.
5. "O Come All Ye Faithful" by a Traditional Choir
"O Come, All Ye Faithful" has a unique history in that no one seems to know for sure who wrote it. A number of historians believe it may have been written by more than one person or adapted and changed over the years by multiple people. In its earliest form, the carol was written in Latin as "Adeste Fideles." The oldest known version is dated 1751 and is stored at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire.
Among those considered to be possible authors of the hymn are John Francis Wade, whose signature is on all of the earliest copies of the work; John Reading; Handel; Gluck; Thomas Arne; Marcos Portugal; and even king John IV of Portugal.
Regardless of who wrote it, it has remained one of the more commonly performed and consistently enjoyed Christmas hymns for a long time. For that reason, I chose to include a video of a traditional choir singing the hymn. It seems fitting.
6. "Away in a Manger" by Alan Jackson
The hymn "Away in a Manger" has an interesting history in that some people, apparently in a marketing scheme, attempted to attribute it to the great reformer Martin Luther. It is now thought to be American in origin, with the first two verses first published in the May 1884 issue of a periodical called The Myrtal.
The third stanza, "Be near me, Lord Jesus," was published first in Gabriel's Vineyard Songs in 1892. It appeared with a tune by Charles H. Gabriel, pointing to the probability he wrote the third stanza. Gabriel also tried to attribute it to Luther, but as mentioned earlier, that's no longer considered to be a credible source for the hymn. Alan Jackson sings his version of "Away in a Manger" in the video above.
7. "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" by Trisha Yearwood
Robert MacGimsey composed the Christmas song "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" in 1934. It was later introduced by Lawrence Tibbett and has been sung and recorded by numerous performers and choirs since. Probably more than any other artist, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson brought the song from relative obscurity to a mainstream audience with her 1955 version.
The soulful feel of the song comes in part from MacGimsey's Black nanny, who sang spirituals to him as a young child. It is also surmised by some that the depression had an impact on the way the song was written and sung. I don't think anybody sings the song better than Trisha Yearwood, so I included her version for you to enjoy.
8. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Nat King Cole
"O Little Town of Bethlehem" was written by Phillips Brooks (1835–1893), who was an Episcopal priest and rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. The music was written by his organist, Lewis Redner. Redner said this about how it came about:
"As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to "O Little Town of Bethlehem"'? I replied, 'No,' but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868."
Nat King Cole sings an excellent version of the song in the video above.
9. "The First Noel" by Carrie Underwood
Of the more well-known Christmas songs and hymns, "The First Noel" is believed to have been written and composed as early as the 13th century, according to William Sandys in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. It is unknown who wrote the lyrics or composed the tune, but its current form is thought to be of Cornish origin. Carrie Underwood does a wonderful job singing this Christmas hymn in the included video.
10. "O Holy Night" by Home Free
Surely one of the most performed Christmas carols ever, "O Holy Night" continues to be a must-listen at any Christmas celebration. The tune was composed in 1847 by Adolphe Adam to accompany a poem by a poet and wine merchant named Placide Cappeau (1808–1877). Cappeau was asked by a priest to compose the poem in order to celebrate the renovation of the church organ.
In a unique twist to the story, Cappeau, who was an atheist and anti-cleric, wrote the words to one of the most believed Christmas carols in history. It's possible the priest asked him to do it in order to get him thinking about Jesus Christ and His birth. Home Free does a terrific rendition of the beloved Christmas carol in the video above.
When it comes to Christmas carols, songs, and hymns, much is shrouded in mystery, and there are plenty of idiosyncrasies and delightful surprises. These songs have provided cheer and encouragement to countless people over the centuries, and I hope they continue to do so for hundreds of years to come. The songs we listen to over and over again will be passed on to the next generation, and they will pass them on to their children and grandchildren as well.
These songs represent the timeless theme of the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God, who came to earth as a man to save humanity from their sins. All of these songs, in a variety of words and melodies, remind us of one of the most important days in history. They ensure that we'll pass this great historical event and truth on to the generations to follow. That should come as a comforting thought to those who cherish the true meaning of Christmas.