Christmas Songs and Carols to Brighten the Holidays
Let us make this “a season to be jolly!” Despite our troubles, let us rekindle the fond memories of Christmas past for our parents, grandparents, and children. Let us touch the sentimental strings of carefree and youthful days that once consumed Baby Boomers and our military veterans.
Let us start with the idea of organizing some of our holiday festivities around the theme of singing carols and holiday songs. It doesn’t get better than hearing joyous Christmas songs while hauling in and trimming the Christmas tree.
Some familiar old-timers reminisce about the joy of Christmas songs and carols.
The late Andy Williams, a popular singer of the 1960s and 1970s, described celebrating the Christmas season in an interview with me several years ago. “It was such a great time,” Andy said, as he and his three older brothers used to go house to house singing carols and drinking eggnog in Wall Lake, Iowa.
“Those were the days when you knocked on a neighbor’s door and opened unlocked doors.” The talented singer who in later years starred at his Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri, suggested it would be a nice thing to renew the tradition of caroling around the neighborhood, or one’s home town, “because it is such a wonderful thing to do.”
Della Reese, familiar to television viewers for her earthly role in the popular 1994-2003 program “Touched by an Angel,” wrote to me at the same time “I just love the way Christmas carols change the spirit and attitudes of us all.” An accomplished singer and ordained minister, in addition to her acting skills, she described “Silent Night” as a magnificent thought, and her favorite holiday tune as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” sung by the mellifluous Nat “King” Cole. The irrepressible Della added, “In fact, I don’t really start my Christmas in earnest until I hear Nat sing “The Christmas Song.”
The late country and pop singer, Gene Pitney, enjoyed considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic through the mid-1960s with more than twenty Top 40 singles, including hits “Town Without Pity” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart.” In an e-mail Gene fondly recalled carving the turkey when his large family gathered for the holidays and the singing of Christmas carols. “I prefer religious carols,” he said, “that have not become jaded by commercial overuse. They represent the essential Christmas message.”
Take a cue from Andy, Della, and Gene. Start this holiday season with the idea of organizing your festivities around the theme of singing carols and holiday songs.
Celebrate with friends and family at home beside the fireplace or piano, or while trimming the Christmas tree, with traditional classics as “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” or “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” or singing such nostalgic holiday fare as “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Encourage friends to join in the singing of “Silent Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in front of your neighbors’ city stoop or country home. Better yet, why not sing for our senior citizens at nursing home or an assisted care facilities, or at a food kitchen for the poor and homeless, or a military hospital for our aged veterans or wounded warriors? Rest assured your caroling there will be met with open hearts and ready smiles.
Or you might volunteer to take part in the local performance of Handel’s “Messiah” for other worthy causes, or support a local church by attending its vesper service where awe-inspiring Christmas motets and concertos may reverberate, and where the reverential carol-hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” soars to celestial heights on the wings of angels. This is truly music for the soul.
Though the custom of singing Christmas songs and carols in front of neighborhood homes may seem quaint and outdated, let us redouble our efforts, especially this year, to engage young and old alike in reviving a wonderful Christmas tradition that is never out of fashion.
Ron Clancy is a Christmas songs and carols historian, and the author of illustrated Christmas music gift collections at www.christmasclassics.com.
Christmas Eve 2013: Gratitude and Fisher House
Today is Christmas Eve, a much anticipated day on the Christian calendar that serves as a prelude to the birth of our savior Jesus Christ. For many of us it a day of evening worship at our parish church and a time to reflect on the meaningful story of Christmas so richly illuminated by the Gospel of St. Luke.
For me personally Christmas Eve floods me with childhood memories about going to midnight Mass and hearing a choir of nuns sing carols so beautifully that their notes seemed to spiral heavenward as though on the wings of angels. That warm and intoxicating experience has often been rekindled each Christmas Eve, especially today when I took time from doing last minute Christmas shopping to re-read several e-mails I recently received from Fisher House managers from across the country regarding the donations of Best-Loved Christmas Carols and American Christmas Classics, my two best-selling, highly illustrated Christmas music collections
Two of those e-mails were particularly poignant. Heather Frantz from the Fisher House of Pittsburgh wrote: I just wanted to let you know that we handed out your boxed collections to our guests this past Wednesday at our Christmas Party and they absolutely LOVED them!!!!!! We had several wives who were so touched by the gift that they teared up and they all opened them and couldn’t believe how amazing the book was and all of the stories and history behind the songs that they all love so much. Thank you so very much for providing such a joyous gift for our guests!!! Merry Christmas to you!
The second response came from Kristin Palmer, Fisher House of San Diego. I just wanted to follow up with you and let you know we received and have been distributing your Christmas collections to our families. I can tell you personally each family I have talked to is touched and awed by your generosity. The holiday season on a good day can be stressful enough, but to have to also deal with a loved one in a medical crisis compounds that stress. I gave the CDs to a mother whose 18 year old Marine is receiving cancer treatments. She was very moved, and thankful. Fortunately in her case she will be able to bring her son home for the holidays, and she said they would be listening to them and letting everyone they know about the generosity of the Fisher House and those that support it. For the rest of the families that will have to remain here for the holidays, at least they will have a little Christmas spirit and know someone was thinking of them during the holidays. Again, thank you and God bless!
The sentiments conveyed by Fisher House military families are similar to the feelings I had when the Knights of Columbus, SKF Industries, Villanova University students, and others annually feted us at St. John’s Orphanage in Philadelphia during the Christmas holidays. I fondly remember, along with hundreds of other orphan boys, the warm afterglow of being a starry-eyed recipient of carefully wrapped Christmas presents that were more precious than gold.
To hear that the joy of my Christmas days of yore has been replicated and found expression in the hearts of Fisher House military families truly humbles me. As it should for one who has benefited much from the Christmas spirit.
Not too Late! Great Christmas Gifts for Military Families
It’s not too late! Please RT about Christmas Classics Ltd. support of the Fisher House Foundation this Christmas season. PRESS RELEASE
A great provider of free housing and comfort for military families in need of special medical care, the reputable foundation will benefit from the sale proceeds of Christmas Classics Ltd.’s two highly acclaimed Christmas music box collections, Best-Loved Christmas Carols and American Christmas Classics.
In addition, these premier collections are being donated to thirty-three Fisher Houses located across the country.
With the purchase today of Christmas Classics prized collections, described by customers and media alike as “great gifts,” you will make this Christmas season truly memorable, not only for your family and friends, but also for many of our military families who have suffered so much and yet have asked so little.
Ronald M. Clancy
Christmas Music Collections to Bring Cheer to Fisher Houses
Before the recent government shutdown occurred, author Ron Clancy of Christmas Classics Ltd. decided to support the Fisher House Foundation. A great provider of free housing and comfort for military families in need of medical care, the reputable foundation will benefit from the sale proceeds of Christmas Classics Ltd.’s two lavishly illustrated Christmas music collections (see FISHER HOUSE: How Others Are Giving).
To help bring special joy to Fisher House military families, Ron (@xmasmusicman) asks his Twitter followers to pass on the word about Christmas Classics Ltd. exceptional collections. The purchase of these ideal Christmas gifts for family and friends will help the Fisher House Foundation and its corollary Fisher Houses in the following ways:
1) 25% of sale proceeds will be donated to the Fisher House Foundation;
2) Christmas Classics Ltd. exquisite boxed collections will be donated to Fisher Houses across the country.
Please act today. Buy Christmas Classics Ltd. richly illustrated Best-Loved Christmas Carols and American Christmas Classics collections for your family and friends. Your purchase will go a long way to make this Christmas a truly memorable experience for those who have served our country so well and yet ask so little.
Today’s Video: The Story behind THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY
Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: James Kimball Gannon
On this day in 1900, James Kimball Gannon was born in Brooklyn, New York. Better known as Kim Gannon, he was an American songwriter and lyricist for the perennial Christmas favorite I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
Gannon attended St. Lawrence University and as a senior wrote the school’s alma mater song The Scarlet and the Brown. A proud graduate of St. Lawrence in 1924, he had every intention of becoming a lawyer. The Great Depression delayed that career pursuit and in 1930 he was working as a salesman for a utility company. By 1934 he passed the New York state bar examination, but five years later the songwriting bug struck and soon after he composed his first commercial song, For Tonight.
The year 1942 found Gannon writing songs during the “swing era” and for films including the lyrics of the film title song Always in My Heart that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Song. He replicated that achievement twice more: 1) Too Much In Love for the film Song of the Open Road in 1944, and 2) Endlessly in 1945 for the film Earl Carroll Vanities. But in between he collaborated with Walter Kent in 1943 to produce I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Gannon also wrote songs for the films Powers Girl and If Winter Comes before Broadway beckoned in 1951 when he teamed up with Walter Kent again on the score for Seventeen.
Despite his success with film and Broadway, Gannon is best remembered for his popular and wistful Christmas lyric I’ll Be Home for Christmas. First recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943, it has since been recorded more than three hundred times and is an important part of American Christmas Classics.
The amiable Kim Gannon, who died in 1974, was always true to his alma mater. In his will he stipulated that after his wife Norma’s passing (she died in 2006), 30% of all royalty proceeds from his songs were to go to St. Lawrence University. The majority of those royalties, you can bet, come from his 39-word holiday classic I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: John Troutback
On this day in 1832, John Troutback was born in Blencowe, Cumberland, England. He was a noted English translator of famous musical texts and an Anglican priest who served as chaplain to Queen Victoria during his tenure as Minor Canon at Westminster Abbey (1869-1899). The Rev. Troutback had previously held the position of Precentor at Manchester Cathedral from 1865-1869.
For purposes of distinction in the Anglican Church, a Minor Canon is usually a junior clergy staff member of a cathedral or collegiate church who participates in daily services. A Precentor, too, is a clergy member, generally part of a large church, whose charge is to prepare and organize liturgy and worship services.
The Rev. Troutback arranged many of the royal services at Westminster Abbey, most notably the 1887 Golden Jubilee service for Queen Victoria. In addition to devoting much of his life’s energy to church music, including editing Westminster Abbey Hymn Book (1883), several chant books, and The Manchester Psalter a few years prior to his assignment to Westminster Abbey. A possessor of a very fine voice, he was also the author of Church Choir Training.
Troutback’s greatest claim to fame, however, was his English translations of German, French, and Italian operas, songs, and oratorios for the British music publisher Novello. The Who’s Who List of his translations included Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion, Magnificat, and Christmas Oratorio.
The Christmas Oratorio (German Weihnachts-Oratorium) by Bach was one of three oratorios written near the end of his career and his last major contribution to the Lutheran Church. It was intended to conform to the church calendar for the 1734 Christmas season and to be performed on six successive Sundays during Advent and the Christmas season at two churches – St. Thomas and St. Nicholas in Leipzig. The oratorio incorporated six cantatas from earlier Bach compositions, some of them secular in tone, which caused some Lutheran Church elders to have problems with the great composer’s discarding of some hymn texts in favor of poetical passages and the interjection of a number of chorales, choruses, and arias of a non-Scriptural nature into the sacred work. The oratorio’s recitative and chorale settings, however, were original Bach compositions.
Bach received inspiration for his work from both the St. Luke and St. Matthew versions of the Nativity, especially since together they gave a more complete narrative of Christ’s birth. He believed the St. Luke 2:1-21 gospel had greater poetic qualities than the gospel of St. Matthew 2:1-12. However, St. Matthew’s story was particularly attractive to Bach since it recounted the tale of the Three Wise Men, leading Bach to attach greater significance to the Magi in the concluding passages of the oratorio.
The finished oratorio was broken into six parts, each to be performed on one of the major feast days of the Christmas period as follows:
Part I: The Birth of Jesus (Christmas Day)
Part II: The Annunciation to the Shepherds (December 26)
Part III: The Adoration of the Shepherd (December 27)
Part IV: The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus (New Year’s Day)
Part V: The Journey of the Magi (First Sunday after New Year)
Part V: The Adoration of the Magi (Epiphany – January 6).
Despite its original three hour length, the Rev. Troutback must have been elated to take on the task of translating Bach’s marvelous Christmas opus. In 1874 Novello published it along with Rev. Troutback’s English translation of Bach’s Magnificat.
For his distinguished service to his church, the Rev. Troutback in now buried with his wife in the East Cloister of the Westminster Abbey.
Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: Richard B. Smith
On this day in 1901, the little known Richard B. Smith was born in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. He was the lyricist (Felix Bernard wrote the music) of the popular Christmas song Winter Wonderland that was first recorded by Guy Lombardo in 1934. Unfortunately for Smith, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1931, he never got to enjoy the success that came to his classic song after succumbing to the disease in 1935, thus aborting what looked to be a promising career.
Smith had attended Penn State University, majored in advertising, and was responsible for editing the school magazine. His interest in music was also on display there when he formed and conducted his own orchestra. After graduating from Penn State, Smith moved to New York and began a career as a newspaper editor. The music bug, however, never left him as he took on the management of several Broadway theaters.
The Pennsylvania lyricist got married in 1931. Shortly after the happy event he was stricken with the dreaded tuberculosis and soon was admitted to the West Mountain Sanatorium where his wife was a nurse. With his wife near to his side, Smith’s talent for songwriting blossomed as he produced When A Gypsy Makes a Violin Cry, Bringing My Honey Back to Me, and the popular Winter Wonderland while convalescing, all of which caused Hollywood to come knocking. Before long Smith gladly agreed to a contract to write music for films; but a month before he was to go to California he passed away.
The inspiration for Winter Wonderland, a delightful addition to American Christmas Classics supposedly came from familiar winter snow scenes Smith remembered from life near the Pocono Mountains. Eight years after his passing, his song made it to the top of the charts and it has since become a perennial favorite during the Christmas season.
Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: William L. Dawson
On this day in 1898, William Levi Dawson was born in Anniston, Alabama. He was an acclaimed African-American composer, conductor, and trombonist who wrote a wonderful arrangement of the Christmas spiritual Mary Had a Baby, a carol with two distinct lyrical texts. In some circles Dawson was called the “father of the Negro spiritual” although such a sobriquet might be contested by the John Works family also noted for its scholarship of Negro folk music.
Dawson was determined to earn a music education. Although black students were prohibited from attending classes, several professors helped him to clandestinely pursued his bachelor degree at night from the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City. By day he taught at the city’s Lincoln High School. His formal studies continued at the Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory of Music, the latter from which he earned his master degree. He also enjoyed a career as a trombonist for both the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and Redpath Chautauqua, a campground assembly that usually gathered during the summer for music events or literary, moral, and scientific lectures.
The composer’s career, however, was primarily devoted to teaching at the college level. In 1931 he went to teach at Tuskegee University in Alabama where he soon himself the founding chairperson of its School of Music. During his tenure at Tuskegee, ending in 1956, Dawson achieved greatness as a composer. His body of work included arrangements and variations of spirituals, including his popular Ezekiel Saw the Wheel, King Jesus is a-Listening, and Jesus Walked the Lonesome Valley, and other spirituals that are widely published and regularly performed by school and community choral programs. In the classical realm, he is best known for Negro Folk Symphony, reputedly the first of its kind by a black composer, which premiered in 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of the dynamic Leopold Stokowski.
The lyrical text of Mary Had a Baby may date from the 18th century when it was probably sung at religious revival camp meetings where a “call and response” technique was utilized to unify the congregation in worship. After the Civil War, this musical style became more prevalent in black churches, especially those of the rural South, whose members learned it from their ancestors, almost all of whom were slaves.
As with most of his arrangements, Dawson employed black folk song idioms to Mary Had a Baby, an important addition to AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CLASSICS . Inspired by the spiritual text, he creates a heightened sense of dignity, despite the humble manger setting, of Mary the mother giving birth to her baby who is richly exalted as “King Jesus.”
Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: William J. Kirkpatrick
On this day in 1921, William J. Kirkpatrick died in Philadelphia. The son of a school teacher and musician, he was responsible for writing one of the more familiar arrangements for Away in a Manger.
Born in Duncannon, Pennsylvania, Kirkpatrick went to Philadelphia to learn music and carpentry. His ambition was to be a violinist, which was hampered as he plied his trade as a carpenter. At the age of thirty-four he began to devote more time to sacred music after joining the Wharton Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. As a member of the Harmonia and Handel and Haydn Sacred Music Societies, Kirkpatrick gained more exposure to the principal choral works of great composers. After the death of his first wife in 1878, he finally gave up his trade and dedicated his life solely to sacred music and composition, as well as being involved with the publication of forty plus hymnals.
Kirkpatrick’s tune for Away in a Manger, commonly known as The Cradle Song, is most used in England. The Cradle Song was first written in 1895 for the musical Around the World with Christmas. In the United States the tune most heard for Away in a Manger is associated with James Ramsey Murray (see my March 11, 2011 blog).
The anonymous lyrics for Away in a Manger likely were written by a member of the German Lutheran colony in Pennsylvania during the late 19th century. The words for the first two stanzas may have first appeared in 1885 in the Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, a publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. It is possible, however, that they first appeared in the May 1884 edition of The Myrtle, a Universalist Publishing House Boston publication, as Luther’s Cradle Hymn to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther, the great German religious reformer. By the 1940s it was proven conclusively that the original lullaby tune had actually been composed by James Ramsey Murray, supposedly the same person who perpetrated the myth of Luther’s Cradle Hymn. Murray’s lullaby was included in an 1887 Cincinnati collection called Dainty Songs for Lads and Lasses.
Although many modern hymnals attribute the lyrics of the third stanza to John T. McFarland, a member of the American Lutheran Board of Sunday Schools, it is believed he had merely made reference to it. Instead, the third stanza, which first appeared in an 1892 Louisville, Kentucky, Lutheran Church collection titled Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs, was probably the contribution of another anonymous author. This lyrical addition strengthens the inherent tenderness of this renowned American carol hymn.
Three years later Kirkpatrick wrote the tune The Cradle Song for the musical Around the World with Christmas. Again, it is that tune that serves as Kirkpatrick’s arrangement for Away in a Manger.
Pennsylvania Germans and Moravians, besides being credited as the source for the anonymous lyrics of Away in a Manger, were unique in other aspects of Christmas. They celebrated the humble beginnings of the Christ Child by employing a Christmas decoration called a putz (from the German word “putzen” meaning “to adorn”), for the manger scene. The Moravians, furthermore, may even have played Away in a Manger in their trombone choirs that were known to perform from church belfries in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and other Pennsylvania towns with Moravian congregations.
Bethlehem, the site of the first Moravian church built in eastern Pennsylvania, was so named on Christmas Eve in 1742 when construction of the church was completed. That special night settlers sang in one room of the new structure while cows mooed in the other half, which served as a stable. The scene so moved the congregation, reminding them of events surrounding the birth of the Christ Child in another small town eighteen hundred years earlier, that they christened their settlement Bethlehem.
Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: Jack Rollins
On this day in 1906, Walter E. “Jack” Rollins was born in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. Better known as Jack Rollins, he is the songwriter credited with co-writing, supposedly with Steve Nelson, the Christmas holiday song Frosty the Snowman that is part of AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CLASSICS. That success came in 1950, just a year after Rollins, and supposedly Nelson again, collaborated on the popular Easter song Here Comes Peter Cottontail.
Rollins also co-wrote the song Smokey the Bear in 1952 after a wildfire swept across the Capitan Mountains in New Mexico, during the course of which firefighters noticed a lone bear cub climbing up a charred tree to escape being further burnt from the flames. The cub was rescued from his perch and given immediate veterinary care and ultimately was sent to the National Zoo in Washington. The story about the bear cub and its rescue lead to a national public service campaign to prevent forest fires with Smokey the Bear serving as mascot.
Rollins achieved a fair level of success with his children’s holiday songs, especially with the Gene Autry recording of Frosty the Snowman that sold over a million records. Rollins also co-wrote others songs for such country singers as George Jones and Eddie Arnold. Success, however, seemed to have come late in his career, one dotted with menial jobs. In 1940 he worked for a bakery. Eight years later he was a baggage clerk for Penn Station in New York. It was at that time when the 44 year old baggage clerk found the time to pen Frosty the Snowman and a number of other songs, and practically every night Rollins used to ask Frank (Zeb) Martello, the host of WOR mutual radio, to play them.
According to a letter from a Martello family member, Rollins and the radio host became friends and together they may have written five songs, including Rollins’ two most popular holiday songs Frosty the Snowman and Peter Cottontail. But Rollins asked Martello to take his name off the songs because some other well-known people, including “a guy by the name of Steve Nelson, for one, wanted his name on the songs before he would promote them.”
After the two songs became big hits, Martello was asked by his wife why he had removed his name from the two songs, insisting that he was always being the nice guy. Martello replied “Jack has a lot of talent, he deserves a break.” When asked if he ever regretted doing that, Martello said, “not really, but I guess mom could have used the money.”
Jack Rollins died in Cincinnati on January 1, 1973. The kind-hearted Zeb Martello on hearing the sad news was quoted to have said, “God Bless Jack, but I still have a lot to be thankful for.”