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Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 9, 2022 3:03 am

Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 9, 2022 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Ace Collins is the author of Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Collins is an ace at song history, and he’s here to introduce you to people you’ve never met, stories you’ve never heard, and meanings you’d never have imagined.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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Terms and restrictions may apply. Cozy up to a cup of Starbucks caramel brulee latte with cream, crunchy caramel brulee toppings, steamed milk and espresso. Just bring your own comfy sweater. Find your cheer on the Starbucks app today. MUSIC This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories and we tell stories about everything here on this show. And today and around the Christmas season, we bring you special stories about a special time and the stories behind the stories of our Christmas traditions. And today, we're going to focus on Christmas songs we love to sing.

And these are fascinating stories we hope will enrich your holiday celebration. Ace Collins is the author of Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas. Collins is an ace at song history and he's here to introduce you to people you've never met, stories you've never heard, and meanings you'd never have imagined.

Here's Ace. One of the best Christmas songs is O Holy Night. You can trace it back almost 200 years to France when a local priest asked a parishioner who was the commissioner of wines to write a poem for the Christmas Eve service.

He was riding in a carriage on the way to Paris. He wrote the poem, was so impressed with it that he took it to a friend of his who wrote operas. And he asked him, can you write music to this poem? The man read the poem, said it's a beautiful poem, but I think I'm not the right guy to do it. He said, no, no, you have this handle on music.

I want you to write it. So he put together some beautiful music to go with it. It was sung in a little church in France that evening of Christmas Eve mass. And people were so impressed, it became a tradition in that church and within five years had spread clear across France.

And then it began to spread across England, ironically enough. In about 1840, the French church threw it out of services because they deemed it was too secular. Think of O Holy Night being secular.

But the whole point was this. The man who had written the music to go with the lyrics was Jewish, and they didn't want a Jewish man's music associated with Christmas. Well, that didn't stop the English from singing it at Christmas time. And then it came to the United States in the 1850s, not as a Christmas song, but as a part of the abolitionist movement. Because in the third verse, there are a number of lines dealing with change shall he break for the slave is our brother.

In his name, all oppression shall cease. It was after the Civil War that this song, O Holy Night, which is one of the most beautiful of all carols, began to be a part of the caroling movement here in the United States and was brought into churches. It's also a song that has two other great stories with it.

One, the Franco-Prussian War. On Christmas Eve, some French guy jumped out of a foxhole and sang that song. He was answered by a German who sang Silent Night, and the two sides got together and had 24 hours of celebrations of Christmas.

So it really was the song that brought peace on Earth. Let's go ahead to 1906 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A man named Fessenden is working on doing something that everyone thought was impossible. He is going to create a transmitter that is so strong it will broadcast the human voice. Now Marconi even said this was impossible. Edison said it was impossible. Alexander Graham Bell said you can't have a transmitter that can do that. Yet on Christmas Eve, 1906, Fessenden tried his new invention out. And people who were in telegraph offices and ships at sea and newsrooms and weather bureaus suddenly heard his voice reading the second chapter of Luke rather than dot, dot, dash, dash.

Now imagine what you must have felt like to hear a human voice coming over these little speakers when you had been told it was impossible. Then Fessenden picked up a violin and the very first song ever played on radio was O Holy Night. I get asked about the 12 Days of Christmas a great deal, and there's some controversy with this song. There are some people that believe that the meaning of the 12 Days of Christmas was added after the song was written. It was not written as anything but a kind of a silly little Christmas song. And I don't know if it was written as a code song or if it became a code song.

But I can tell you this. The Catholic Church did use it. I've talked to Catholic historians. I've talked in both the United States and Great Britain as a code song when Catholicism was outlawed by the Church of England. And this song, the 12 Days of Christmas, therefore had religious meanings that were attached to the lyrics. Once again, were they written as code or did the Catholic Church seize upon this and find a way to make it a code? I think it was written as code. But I don't know that, you know, the argument's going to go back and forth on that for eternity.

None of us will ever know which is right and which is wrong. But I can tell you what the code words in this were and what they meant. A Partridge in a Pear Tree. The Partridge is the only bird that will lay down its life for its nest.

That Partridge in a Pear Tree, therefore, is about Jesus Christ. The Second Day of Christmas with Two Turtle Doves. What are the Two Turtle Doves?

Those are the Gospel, the Old and the New Testaments. Three French Hens. Well, that is a very interesting thing because those birds represent faith, hope, and love.

It goes back to 1 Corinthians 13. Fourth Day of Christmas. Four Birds Calling. Well, what are the four birds calling? They're the four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Fifth Day of Christmas. Five Golden Rings. That's the Torah, the five books of the Old Testament. Six Days of Christmas is my true love gave to me. Six Geese a-laying.

What could that be? Well, you know, those lyrics can be translated back to the first story found in the Bible. Each egg represents a day when the world was created.

The Seventh Day, of course, when it was hatched. Seventh Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming. What are those seven swans a-swimming?

Well, that's the gifts of the Spirit. Prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. Eight maids a-milking. There was nothing lower in England than being a milkmaid. And this is the story of Christ coming not just for the King, but also for the least of these.

And the milkmaid in England, they were definitely the least of these. And you've been listening to Ace Collins tell the story of one of the best-loved Christmas songs of all time. And by the way, just think about it. And we take these things for granted, hearing a voice through a speaker. And what are the first things ever read?

A passage from the Gospel. And, of course, O Holy Night, the first song ever performed and on Christmas Eve of all days. When we come back, more of the stories behind the best-loved songs of Christmas here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

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Listen to Chasing Sleep on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcast, or wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue here with our American Stories in our special Christmas edition. Let's pick up where we last left off with Ace Collins sharing with us the story of the Coded Catholic Christmas Carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Here's Ace. Nine ladies dancing. What was nine ladies dancing? Well, those are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. You know, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Ten lords a-leaping is pretty easy.

You know, that is the judges and the law. Ten lords? Well, that's also the Ten Commandments.

The eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping. Those are the disciples that took the story out to the world. Well, you may say there's twelve disciples. Judas did not take the word out. The eleven disciples took the word out.

And finally, the last one is twelve drummers drumming. Well, you can tie that directly to the Catholic Church because that's the Apostles' Creed. And so that is the story behind The Twelve Days of Christmas. And I think it's one of the most fascinating stories of all because it was, essentially speaking, a teacher's aid. And that makes it very special when you look at history. And one of the things we've got to recognize here, most of our great carols and most of our great traditions came about because of the missionaries, the early missionaries in the Catholic Church as well. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for all the different things and elements of Christmas that they brought to us from the cultures that they went out and had missionary contact with. Getting back to one of the little known things, there's so many great stories about Silent Night.

But did you realize this? The little bitty church in Austria where that little poem was brought to life is St. Nicholas. And that to me is just, you know, and we would not know the story of Silent Night, nor would we sing it because it was, you know, was put together because the organ didn't work for one time only. Somebody had to fix the organ and the guy who came by to fix the organ said, what did you do for music on Christmas Eve? And the priest played him that song, he wrote down the lyrics, he wrote down the music and took it everywhere he went in Europe fixing organs. And within 20 years it had spread to the United States and the priest who was this little priest, Joseph Moore, in Oberndorf, Austria had no idea that anybody was singing his song because he didn't even quit singing it.

And he went to Cologne, Germany one time and there it was ringing from this cathedral and he went, how did they find out about that? You know, and so he died without ever being given credit for writing the song. But what an impact this little priest who never went into anything except little churches in Austria had on the world because that is the Jesus Loves Me of all Christmas carols.

You know, everybody knows it. I love to look at what music has meant to traditions because I don't think you can have Christmas without the music. You know, I've always told people at my house it wasn't Christmas until you heard Bing sing White Christmas and Elvis sing Blue Christmas. You had to have both of those songs play before it really became Christmas. And the music of the season was not always that important if you were not a Catholic.

Yes, Glory and Excess of Deus dates back probably 1900 years. It dates back to at least 130 part of that song does and songs like O Come, O Come Emmanuel date back to the 900s. But most of our Christmas music is relatively new. It was birthed after the Civil War by something that happened first in Victorian England and then spread to the United States and that was Christmas caroling. And suddenly with Christmas caroling you had the opportunity to write new songs that people could sing as they went house to house caroling in the 1800s and 1890s and with the invention of the phonograph record that really took off. One of the songs, though, that I think is the is the most interesting of all of the songs that created tradition like no other was a song that was written in Medford, Massachusetts in about 1840 and it was written by a preacher son for a Thanksgiving gathering in the community. His father had assigned him the task of creating a song for the Christmas choir, and he was sitting at the piano only piano in Medford, Massachusetts, and couldn't concentrate because of all the noise outside his door. He went outside his door and these teenage boys were attempting to impress teenage girls by having drag races with a horse drawn sleigh.

Okay, I mean that's what it was this. This was what inspired him. He didn't go in and write something for Thanksgiving. He wrote an 1840s Beach Boys song. It's called Jingle Bells.

If you listen to it, it is all about guys trying to impress girls by going fast with their hot rods of the period. Well, the people who came in that Thanksgiving to hear this song were so impressed with the Children's Choir. They begged for them to put it in the Christmas service as well. So imagine this reverent Christmas service and in the middle of it, these kids are singing Jingle Bells. Well, the people who visited from Boston and New York City thought it was a Christmas song, and they took it back to New York and Boston as a Christmas song, and by the 1860s it had spread all over the United States.

Courier knives were using it for inspiration. One horse sleigh, the images of snow, the images of children gathering, the image of riding in these sleighs all goes back to the greatest Thanksgiving song of all time, Jingle Bells, which is nothing more than a Beach Boys song. But it is that song that has projected into our minds, Hollywood has used it, TV has used it, heaven knows how many Hallmark movies have used it now, as a part of their important tradition. You can't pick up a Christmas card without having the inspiration of Jingle Bells all over it. And I think that's one of the most interesting things about American Christmas, is that American Christmas was literally defined by a song about drag racing one horse sleighs in New England, and was meant only for one Thanksgiving service. It's the greatest Thanksgiving song of all time.

But I mean, you think about it, it is totally, here's something else that is funny that goes with it too, that it ties right into it. The song Jingle Bell Rock, the first great rock and roll Christmas song, Jingle Bell Rock is not about dancing. It's two guys from New England who happen to live in New Orleans then wrote it about a New England Christmas about rocking along on a one horse drawn sleigh. And if you listen to the lyrics, there's nothing about dancing or anything else. But when Brenda Lee cut it at 12 years old, Owen Bradley was the producer, and it became this monster hit, everybody thought it was a rock and roll song.

And the guys were initially appalled that people thought it was a dance song until the royalty checks started coming in, and then suddenly, oh yeah, that's fine, we meant that all along. But that is what Jingle Bell Rock was all about. It is so funny because seven of the top ten best selling Christmas songs of all time were written by Jewish people. White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nose, Reindeer, Holly Jolly Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock, Holly Jolly Christmas, Rudolph and Jingle Bell Rock were all written by Johnny Marks. And I asked a friend of mine who was Jewish one time, I said, you know, why? Are there so many great Christmas songs written by Jewish people? He said, well, it was a Jewish guy's birthday. Of course, I've had stories behind all of them, and that's not the reason, but that's a great line. I mean, that is just really a good line. I started keeping track about nine, ten years ago of what the number one song story that people ask about on Christian radio and on secular radio.

I was curious as to how they lined up. The number one song story on secular radio that people ask about is A Holy Night, which I found fascinating. The number one song on Christian radio that people ask me about is Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. Grandma got run over by a reindeer, walking home from our house Christmas Eve.

You can say there's no such thing as Santa, but that's for me and Grandpa, we believe. The guy who wrote Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, he was a Vanderbilt student, and he had a band, and his band betting you can't write a song where somebody dies in the first verse and have anybody listen to it. So he did. And it became a hit for several different groups, including Elmo and Patsy, probably had the biggest hit on it. You know, Scott Bell, who wrote that song, what did he do with his life? He's an air traffic controller.

She had hoof friends on her forehead and incriminating claws marks on her back. And you're listening to the infectious storytelling of Ace Collins. It doesn't get any better, folks, when we come back.

More of these great stories of our best loved Christmas songs here on Our American Stories. When the world gets in the way of your music, try the new Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2, next gen earbuds uniquely tuned to the shape of your ears. They use exclusive Bose technology that personalizes the audio performance to fit you, delivering the world's best noise cancellation and powerfully immersive sound so you can hear and feel every detail of the music you love. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2, sound shape to you.

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Visit a Mattress Firm store near you or go to And we continue with our American stories and our special Christmas edition. And we do this each year around the Christmas holiday season. And we do it because we love it and we hope you love it. But these stories are stories that we think need to be heard.

And, well, we have great people telling them. And you're listening to Ace Collins tell the stories behind the best-loved songs of Christmas. Let's pick up where we last left off.

Here's Ace. You know, I mentioned earlier that it's not Christmas until you heard Bing and Elvis, maybe Perry Como. But think about this. Bing Crosby would probably be forgotten today without all of his Christmas hits. It wouldn't be true of Elvis, but it would be true of Bing.

There are other people who had one hit. Bobby Helms, who was Jingle Bell Rock, who we still listen to every year, who otherwise would have been lost forever. Dinah Shore charted 450 times, never had a Christmas song. So nobody ever remembers one of the top charting artists of the 1940s and early 50s because she didn't ever find that Christmas song. Christmas songs make you immortal if you're an artist.

You know, that is just, it's mind-boggling. If you have a Christmas hit, people are going to be listening to you for the next hundred years. That's a big part of the fact that your identity is going to be hooked on to a large degree to a Christmas song. If you're an artist from the 30s, 40s, and 50s and they're still playing your stuff, they're playing your stuff by and large because it's Christmas. And if you didn't have that Christmas hit, they wouldn't be playing your stuff. And so Christmas hits do make you, to a certain degree, immortal.

You know, you'll come back every late November and early December and you'll be a part of Christmas movies on Hallmark forever because they will play a blurb of you singing one of those songs. And, you know, it's ironic that Elvis' big hit was Blue Christmas when his best Christmas song was Why Can't Every Day Be Like Christmas, which is still played but not like Blue Christmas is played. And Blue Christmas had been around for 11 years, well, 12 years before Elvis cut it and had gone nowhere and not been a major hit at all.

Then Elvis cut it. I'll have a blue Christmas without you I'll be so blue just thinking about you Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree Won't be the same dear if you're not here with me The family of the man who wrote that song told me that Blue Christmas means green at their house because of the royalty checks that Elvis generates every Christmas. So yeah, Irving Berlin's take on Why Christmas when he gave it to Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin told Bing, I've written some great songs for this movie Holiday Inn, but my Christmas song is just not very good.

And he played it for Bing and said, Oh my gosh, Irving, this is perfect. And Berlin said, Are you sure? I don't think it captures what Christmas is all about.

He said, No, no, don't change a word. We'll sing it. I'm dreaming of a white Christmas With every Christmas card I write You know, a great story behind Silver Bells.

That was in the Bob Hope movie Lemon Drop Kid. Bob thought he finally had a hit Christmas song. Bing had four. He wanted one too, his best friend, all these hits. And so when he sang it in the movie, he thought, Okay, I'm going to go in this fall and cut this song and release it for Christmas because the movie wasn't coming out till Christmas anyway. Well, Bing heard, listened to Bob talking about the song, went into the studio, cut Silver Bells and beat Bob to the marketplace with it and Bing Crosby had the hit on Silver Bells and Bob still never had a Christmas hit.

So his best friend beat him again. Mathis is another one. You know, I mentioned Como because Como is only listened to because he had all those Christmas specials. And you think about the song. Christmas is amazing because years before Rosa Parks broke the color barrier on the buses and Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Nat King Cole took a Mel Torme song and broke the color barrier at Christmas with the Christmas song. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire Jack Frost nipping at your nose And, you know, and Mel Torme had to fight to take that song he had written and give it to Nat King Cole because there were a lot of radio stations across the United States that wouldn't play music of a black man. And ultimately speaking, that song was so powerful and that song touched so many lives that in 1946 it really became the song that brought a bit of color to Christmas.

And I think that's one of the great stories. But Christmas songs that last, you know, either have to have a different point of view like Merry Did You Know, which is Mark Lowry's incredible song, or White Christmas, I'll Be Home for Christmas were released during World War II, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Judy Garland. I'm not sure they would have been huge hits without the fact of what those songs meant to a nation divided by a world war with so many families separated during from 1941 to 1945. And so I think the timing of when a song is released, Do You Hear What I Hear released during the Civil War, it's timing that has to do, I guess, with everything in line, but it's particularly true at Christmas. If your song comes at a time when people are insecure and they need something to latch onto, it's easy to latch onto a Christmas song like White Christmas or I'll Be Home for Christmas or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as a secular prayer during that holiday season. And I think, you know, I think that is why those songs have resonated for so long when you have some really great Christmas songs that were written during that same time that right before World War II or right after World War II that we don't listen to or sing anymore. Timing is everything when it comes to holidays.

Those stories are really good. I mean, you know, you think about Gloria in Excessus Deus, and that's a song that goes back to probably 130 AD. There was a church leader long before we were celebrating Christmas that instructed all congregations in the Christian church at that time that whenever the second chapter of Luke was read that the congregation should sing Gloria in Excessus Deus. And therefore at least part of that song that we know as Gloria now existed 1,890 years ago. And if that is the case and all the different congregations knew that song, you know, then it had to have been passed down earlier than that. It doesn't take much of a leap of faith to think that song is probably predates that 130 AD by, you know, anywhere from 70 to 80 years and therefore the guy who wrote that may have actually known Jesus.

And that makes that song very, very powerful indeed. Great job as always to Greg Hengweh for putting this storytelling together and for getting us and bringing us Ace Collins, who is the author of the stories behind the best love songs of Christmas, and indeed what storytelling we just heard. The story of the stories behind the best love songs of Christmas, our special episodes of our special storytelling each Christmas season here on Our American Stories. The Roku Channel, your home for free and premium TV is giving you access to holiday music and genre based stations from I Heart Radio, all for free. Find the soundtrack of the season with channels like I Heart Christmas or North Pole Radio. The Roku Channel is available on all Roku devices, Web, iOS and Android devices, Amazon Fire TV and select Samsung TVs. So stream what you love and turn up the cheer with I Heart Radio on the Roku Channel.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-09 05:37:01 / 2022-12-09 05:49:32 / 13

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