Archive for Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Holiday spirit captured in songs of the season

December 17, 2008

If this column were on the radio or on television, the introduction would consist of a few familiar guitar chords, then the words in Nat “King” Cole’s incomparable voice:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,

Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

Yuletide carols being sung by a choir

and folks dressed up like Eskimos.

I love all the trappings of Christmas, really, but I have a special thing for Christmas music. I love all Christmas songs, from “Adeste, Fidelis” to “The Zither Carol.”

I just can’t get enough Christmas music. I confess that I like some more than others, but I can’t think of any that I dislike.

The list is nearly endless. If you Google “Christmas carols,” you get about 9,120,000 sites. One of the most exhaustive lists is at, a site compiled by a retired musician, Douglas D. Anderson, with almost 2,800 titles.

Here are a few notes about some of my favorite Christmas songs:

• “Adeste, Fidelis,” also known as “The Portuguese Hymn,” was written by John Francis Wade around 1743.

• “Silent Night, Holy Night” is generally accepted as the most popular carol in the world. It is the collaboration of two Austrians. The Rev. Josef Mohr wrote “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” as a poem in 1816. Two years later, he gave the poem to Franz Gruber, an organist at the Church of St. Nicola of Oberndorf, who composed the melody sung today around the world.

• “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, etc.) was written by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells during a heat wave in 1945. The story, as recounted in Tormé’s autobiography, was that Wells wrote the first verse (the one printed above) to cool himself off. It was recorded first by Nat King Cole in 1946, and later by practically everyone. In “The Christmas Carol Reader,” William Studwell calls “The Christmas Song” “as fine an impression of the positive nature, friendliness and spirituality of Christmas ever managed by an entirely secular song.”

• “The Zither Carol” is a happy, captivating little carol that comes from Bohemia. It’s usually sung in parts, with the lead voices singing the words and others singing “zing” or “zim” in the background to mimic the sound of the zither. You can listen to a version at

• “Away in a Manger” is a true folk carol in that the author of the words – at least, of the first two verses – is lost in time. The carol seems to date from 1885. The music is by James Ramsey Murray.

• “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by Bishop Phillips Brooks in 1868. The carol was inspired by a trip he took, while on vacation from his duties as rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, to Bethlehem in 1865. The music was composed by the church organist, Lewis Henry Redner.

• “O Holy Night” was written in 1847 as “Cantique de Noël” by Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant of Roquemaure, France, who wrote poems for his own enjoyment. Adolph-Charles Adam, best known as the composer of the opera, “Giselle,” added the music. The English translation was provided by John Sullivan Dwight, editor of Dwight’s Journal of Music.

I could go on, of course, but where would I stop? There’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “Winter Wonderland” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The point is, it’s Christmas. Enjoy.


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