There’s a lot to like about Christmas. While it’s easy enough to get caught up in the stress and anxiety we all sometimes associate with shopping and cooking and cleaning and traveling, it all pays off with the joys of giving and spending time together with the ones we love.
And then, there’s the music. Not everyone likes Christmas music, I know. But I do. I love to hear it sung and played well, and I love singing the traditional songs that remind me of the real reason for the season, along with some of the tunes that have come along over the years that truly evoke the Christmastime feelings and memories we all enjoy. It’s a treat for me to be asked to perform some of those songs from time to time. Over the years, I’ve played for groups ranging from nursing homes to elementary schools...and it’s always a wonderful time to relive old memories and make new ones.
One of the things I enjoy most about those songs is the wealth of stories--both fact and legend--that lie behind some of them, like these:
Angels We Have Heard on High
Years ago, It was a custom of shepherds in the hills of Southern France to sing out the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the Highest) to one another from their mountain peaks on Christmas Eve. Those words, and the traditional medieval tune they sang them to, were adapted into the song the we know today...a song that remembers that lowly shepherds were the first to be told of the birth of Jesus.
As a guitar player, I’ve always loved the legend behind this song. As the story goes, Father Joseph Mahr, the priest of a tiny Catholic Parish in the Austrian Alps, was preparing for Christmas Eve Mass in 1818, when he discovered the church organ was not working. He provided words to a simple song, and the church organist, Franz Gruber, composed a tune to be played on the guitar in accompaniment. The song was played that evening for the very first time. It became popular around the world, though Father Mahr and Gruber remained unknown to most, and knew nothing of their song’s fame until many years later. The song was sung simultaneously in English and German by troops during the Christmas truce of 1914 during the First World War, as it was one of the few carols that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew.
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Written for the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” this song was meant to be a bit melancholy, though later versions, notably one by Frank Sinatra, were more upbeat. But it still reminds us that Christmas can be a time to remember, reflect and hope for better days. For a version that’s truer to the original sense of the song, listen to the James Taylor recording, released after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.
There are many more songs--and many more stores--worth sharing and remembering. I hesitate to add one of the songs I’ve written myself, but this one has a back-story that I like:
I’ve always admired the role St. Joseph took in the birth of his foster son, Jesus. After all, how many men would take it on faith when their young bride announced she was going to give birth under such miraculous, mysterious circumstances? I was outdoors late one Christmas Eve, a practice I’ve followed ever since I was old enough to sneak outside and listen for Santa Claus. It was a clear, beautiful night, and I gazed at a full moon and thought about that long-ago journey taken by a maiden named Mary and her husband, Joseph. I thought about how arduous a trip it must have been, over rough, rocky terrain on a donkey’s back, so near the time of her birthing.
“Mary, Mary, where are you going?” I said to the sky that night, and kind of thought it would be the start of a song. But the rest never came, until a few months later when I was off in Manhattan on a business trip. I was done for the day, and returned to my hotel room where, suddenly, the rest of the words and the music came to me in a rush. Almost as quickly as I could write it down, the song--called “Joseph”--was written.
Later on, I went to a nearby church for daily Mass. Once there, I realized what day it was:
March 19th...the feast day of St. Joseph.