Having sung them every year since childhood, the meaning of Christmas carols is clear to everyone: Enjoy a sleigh ride with someone special, bring carolers some figgy pudding (whatever that is) and, most of all, peace on Earth, goodwill to men, right?
Not so fast. These tunes weren't always in constant replay on custom-curated Pandora stations. Instead, they were written as reflections of the world at that time, addressing issues like religious oppression, homesickness while fighting overseas and even political rebellion.
Irving Berlin, a Russian, Jewish immigrant, wrote "White Christmas." It's believed he wrote the song, which contains only 54 words and 67 notes, while working in Arizona, or possibly New York, and missing his family. "White Christmas" aired on the radio shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, when performed overseas the following Christmas, it reminded homesick soldiers of their families.
"Carol of the Bells"
This song originally wasn't about Christmas at all. It was a Ukrainian folk chant called "Shchedryk" that welcomed the spring and described a bird flying into someone's house to tweet about good fortune. Composer Peter Wilhousky heard the chant performed and wrote the English lyrics to the popular, fast-paced "Carol of the Bells."
"The 12 Days of Christmas"
Who knew this Christmas carol was actually written as an act of rebellion? It was created centuries ago when Catholicism was outlawed, and each verse references religious beliefs, but, sung as the carol, could be performed in public without fear of persecution. The "True Love" refers to God and the "partridge in a pear tree" is code for Jesus dying on the wooden cross.
The upbeat words of this song contain a sad backstory. Richard Smith, who wrote the lyrics, penned them while being treated for tuberculosis at the West Mountain Sanitarium. Some claim the nostalgic song was inspired by his memories of playing in the show, which he saw children do outside his window.
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
The story of the scrappy young reindeer who felt like an outcast but ended up saving Christmas for everyone was actually autobiographical. The song was written by Robert L. May, who, having skipped grades, was younger than his classmates and felt that he didn't belong. He wrote himself into Rudolph, who was first envisioned as a children's book before becoming a Christmas song.
"Do You Hear What I Hear?"
This song, written by Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, was penned as a response to the Cold War. When sung in a church, "a star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite," refers to the star of Bethlehem, but, in historical context, also describes a nuclear missile.
Listen carefully to this supposed Christmas carol, and one word is noticeably lacking: "Christmas." This rather wholesome holiday carol is actually thought to have been written as a drinking song for Thanksgiving, among other possibilities.
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"
Based on the 1863 poem "Christmas Bells" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the song was written as a reaction to his son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joining the Union army as a soldier during the Civil War. Charles did so without his father's permission and was badly wounded. Having recently lost his wife in a fire, Longfellow turned to poetry as an outlet for his sorrow.
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