The Stories Behind the Songs of Christmas

by Lindsay Terry

"O Little Town of  Bethlehem": A City of Light

Bethlehem-Bethlehem of Judea-millenniums ago God's Word, through the prophet Micah, shined its light upon you, and only you, declaring that though small in Judea, an awesome event will occur in your midst (Mic. 5:2).

Two thousand years ago, a celestial light-a star-shined over your peaceful scene as it led the wise men to you, the City of David (Matt. 2:10). And during those days, the Light of the World came, by way of a humble stable in you, and has illuminated a lost world and guided men struggling on a sea of loneliness and transgression to a safe Harbor (Matt. 2:6).

For centuries now, millions have made pilgrimages to you, recognizing you as the earthly birthplace of that Light-the Light that lighteth every man that comes into the world. (John 1:9) 

And yet, of late, the brightness of rockets and cannon fire have brought an unwelcome glare, and have roused you from your repose, while the beams of a thousand cameramen illuminate your streets and display to the world the plight of your disaster and devastation.

A songwriter of the past century has aimed a beautiful, melodic ray of light toward you, causing your name to fall from the lips of millions around the world at Christmas time. His name: Phillips Brooks.

Brooks was born December 13, 1835, in Boston, and was a quiet, reserved young man who took no joy in making his opinions known, but would strive to gain knowledge from others. He graduated from Harvard while he was only nineteen years of age. Years later he was granted honorary degrees from both Harvard and Oxford Universities. He became a giant among pastors.

Brooks had no children of his own: in fact, he was never married. But he loved the little ones of his congregations very dearly, and they returned the affection. 

During a leave of absence from his church in 1865, he made a trip to the Holy Land, where, in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, he visited the Shepherds' Fields and joined in the traditional services at the Church of the Nativity. While on the trip he wrote letters back to the children of his church. 

Three years went by after this notable journey, when one day in his office, as he was studying for a Christmas sermon, he began thinking about the wonderful excursion and all of the experiences in Bethlehem. Those memories would not subside, and so he put his sermon notes aside and wrote a poem for the children of his Sunday school. 

He asked the church organist, Lewis Redner, if he would set his poem to music and teach it to the children. Redner quickly agreed to do so. Its popularity has spread until now at Christmastime people everywhere sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by;

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light:

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

"Mary, Did You Know?" Poses Questions for Mary

"...Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them" (Luke 2:19-20).

Mark Lowry, a former singer and funny man of the Gaither Vocal Band, was born in Houston, Texas, June 24, 1958. He learned to love music as a young child, often singing as his mother, Bev, played the piano. In his teen years he developed a love for Southern Gospel music, especially the songs of the Singing Rambos. 

Although he was offered a scholarship to a college in Jacksonville, Florida, he decided to attend Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. His older brother had studied there. He graduated in 1980. One might have assumed that he was a member of a number of college singing groups, but he was never given the opportunity-with one exception. He was asked to sing in a group formed by Dr. Sumner Wemp, called the Preacher Boys Chorale. He said of the experience, "I was the only one in the group that was not a preacher, and the only one in the group that could sing."

After becoming a member of the Gaither Vocal Band, he went on to become one of the most recognized and popular individuals in Southern Gospel music. In 2000, he carried his Christian comedy and his music to the Beacon Theater on Broadway in a show called Mark Lowry on Broadway. The Gaither Vocal Band joined him in that endeavor. A video tape was produced of the performance, which for a time was one of the fastest selling videos, of any kind, in America. 

Although not known as a songwriter, the following is Mark's story behind his famous song, just as he told it to me:

"In 1984 I was living in Houston and Dr. Jerry Falwell called and asked me to write the program for the next Living Christmas Tree. I had never done anything like that before, but anything he would ask me to do I would try, if for no other reason, just to see if I could do it.

"I took Christmas songs and wrote monologues to go between them. That was all I knew how to do. The songs were the standards that we know. As I wrote the monologues I began to think about Mary. I have always been fascinated with the concept that God came to earth. 

"In a conversation with my mother, I remember she said, If anyone on earth knew for sure that Jesus was virgin born, Mary knew!' That was a profound statement to me and it stuck with me. I often thought of it. That was one thing they couldn't take from Mary. No matter what she was to endure, that one thing she could hold in her heart. She always knew. She knew that her's was not an ordinary child. 

"At the cross, while Jesus was dying, her silence was a great testimony to the fact of who He was and is. He was dying for claiming to be God, not for healing the sick. He was dying because He blasphemed' to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He said to them, When you have seen me you have seen the Father.' Of course, they nailed Him to a crossand his mother never said a word. A Jewish mother whose son is dying for claiming to be God would be saying something, but she said nothing.

"As my mind went back to the manger scene, I began to think about the power, authority, and majesty that she cradled in her arms. Those little hands were the same hands that had scooped out the oceans. Those little feet were the same feet that had been worshiped by angels. Those were the same lips that had spoken the world into existence. All of that was contained in the little form that was now cradled on her bosom. Even now He was the very same One who had given life to His mother.

"The beauty of Christ was that He became one hundred percent man. He was just as much man as if He had not been God, and just as much God as if He had not been man. 

"I began writing a list of questions that I would ask Mary if I could sit down with her. Not only questions about His life as a little boy and as a teenager, but questions such as: Mary, do you know what is in your arms? Do you have any idea? All of heaven, all that holds creation together, and everything that holds you together, is lying helpless in your arms? That is amazing!'"

And so a very popular song grew out of that list of questions that Mark Lowry would like to have asked Mary-questions such as, "Did you know that your Baby Boy will walk on water, or give sight to a blind man, or calm a storm with His hand? The answers to those questions would be wrapped up in the fact that He was and "is the great I AM!"

He carried the lyrics with him for the next seven years. He had asked a number of musicians to write a proper musical setting for it, but none seemed to satisfy. In 1991 he asked the same of his good friend, Buddy Green, who wrote the beautiful melody that we hear today. He wrote it in just one weekend, after which he called Mark on Monday, who happened to be on the Gaither Vocal Band bus, and sang it to him on the phone. Mark's simple reply was, "That's it."

In a few short years it has become an extremely popular song, especially at Christmastime. It was first recorded by Michael English; then by Kathy Mateo, then as a duet by Kenny Rogers and Winnona Judd, as well as by Donnie Osmond, and Cathlene Battle, the opera singer, just to name a few. It was performed during one Christmas special by the Boston Pops Orchestra. Bruce Greer wrote a Christmas musical based on, "Mary, Did You Know?" It was published by Word and won Greer a Dove award in 1999.

It continues to grow in popularity and has been sung by countless Southern Gospel groups, choirs, special ensembles, and soloists all across our nation. It seems to easily cross over musical boundaries. 

Reflection:  Though different from the questions Mark would like to have asked of Mary, there are some answers that we should settle in our hearts today-answers to such questions as, "Do you know the Baby Boy, who is also Christ the Lord, as your personal Savior?" And, if so, "Are you continuing the work He began in you? 

"Silent Night! Holy Night!"- A Church Mouse Moved the Play

 "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11).

Thousands of Southern Gospel singing groups have recorded Christmas albums, cassettes, or CDs. Very few have omitted the subject of this unusual story. The uniqueness that makes the song so attractive to the singing groups is the same characteristic that makes it a favorite in all the world. It would be almost impossible to live through a Christmas season on our planet without hearing the strains of this Austrian-born carol.

In 1818 a band of roving actors were performing throughout the little towns and hamlets of the Austrian Alps. One night the players came to the tiny village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, for their annual presentation of the Christmas story. 

The play was scheduled for St. Nicholas Church, but a mouse had chewed a hole in the organ bellows, putting the organ out of action. As the bellows could not be repaired in time, the show was presented in a private home instead, and the church's assistant pastor, Josef Mohr, attended. 

As Mohr walked home that night through the new-fallen snow, his path led him over a small hill. Looking down on the little village below, Mohr was deeply impressed by the beauty of the glowing scene and the majestic silence of the wintry night. His thoughts took him back to the first Christmas-when angels spoke to faithful shepherds on a holy night such as this-and a poem began to form in his mind. He would later title it "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!"

Arriving home, the pastor quickly penned the words that would inscribe his poem into history. He sincerely wished his poem could be sung at the church's upcoming Christmas service, but he had no music. The next day Mohr rushed to the home of his good friend Franz Gruber, the church organist. It is reported that Gruber composed a musical setting the same day he received the poem. 

On Christmas Day Gruber and Mohr sang their new song to the congregation gathered in the little church. Since the organ was still in ill repair, Gruber accompanied them on his guitar, and "Silent Night! Holy Night!" was first introduced. 

A few weeks later an organ repairman arrived at the church to repair the damage of the church mouse. As soon as he finished his work, Gruber sat down to test the instrument. It is reported that the first song he played was his new Christmas composition. Deeply touched by the music, the repairman took a copy of the song back to his own Alpine village. There, a family of gifted Austrian singers, the Strasser Sisters, picked it up and began singing it throughout the countryside. 

The Strasser quartet created a sensation, and the carol quickly became a European favorite. It was translated into English from the German language in 1863 by Jane Campbell and made its first appearance in America in 1871 in Charles Hutchins' Sunday School Hymnal. 

"Silent Night! Holy Night!" is as fresh and beautiful today as when it was first heard in the little Austrian town more than 170 years ago. Year after year we lovingly sing this simple tribute to our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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Silent night! holy night! All is calm all is bright, 

Round yon virgin mother and Child!

Holy Infant, so tender and mild, 

Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

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Silent night! holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight, 

Glories stream from heaven afar, 

Heavenly hosts sing alleluia;

Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is born!

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Silent night! holy night! Son of God, love's pure light,

Radiant beams from Thy holy face,

With the dawn of redeeming grace, 

Jesus, Lord at Thy birth! Jesus, Lord at Thy birth!

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Reflection: Pause for a few moments and reflect on the awesome fact that Jesus came to earth for you and meto give us His peace. During the holiday season we think of Him as a Babe in a manger-but He really came to this earth to die on a cross for the sins of the whole world, including your sins and mine-giving us "heavenly peace."

God truly does bring peace into the hearts of every person who comes to Him in a personal way. Peace overflows our hearts when we realize that we are His children and that we are on our way to heaven to be with Him. 

Three Contributors to "Joy to the World"

 "When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy"  (Matt. 2:10).

One of our most popular Christmas carols is the result of the efforts of three notable men: Isaac Watts, George Frederick Handel, and Lowell Mason. Handel was a large, robust, outspoken musical genius, while Watts was a frail, sickly, quiet man only five feet tall. Mason was an energetic publisher, choir director, and composer. Handel and Watts lived in London and were acquainted, and must have appreciated each other's talents. Mason lived a hundred years later in Boston. 

In 1719, Isaac Watts, already a notable scholar and author, sat down under a tree at the Abney Estate near London and began to compose a poem based on Psalm 98. Little did he realize the popularity and fame that his verses would receive.

Watts had begun writing verses as a small child. In his teen years he complained that the songs sung in church were hard to sing. His father said, "Well, you write some that are better." And so he did. For the next two years, young Isaac wrote a new hymn each week. The people loved them.

In 1741 George Frederick Handel, who was already famous as the composer of several operas and oratorios, decided that he wanted to do a truly great work. After spending some time in prayer, he arose from his knees and for twenty-three days labored almost continuously day and night. The immortal "Messiah" was the fruit of that incessant struggle. For more than two centuries the "Messiah" has been heralded as one of the greatest of all the sacred classics. USA Today once reported that 125 million people had heard the "Messiah" the previous year. It has been the basis for many other compositions.

A nobleman once praised Handel for the "entertainment" he had furnished in one of his compositions. In no uncertain terms Handel let the nobleman know that his music was composed to make men better, not to entertain them.

Almost a century later, Lowell Mason found Watts' poem of "joy" and wanted very much to publish it. There was only one problem: he didn't have a proper musical setting. In his search he came upon a beautiful melody in Handel's Messiah. So Mason set Watts' poem to Handel's music and created one of the world's most beloved and popular Christmas songs, "Joy to the World."

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Joy to the world! the Lord is come.

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room,

And heaven and nature sing,

And heaven and nature sing,

And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

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Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns.

Let men their songs employ,

While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains

Repeat the sounding joy,

Repeat the sounding joy,

Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

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Reflection:  In every corner of the globe where men have carried the message of Christ, there has been joy. Christ sets the captive free and puts a song in hearts. He redeems souls. He reigns as King in the hearts of men. He lifts the status of women from slavery to wife and mother. He causes men to clean up their bodies as well as their lives. And He can bring joy to you if you really hear the message, "Joy to the world! the Lord is come."

About the author:

Lindsay Terry has been a song historian for more than 40 years, being published in a number of publications, including Pulpit Helps. He has also written some 34 books and church training manuals. Lindsay and his wife, Marilyn, had two Bible promise books released in March, 2005, and yet another book for children should be released in 2006. Three additional books are in the making. Fifteen of his projects for American Tract Society and Good News Publishers have sold approximately 10 million copies. Two of the projects are with the famed artist Thomas Kinkade, and have sold more than 2,500,000 copies. In addition to his writing, Lindsay has developed music ministries for some of the leading churches in America. He and his wife now live on Anastasia Island, near St. Augustine, FL

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