Saturday, December 29, 2012

O Holy Night

The French and German forces were facing off during the Franco-Prussian War. The fighting was fierce, when a lone French soldier jumped out of his trench, unarmed. Both sides stared, astonished, as the soldier started to sing:

     "Minuit, chrétiens, c'est l'heure solonelle 
     Où l'Homme Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous
     Pour effacer la tache originelle
     Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.
     Le monde entier tressaille d'espérance
     En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur
     Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance.
     Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur
     Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur."

     ("Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour
     When the God descends on us as a man
     To erase the original stain (sin)
     And to stop His Father's wrath.
     The whole earth trembles (or thrills) with hope
     In this night which gives them a Savior
     People on your knees, wait for your deliverance.
     Christmas, Christmas, here is your Redeemer
     Christmas, Christmas, here is your Redeemer")

The Frenchman continued on to sing all three verses of Cantique de Noël (French for "Christmas Song", not to be confused with The Christmas Song)

When he was finished, a German infantryman came out of hiding and began to sing Martin Luther's words:

     „Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her.
     Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mär,
     Der guten Mär bring’ ich so viel,
     Davon ich sing’n und sagen will.“ 

     (More or less, "From heaven above, I come forth.
     I bring you good news,
     Of that good news I bring,
     I want to tell it in song.")

Thus began a 24-hour period of peace between the sides, starting that Christmas Eve in 1871.

Back up 24 years to 1847. A parish priest in a small French town needed a poem for his Christmas mass, and he turned to a local poet named Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure. Not a churchgoing man himself, Mr. Cappeau felt honored nevertheless, and used the Gospel of Luke as his inspiration to write a poem while on a trip by coach to Paris. He tried to imagine what it would be like to be in Bethlehem over 1800 years earlier, witnessing the birth of Jesus.

When he finished his poem, Cappeau realized that a poem was not enough. This needed to be set to music. So he turned to his friend Adolphe Charles Adams, a man of Jewish descent. This was particularly awkward for Adams, since, as a Jew, he didn't even celebrate Christmas, nor did he believe that Jesus was the Son of God. However, he humored his friend and set the poem to music. I have to say he did an excellent job of it.

The song was initially popular in France. However, as it declined in popularity, an American writer by the name of John Sullivan Dwight discovered the song and translated it into English. "Minuit, chrétiens" (Midnight, Christians) became "O Holy Night." As Dwight was a strong abolitionist, the third verse was particularly meaningful to him. The song became especially popular in the North during the Civil War, as many Americans sang:

     Truly He taught us to love one another.
     His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
     Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
     And in His name, all oppression shall cease.
     Sweet hymns of praise in joyful chorus raise we
     With all our hearts, we praise His holy name!
     Christ is the Lord! Let ever, ever praise we!
     His power and glory evermore proclaim!
     His power and glory evermore proclaim!

(Emphasis mine, to show which line was particularly meaningful to Dwight.)

O Holy Night also has the distinction of being the first song in history to be broadcast over the airwaves, on Christmas Eve 1906. 

For more details, you can read Ace Collins' The Amazing Story of 'O Holy Night', which is where I learned the above information.


In English (and in French, though the singable English translation is not literal), the first verse reflects on that night when Christ came to earth as a baby. The world had been waiting for millenia, mired in sin, in need of a Savior. That night finally came, and with a thrill, hope was born. The world rejoiced in its Savior, as a new era began. Fall on your knees and listen to the angels sing! What a holy night!

The second verse (not in the video above) seems to be the story from the perspective of  Cappeau, the observer and poet. They are standing beside the manger "with glowing hearts" to see their baby Savior. Soon, the wise man come "from Orient land" and join them in their adoration. "The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger, in all our trials born to be our friend." He understands our needs and is familiar with our weakness. Bow before Him.

The third verse is quoted above. Christ has come out of love to bring us peace. He will break our chains, since he has taken on the yoke of a slave, and as the Son of God, He is our brother. Another interpretation of that line would be that slaves are just as human as anyone else, and God will break the chains that bind people who He created in His image. In any case, He will put an end to oppression. What can we do but sing hymns and songs of praise? Christ, our Savior, has come. Proclaim his power and glory forever!

I think it puts an interesting twist on it that had never occurred to me before, that Cappeau wrote the poem as he imagined what it might have been like to observe the birth of Jesus so long ago. The first verse remembers what we have come through, the pain and bondage that sin has caused through the years as we have yearned for the prophesied Messiah to come. Now, in the second verse, here we are watching prophecy being fulfilled. All that painful time has culminated into this moment, this holy night when he has finally arrived. The third verse looks forward to when He will victoriously break the chains of sin and death, freeing us from bondage. Jesus fulfilled some of that when He died on the cross and rose again, and He will fulfill the rest when He returns.

Jesus is our Savior! Praise Him! Whatever bondage we are in, He can save us. He has conquered sin and death. As Dr. SM Lockridge so eloquently put it, "That's my King!"

First and third verses:

First and second verses:

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Christmas Song

The summer of 1944 was particularly eventful. On June 6, Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy on what would become known as D-Day. It was a turning point in World War II.

Meanwhile, back in the US, it was a particularly hot summer. Musicians Mel Tormé and Bob Wells needed to cool down, and thinking about winter seemed just the thing. Wells wrote a few notes in his notebook, and Tormé took those words and set them to music. So if you are ever sweltering in the blistering heat of summer, just remember these words:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire!
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
With folks dressed up like Eskimos 
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight. 
They know that Santa's on his way.
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother's child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer really know how to fly 
And so I'm offering this simple phrase
For kids from one to ninety-two:
Although it's been said many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas to you!

Nat King Cole was the first to record it:

I'm not sure why they couldn't find a more imaginative title for the song, such as, oh, I don't know, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"? But no. It's called "The Christmas Song". But then, Keith Green wrote The Easter Song (more recently) I guess that kind of thing isn't unheard of.

The song is a great way of thinking wintery thoughts on a warm day. In fact, I might try singing it next summer if it gets especially hot. It covers a lot of things that people do in the winter. Roasting chestnuts brings to mind the crackle of the fire that helps to warm someone up on a freezing night, as Jack Frost nips at your nose (i.e., your nose is freezing). So you come a little closer to the fire to warm up, and sing yuletide carols. Parkas, such as Eskimos (or more properly, Inuits) are known to wear, also help to keep people warm in the snow. At Thanksgiving, people typically eat turkey, and near Christmas, people have been known to kiss under the mistletoe. Children experience the wonder of the season, waiting with excited glee for Santa to come down their chimney and deliver their presents Christmas Eve. So all that's left is to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! If that doesn't psychologically cool a person down in a hot summer, I don't know what will. Maybe singing Sleigh Ride, which was born out of a heatwave two years later, would help.

I love the line about "kids from one to ninety-two." I think far too many people "grow up" and contract adultitis. If you have that, the best cure I've found is to consult the doctors Kim & Jason. But it's important to keep a child-like spirit and attitude. Sure, we need to remember the difference between child-like and childish, but we need to be careful not to "grow up" so much that we lose our sense of wonder, adventure, curiosity and silliness. When my grandpa turned 93, I pointed out that he had finally grown up, since the song says "kids from one to ninety-two." At that point, I decided it should be "kids from one to one oh two" because my grandpa still has a child-like spirit, and I think that is one thing that has kept him alive for 97 years and counting. He may need a walker now (or as he calls it, his horse), but his mind is still active, and he is one of the youngest 97-year-olds I've ever met. In fact, I will be helping him to publish his autobiography, My First 76 Years, next year. He wrote it a few years ago, but has recently been hard at work revising and improving it. Remember how I mentioned that the Allied troops stormed the beaches on D-Day the same summer Wells and Tormé wrote The Christmas Song? He wasn't among those troops, but he fought in the war, and he was in France on V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day), May 8, 1945. He is my hero.

If you want to know more about the song, you can check here and here. I especially enjoyed this account of the author seeing Mel Tormé and indirectly brightening Tormé's day.

I leave you with the aptly-named Il Volo (Italian for "The Flight"), some of my all-time favorite singers, singing one of my all-time favorite songs.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jingle Bells

Dashing down the beach
'Cause the sand's hot underfoot
Must get to the sea
Without stepping on jellyfish.

I just made that up...but it's a more accurate picture of my childhood than the words to "Jingle Bells." :-) Living in the tropics, the sun would beat down on the beach, heating up the sand, which was not the most comfortable feeling ever for bare feet. When we visited Thailand in 1990, we also had the added benefit of avoiding the blobs of goo on the beach that were dead jellyfish, washed up on the sand. They can still sting even after they're dead. The Philippines has amazing shells on their beaches, and I loved collecting them. I also bought some polished ones in the souvenir shops.

Anyway, I'm guessing that isn't a typical way of starting a blog about a song that is all about an adventure in the snow. Some people have fond memories of playing in the snow when they were little. So do I, but most of my childhood was spent in countries that don't get snow. (The closest we got, I'm told, was one year when it got so cold in Hong Kong that there was frost on one of the mountain peaks. People came from all around to see the "snow.")

On the rare occasions when we were in the US, I loved the snow and everything about it. Well, almost everything. Since my legs were short at the time, snowshoeing was a bit of a chore, but aside from that... We built snowmen, made snow angels, and more. I don't remember ever riding in a sleigh, though. I have always loved snow, and still do to this day (although I have a healthy respect for driving in it). I think it was especially fun because it was so rare for me, and was thus a special treat. Not only because we lived in the Philippines, but because when we did come back to the US, we were in western Washington. This area doesn't get a whole lot of snow, except in the mountains, so when it does snow in the lowlands, the kids rejoice and the news media freaks out.

James Lord Pierpont (no relation to J. Pierrepont Finch), who wrote Jingle Bells in 1857, told the story of a (partially) delightful romp through the snow in a one horse open sleigh. He originally entitled his song "One Horse Open Sleigh," and he may have written it for Thanksgiving. (There are several conflicting reports regarding its origin, some of which are explained here.)

The first verse is by far the most well known:

Dashing through the snow
In a one horse open sleigh
O'er the fields we go
Laughing all the way (Ha ha ha!)
Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!

When I was little, I used to think that one line said, "Making spirits ride." That seems somewhat ghostly. Anyway, this sounds like a jolly old time. Apparently, a bobtail is a tail that is cut short, according to It must mean that the horse pulling the sleigh had a cut tail. I wonder what the ASPCA and PETA think of this song?

The second verse reminisces about the singer taking a sleighride with Miss Fanny Bright. The horse was lean and unfortunate, and they crashed into a snowbank and "got upsot" (which, according to Wikipedia, used to be a past participle of "upset," and means that the sleigh flipped). The author of this page did some research on who Miss Fanny Bright was. They found some Fanny (and Frances) Brights in old censuses, but didn't come up with a definitive answer. It's also possible that Pierpont made up the name.

The third verse gets worse. The singer now recalls going out in the snow and falling on his back. He was lying there helpless, when someone rode by in a one horse open sleigh, saw him, laughed, and continued past without helping. How rude!

The fourth and last verse gives advice on racing in a one horse open sleigh. You are supposed to do it while you're young, and take a girl along with you. "Get a bobtailed bay, two forty as his speed." The short tail must help the horse to go faster. A bay is a kind of horse. According to Wikipedia, "two forty" means that the horse needs to cover a mile in two minutes and 40 seconds (22.5 mph or 36.2 kph). If you do this, "crack! you'll take the lead." However, I'm not sure how trustworthy a guy is who just told us that he capsized a sleigh by crashing into a snowbank, and then went on to explain how he fell on his back and couldn't get up. Is he really in a place to give advice?

Apparently, the word "jingle" in the chorus is meant to be a command. Jingle bells aren't the kind of bells, but rather a command to the bells to jingle. In that case, maybe it should be called "Jingle, Bells!"

My favorite story related to Jingle Bells comes from here. Apparently, it was the first song to be played in space. In 1965, shortly before Christmas, and just before re-entering earth's atmosphere, Gemini 6 astronaut Thomas Stafford radioed into the Houston Mission Control with the news that "We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit... Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon... You just might let me pick up that thing... I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit."

I'll pause to let that sink in.

The message was followed by the sound of "Jingle Bells" played on the harmonica and sleigh bells, presumably played by who was wearing a red suit (although it may or may not have actually been played by fellow mischievous astronaut Walter Schirra).

Mr. Elliot in Mission Control responded with, "You're too much."

Gotta love astronauts with a sense of humor.

My favorite arrangement (with alternate lyrics and a few surprises):

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Feliz Navidad

I was in elementary. We were learning new Christmas songs, and one of them had a Spanish name. I didn't know much Spanish at the time, but I did know that the Tagalog language got a lot from Spanish, and that the Philippine culture had a lot of Spanish influence. So it wasn't a huge surprise that this new Christmas carol had a Spanish title, and it made perfect sense for it to be called Feliz Navidad, which I learned meant Merry Christmas. I don't remember if we went into what all the words meant, but I was surprised to discover that the chorus was in English! I had no trouble understanding the chorus, but I was confused why they didn't bother translating the whole song into Spanish (or English). For a while I tried singing the Spanish words (anyway, the ones I understood) in English, but that just sounded awkward... "Mer-RY Chri-ist-mas!" If I remember right, when I asked the teacher why it was in two languages in the same song, the answer had something to do with the words not fitting in the tune.

I have since learned the words and their meaning:
¡Feliz Navidad! (Merry Christmas!)
¡Feliz Navidad! (Merry Christmas!)
¡Feliz Navidad! (Merry Christmas!)
¡Prospero año y felicidad! (Prosperous year and happiness!)
I wanna wish you a merry Christmas!
(¡Quiero desearte un feliz Navidad!)
I wanna wish you a merry Christmas!
(¡Quiero desearte un feliz Navidad!)
I wanna wish you a merry Christmas!
(¡Quiero desearte un feliz Navidad)
From the bottom of my heart!
(Desde lo más profundo de mi corazón!)

Nope, the translation doesn't fit in the tune. But that was how I learned how to say "Merry Christmas" in Spanish.

The song was written in 1970 by Puerto Rican singer José Feliciano. According to his website, "Jose Feliciano is recognized as the first Latin Artist to cross over into the English music market, opening the doors for other artists who now play an important role in the American music industry." He was born in Lares, Puerto Rico in 1945, blind. He accompanied his uncle on a tin cracker can at age 3. At age 5, he and his family immigrated to New York. At the age of 6, he taught himself to play the concertina, using some records. He performed at the Puerto Rican Theater in the Bronx at the age of 9. He then taught himself the guitar, again using records! The Rock'n'Roll movement in the '50s inspired him to get into singing. By the age of 23, he had been nominated for 5 Grammy Awards and won two. Then he decided to expand his skill set and learn acting. In the '80s (around the time I learned Feliz Navidad), he wrote "The Sound of Vienna," which has since become known as the Official Anthem of the City of Vienna, Austria. (Click the title of the song to see a YouTube video of it.) Even now, he continues to explore new genres of music and performance. I have nothing but respect for someone who can do all this in normal circumstances, but multiply that respect many times when said person is blind! Did I mention he enjoys playing baseball? You can read his biography here. It's well worth the read.

Considering his career involving a lot of crossover work, I think it's appropriate for his song Feliz Navidad to be bilingual. The song itself crosses over the barriers of language, and the catchy tune even makes the words easy to remember.