Every year, I look forward to turning on the radio the day after Thanksgiving to hear the first jingles of the Christmas season. Along with the food and decorations, Christmas carols are one of the easiest ways to enjoy the festive aspects of the holiday season. Music sets the mood; it has the power to put us in the holiday spirit. Most of the classic Christmas carols we sing or hear today originated in England, Germany, or France. However, songwriters from the United States have contributed some to the canon of Christmas songs; and New England composers and lyricists can be credited with at least four of the classics. Ever wondered which Christmas songs were written in New England? Read on to learn more!
FAMOUS NEW ENGLAND CHRISTMAS SONGS
Did you know that Jingle Bells was originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh?” James Pierpont (1822-1893) composed and published this piece sometime in the 1850s. Many people believe Pierpont wrote the ditty in Medford, Massachusetts at the Simpson Tavern, a local business. Sleigh rides and the necessity and popularity of sleighs in the early 1800s helped inspire Pierpont. In 1857, Pierpont copyrighted and published the song, then again in 1859 with today’s title. By this time, Pierpont had relocated to Georgia. Some people claim that the timeline does not add up, and that Pierpont must have written the song in Savannah. No matter, Pierpont was born and raised in Boston and attended boarding school in New Hampshire, making him a legitimate New England native. So, even if he didn’t write the song in Medford (and we may never know the truth), he was from New England and was inspired by a traditional New England winter pastime.
IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR
Edmund Sears (1810-1876) was born and raised in Massachusetts. After college, he returned to Massachusetts and worked as a preacher at various congregations. In 1849, he wrote a poem titled “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” also known as “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.” It has five stanzas and, though now most commonly played during the holiday season, describes a more universal message of peace. Sears penned these words not long after the Mexico-American War (1846-1848) had ended. His third verse seems very telling of his want for peace: “And man, at war with man, hears not/The love-song which they bring/O hush the noise, ye men of strife/And hear the angles sing”. Sears officially put the poem to music in 1850. The composer was Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900), another Bostonian. He put the lyrics to a piece he had written called “Carol.” Even though Willis spent much of his adult life outside of New England, we still feel that “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” is undeniably one of the New England Christmas songs.
THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY
Katherine Kennicott Davis (1892-1980) wrote “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1941. Davis originally titled the song “The Carol of the Drum”. She was born in Missouri but attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts to study music. After graduating, she continued her studies at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She taught at Concord Academy in Massachusetts and spent some time teaching in Philadelphia. Eventually, she returned to New England. In 1955, a recording of “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Trapp Family Singers made her Christmas song popular on a national scale. Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone went on to create their own arrangement, for which they eventually gained joint compositional credit with Davis. At 87, Davis passed away in Littleton, Massachusetts. She left her royalties to the Department of Music at Wellesley College.
We have Leroy Anderson (1908-1975), a composer from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to thank for “Sleigh Ride.” Leroy wrote the song as a short and light orchestral piece in 1948. The Boston Pops Orchestra, under the direction of Arthur Fiedler, made the first recording of the piece. Like other holiday songs, it would perhaps be better described as a “winter song,” but it consistently ranks among the top songs performed throughout the Christmas season. Mitchell Parish, added the lyrics in 1950. The song has become one of the Boston Pops signature songs and they continue to play it year after year, making it one of the most famous New England Christmas songs to date.
HONORABLE MENTIONS | CHRISTMAS SONGS WITH NEW ENGLAND TIES
I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a poem that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on Christmas day in 1863. He wrote the poem in response to the American Civil War. One of the most poignant lines describes an all encompassing feeling of hopelessness: “And in despair I bowed my head;/ ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;/ ‘For hate is strong,/ And mocks the song/ Of peace on earth, good-will to men!'” In the spirit of Christmas, Longfellow ended the poem with a more uplifting message: “The wrong shall fail,/ The right prevail,/ With peace on earth, good-will to men.” The poem was published in 1865, but it wasn’t until 1872 that the poem was accompanied by music. John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), the English composer and organist, was responsible for solidifying this poem’s status as a Christmas song. While you may still hear Calkin’s version, Johnny Marks (1909-1985) of New York, composed his own version in 1956 that quickly gained popularity among recording artists.
O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
Calming and beautiful, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is one of my favorite Christmas carols. The lyrics were written by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), who was born and raised in Boston. However, Brooks was inspired to pen the song during the time he served as rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. Shortly after “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was published (around 1868), Brooks returned to Boston to serve as rector of Trinity Church, Boston. Though the lyrics were written by a New Englander, equal credit must be given to Lewis Redner (1831-1908) of Philadelphia, the organist who composed the original melody for Brooks’ lyrics. His melody is still the most famous and recognizable version of the song today.
Which of these famous New England Christmas songs are your favorites?
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.