Where Christmas Music Lived

We all know our favorite holidays songs. But do you know where they came from?

By Ron Clancy, North Cape May, New Jersey

As appeared in

I was six when I fell in love with Christmas carols, especially American Christmas songs. That year, the nuns in the Philadelphia orphanage where I lived took me to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The crowded chapel, the altar crèche, the scent of balsam trees—it was intoxicating!

But something else thrilled me even more: the music—soaring, majestic religious carols filled me with peace, joy and hope. It was a feeling, a deep spiritual warmth, I’d never experienced, living as I did, without a family, without a sense of belonging.

That night, I felt part of something—something much bigger than me. Where did such beautiful music come from? The question stayed with me all my life.

Finally, in my sixties, I needed an answer. I decided to travel 4,000 miles, across seven states in nine days, to find the true stories behind those songs that held such deep meaning for me. I’d collected rare recordings of carols for decades—even compiling them into three richly illustrated book/CD boxed collections.

“I’m going to ask you the biggest favor of my life,” I said to my wife, Renate, one September night after dinner. She knew better than anyone the influence Christmas carols had on me.

“I want to visit the places where American carols originated. I want to get a feeling for what might have inspired their composers.”

I was asking a lot. We both worked—me up at 3:00 A.M. to deliver 230 morning newspapers daily, she as a schoolteacher who often worked till 6:00 P.M. It meant she would have to take over my delivery route, and then head straight to her elementary school. Bless her, she said yes right away.

Unitarian Universalist Church in Savannah, GeorgiaSavannah, Georgia
Jingle Bells

I piled a suitcase, a still camera, a video camera and a tape recorder into my sturdy Volvo and headed from my home in North Cape May, New Jersey, to Savannah, Georgia, 13 hours and 760 miles south. My destination was the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah, known to just about every Savannan as the Jingle Bells Church.

It was there in 1857, while serving as the church’s musical director and organist, James Pierpont finally copyrighted One Horse Open Sleigh, the Christmas carol now known as Jingle Bells, which he had composed in Medford, Massachusetts, at least seven years earlier.

What a beautiful church, I thought. The stately stone edifice was recently renovated. I tried to imagine Pierpont sitting at the organ, playing his spritely song to the congregants every Christmas Eve.

The man led a complicated life. He moved to the South and fought for the Confederacy, while his brother, John, served as a Union Army chaplain. He died impoverished though his nephew was the great financial titan, J. Pierpont Morgan, said to have more money than the U.S. Treasury.

I would like to have stayed in Savannah a few days more, but the road beckoned. I phoned Renate at the end of the day. “Honey, I’m in heaven,” I said.

St. Helena Island, South Carolina
Mary Had a Baby

“You’re headed to South Carolina tomorrow, right?” she asked.

“Yes, to St. Helena Island,” I said, “just fifty miles north.”

St. Helena Island, one of South Carolina’s sea islands, is home to one of Christmas’s most precious treasures, the carol Mary Had a Baby. Composed there somewhere in the early 19th century, it’s one of the few surviving slave-written carols.

The line that never fails to move me is its last one—“People keep a-comin’ an’ the train done gone.”

There’s no agreement on its meaning, but the interpretation I like best is this one: Trains represented an escape to freedom. And though this particular train had gone, with faith surely they’d find another opportunity.

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Your Comments (2)

Greetings in this Holy Season,

I loved the article by Ron Clancy. I am a retired music teacher and church musician. I, too, fell in love with Christmas music at a very early age-- 3 or 4. Probably my love for Christmas music inspired me to make music my career. I remember watching and hearing in awe the Christmas programs sung my the local high school choir, of which I later became the director. One of my favorites was Katherine K. Davis' "Carol of the Drum." I remember being outraged that it became popular under the title "The Little Drummer Boy." I still refer to it as "Carol of the Drum" and always will.

Mr. Clancy's article, however, left me puzzled. I have always heard that "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was composed by the Rev. Dr. Phillips Brooks of Trinity Episcopal Church of Boston in Copley Square. Indeed, I attended services there some years ago, and in the tour of the church, it was mentioned that Dr. Brooks was Rector there and that, indeed, he composed the carol after returning from a visit to the Holy Land.

Perhaps you could pass this comment on to Mr. Clancy and see if we can clear up this puzzle.

Wishing you a happy and peaceful Christmas and a Blessed New Year.

Robert M. Martin

Dear Mr. Martin,

You probably would be happy to know that I have a copy of the official transcript of an 1980 reporter's interview with Katherine K. Davis about the origins of "Carol of the Drum."

With respect to Rev. Brooks and "O Little Town of Bethlehem," he was born in Massachusetts and later served as rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia he wrote the carol a few years after returning from the Holy Land in 1865. He eventually became the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, and it would make sense he would be noted for his carol regardless of where he lived or the fact he wrote it while Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia.

Merry Christmas!