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.