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

Harry Simeone and Henry Onorati had turned it into a top hit, with a new title and some minor changes. Simeone even had claimed authorship. Davis eventually proved she was, in fact, the songwriter.

The First Parish in Wayland, MassachusettsWayland, Massachusetts
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

The First Parish in Wayland, a Unitarian Universalist church in Wayland, Massachusetts, a scenic town outside of Boston, was my next stop. It was there Edmund Hamilton Sears, author of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, served as minister.

What I love so much about the carol is that Sears wrote it as a prayer for peace more than as a carol. The Mexican War had just ended and the Civil War was on the horizon when he penned it Christmas Eve 1849.

A year later, his friend, the soon-to-be New-York Tribune music critic Richard Storrs Willis, set Sears’s poem to music.

Longfellow HouseCambridge, Massachusetts
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

After a visit to the nearby Edmund Hamilton Sears Chapel, I set out for Cambridge. I had an appointment to see Dr. Jameson Marvin, director of choral activities at Harvard.

“Did you know,” I asked, “that a number of Harvard professors wrote carols? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Christmas Bells, the basis for I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

"Christmas Eve, 1863, he was grieving over the death of his wife in a home fire, and of his son, who had been wounded in battle. The professor was awake late, in a desperate mood, when he heard the peal of church bells. Christmas had come.

"He sat down and penned his now-famous poem. Its last lines, famously, were, ‘With peace on earth, goodwill to men.’ Longfellow’s mood had changed.”

The Church of the Holy TrinityPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania
O Little Town of Bethlehem

From Cambridge I drove to Philadelphia, to The Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. I wanted to pay homage to Rev. Phillips Brooks, the rector who wrote the poem O Little Town of Bethlehem, after returning from the Holy Land in 1866.

Brooks had traveled there following President Lincoln’s assassination, and the deaths of so many of his parishioners in the Civil War. He was struck by how peaceful it was in Bethlehem.

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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!