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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.