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

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” went his lyric—a message that he yearned for a similar peace in his homeland.

A plaque marking Irving Berlin's longtime residenceNew York, New York
Do You Hear What I Hear? and White Christmas

I saved New York City for last. First I hoofed it to the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 50th Street, and inside what was then the Beverly and is now the Benjamin Hotel. P

ianist Gloria Shayne was playing in the hotel’s dining room. Composer Noel Regney was instantly smitten. The two married and in 1962 together wrote Do You Hear What I Hear? as a hymn to peace in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not originally a Christmas song.

My final stop was 17 Beekman Place, in Midtown East, for decades Irving Berlin’s home. The composer of the classics God Bless America, Easter Parade and Puttin’ on the Ritz believed his best song was White Christmas.

Christmas had always been a sad day for Berlin. He lost a son Christmas Day 1928, and over time grew increasingly reclusive. In 1983, when he was 95, carolers gathered outside his home and serenaded him with his wonderful song.

His maid invited them all inside. Berlin greeted them and told them how touched he was by their gesture. Carolers continued to serenade him through 1988, the last Christmas of his life, and still gather to sing outside his home—now the Luxembourg House, the country’s United Nations consulate.

I was back in Cape May the next day sweeping Renate into my arms.

“Thank you,” I said. “This was the Christmas present of a lifetime.”


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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!