THE words to this carol were written by an American Episcopal clergyman, Phillips Brooks, who was born in Boston in 1825 and educated at Harvard. For many years he was Rector of Boston’s Holy Trinity Church and then he became Bishop of Massachusetts.
By all accounts he was much loved by young and old. He did not marry but other people’s children were like a family to him. In those more innocent days, the 6ft 8in rector could often be found sitting on the floor of his office playing a game with a group of children. When he died unexpectedly at the age of 58 in 1893, one little girl reportedly said: ‘How happy the angels will be.’
Brooks visited the Holy Land in December 1865. The itinerary included a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, still a small village, on Christmas Eve. By nightfall he was in the field where, according to tradition, the shepherds heard the angelic announcement. Then he attended the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Recalling the visit, he wrote: ‘I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the “wonderful night” of the Savior’s birth.’
Three years later he used the experience as the inspiration for a new carol for the children at his church to sing. He asked the church organist, Lewis Redner, to compose a simple melody for the children to sing on Christmas Eve.
Redner sat at the piano, but nothing seemed right. The night before the Christmas Eve service he went to bed feeling defeated. Half asleep, he heard music. Immediately he got up and wrote down the melody, filling in the harmonies in the morning. When he presented it to Brooks he said: ‘I think it was a gift from heaven’.
Brooks died in 1893, after being bishop for only 15 months. His death was a major event in Boston. One observer reported: ‘They buried him like a king. Harvard students carried his body on their shoulders. All barriers of denomination were down. Roman Catholics and Unitarians felt that a great man had fallen in Israel.’
Published in 1874, the Redner tune, now called St Louis, is still the one used in the US. Here is a charming performance.
In Britain the carol is usually sung to Forest Green. This was adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams from an English folk song called The Ploughboy’s Dream which he collected from labourer Henry Garman of Forest Green, Surrey in 1903. This is a 2016 recording from Sunderland Minster.
Choral performances often use a tune called Christmas Carol by H Walford Davies, and here it is performed by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.