Silent Night

Didn't you enjoy this year's Christmas carols?

Didn't you love it this Christmas -- when once again even the most secular radio stations played songs praising Jesus? You may be surprised that the most recorded Christmas carol of all time is "Silent Night," according to Time magazine, whose staff  searched the records of the U.S. Copyright Office.

That's exciting, considering the annual debate over Yuletide celebrations -- the focus of this year's surprise movie hit -- Kirk Cameron's "Saving Christmas."

In it, the movie-maker and actor helps a fictional brother-in-law understand the real reason for the season. But there's no mistaking what Silent Night is about -- which explains its popularity. It has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects. During the famed World War I truce, it is the song that was sung simultaneously in English, French and German by troops fighting on both sides of the trenches in 1914.

The carol has been recorded by Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, Sinead O'Connor, Josh Groban, Kenny Chesney, Bing Crosby, Emmylou Harris,  Amy Grant and hundreds of other artists.

It was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Germany, a village on the Salzach river. Young pastor Joseph Mohr had written the lyrics in 1816, but asked the local schoolmaster and volunteer church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, if he could write music that could be played on guitar since the organ was out of commission that evening.

The two performed the carol  during the service on the night of December 24, 1818.

The original manuscript has been lost. However a version in Mohr's handwriting was discovered in 1995 and dated by researchers at around 1820.  In 1859, Episcopal priest John Freeman Young at Trinity Church, New York City, gave parishioners his English translation -- which is most frequently sung today.

It's still among the top 50 carols heard each year on the radio, according to WCBS radio -- competing in popularity with Gene Autry's "Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer," the Harry Simeone Chorale's rendition of "Little Drummer Boy," "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" sung by Brenda Lee, John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)," "Merry Christmas Darling " byThe Carpenters, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" by Bing Crosby and "The Most Wonderful Time of The Year" by Andy Williams.

Most of the top 30 carols were written in the 1940s and 1950s, noted the Washington Post.

To explain why older numbers were so much more popular, Time observed, "songs that are no longer under their original copyright are considerably more prominent on modern Christmas albums, given that one needn't share the holiday windfall."

But there's more to it than copyright. In the Slate article "All I Want for Christmas Is a New Christmas Song," Chris Klimek noted the last time a new Christmas song took off on the charts was in 1994 with Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You."

"I love Christmas carols," writes Shereen Lashua. "I look forward to singing them especially at church. That’s why I was shocked to hear a young man make a comment about having to sing 'the requisite number of Christmas songs.'

"I bet he doesn’t know that "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" was written by Longfellow during the Civil War. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s son had been crippled in the war, a few years before this poem was written. His wife had died a few years before that. She dripped sealing wax on her dress, igniting a blaze. Her husband was there and put out the blaze, but his precious companion died from her injuries. As the war raged on and he grieved his losses, he wrote,

And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Did you know God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman was "written as a modern alternative to stuffy old church songs?" asks Lashua. "It was well received and became a popular hit. Charles Dickens referenced it in A Christmas Carol, adding to its popularity.

God rest you merry, gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay, For Jesus Christ our Saviour Was born upon this day, To save us all from Satan’s power When we were gone astray: O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.

"One of the most prolific hymn writers of all time, Isaac Watts, wrote Joy to the World," notes Lashua. "Christmas carols are not just a meaningless holiday tradition that we are required to include in our celebrations. They are hymns of praise. They are a reminder of the goodness of God. Christmas carols are a call to celebrate God’s goodness in the midst of winter and the winters of the soul.

"These ancient hymns connect us with our heritage and our brothers and sisters who have travelled the road before us. They are songs of God’s triumph over the power of sin and death."