Christmas carols are tunes many of us know by heart - we sing them with neighbors, friends and family, or alone in the car with the radio tuned to CPR Classical. Some of our favorite carols have fascinating origins and interesting journeys. Who was the real good King Wenceslas? Which carol saw a lyric change thanks to Judy Garland?
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Carol #1: Good King Wenceslas
A good-hearted man with a jolly demeanor? No, not Santa Claus - Good King Wenceslas. The carol was inspired by a real beloved Bohemian king and his generosity on cold snowy nights.
Carol #2: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Judy Garland made this song famous in the 1944 film "Meet Me in St. Louis," but the lyrics she sang weren't the original ones. Garland thought the lyrics were too depressing and would make her co-star cry. They were changed to be a little less depressing, but before Frank Sinatra recorded the song, he requested yet another change. It's this version most well-known today.
Carol #3: In the Bleak Midwinter
The magic of “In the Bleak Midwinter” is due largely to poet Christina Rosetti’s lyrics. She built the dark and dreary setting of a manger in the cold English winter as a way to highlight the real meaning of Christmas: sharing our hearts.
Carol #4: The Christmas Song
A Christmas carol written during a hot California day - it’s a wonder that "The Christmas Song" (a.k.a. "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire") feels like the ultimate cozy tune for a chilly winter day. But the real magic lies with the singer chosen to record the song.
Carol #5: Joy to the World
A Christmas carol about a curse? How jolly. "Joy to the World" starts as an uplifting tune, but by the third stanza you find yourself singing "far as the curse is found." What is that all about?
Carol #6: Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella
Who is Jeanette Isabella? Not one woman, but two young girls star as the heroes of this 16th century French carol, who found baby Jesus in a stable and spread the word to their neighbors.
Carol #7: Do You Hear What I Hear?
A carol born of the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the midst of fear and worry, a moment of peace shared between mothers and their children inspired the first lines of this holiday favorite.
Carol #8: O Little Town of Bethlehem
A carol about an unforgettable trip to Bethlehem for Christmas in the 19th century, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was penned by a far travelling Episcopal priest and an organist who never imagined it would become what it is today.
Carol #9: We Wish You A Merry Christmas
The tradition of caroling began hundreds of years ago, where singers performed for wealthy neighbors and were often treated to food and warm drinks as a tip. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” cut to the chase and carolers asked for what they wanted through song!
Carol #10: Jingle Bells
A carol that didn’t start as a Christmas song. If you listen closely, Jingle Bells has no specific reference to the holidays! In fact, the original version of the song was a bit scandalous in the 19th century. It’s Bing Crosby we have to thank for the family friendly version of this beloved carol.
Carol #11: Silent Night
It hardly feels like Christmas without “Silent Night," but how did the song become so ubiquitous? It started as a last minute addition to a Christmas Eve service at a church in a small Austrian town, but quickly spread across the world to become one of the most recorded and performed carols.
Carol #12: O Holy Night
A song so powerful that soldiers reportedly laid down their arms to sing to each other across "no man's land." It also has a unique connection to the birth of radio.
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