Southeastern Louisiana University communications professor Joseph Burns researched the history of Christmas carols thoroughly for a presentation he made recently at the university’s annual Fanfare festival, a fall celebration of the arts, humanities and social sciences.
Burns said many people can get the wrong idea by going solely according to the title or lyrics. For example, in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” he singles out the comma placement.
“It has nothing to do with happy, merry men. It was first published in the mid-1700s and is referenced in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” said Burns, who produces the weekly radio show “Rock School” on the university’s station, KSLU-FM. “The word ‘merry’ means strong or mighty, as in ‘merry old England,’ and the word ‘rest’ means to keep or make. So the title translates to ‘God keep you mighty, gentlemen,’ and refers to the lamplighters and additional men hired to patrol during the holidays.”
“You may sing ‘We Three Kings,’ but you should recognize that in Matthew 2:1-12 there are no references to the number three, kings, the Orient or their names,” Burns said. “The passage suggests the men were Magi, those who studied the stars. Also, they came from the East, which most likely was Persia or present-day Iraq. And the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar came from an early 6th-century Greek manuscript.”
“ ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is a great song as well,” Burns said, “except St. Wenceslaus I, on whom the song is based, was the duke of Bohemia, not a king. Luckily, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred on Wenceslas the title of ‘king.’ ”
The song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” almost never got recorded, he said. Written in 1943 by Kimball Gannon about a soldier writing to his family, no music publishers wanted to touch it, thinking it would have brought people down during the holiday.
“Luckily, Gannon was a golfing buddy with Bing Crosby, who recorded it on the B-side of the highest selling single of all time, ‘White Christmas.’ A song no one wanted sold 50 million copies,” he said.
Before 1857, Santa did not land on your roof, but on your lawn, as in the phrase “When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter.” Burns said the switch came when the song “Up on the House Top” was written by Benjamin Hanbly and recorded by a multitude of singers, most notably Gene Autry in 1953. Santa’s been landing there since.
The carol “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a relatively new classic released in 1962 by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker. Burns said they were asking if you heard a bomb, and the song was written as a cry for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Burns asks why does Alvin want a Hula-Hoop in the Chipmunks’ Christmas song? It’s because the song was released in 1958, and the No. 1-selling toy that year was … you guessed it, a Hula-Hoop.
“You can use this to sound informed this year about Christmas carols,” Burns said. “So ‘Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,’ which, by the way, is not a Christmas song. It was written in 1857 by James Pierpoint for his Boston Sunday School Thanksgiving celebration.”