Christmas tunes are so emotive because of their familiarity – we’ve been singing many of them since our youth!
© Africa Studio / Public Domain
One of the most famous Christmas songs of all time is Bing Crosby’s 1963 hit, Do You Hear What I Hear – not least, because it has a fascinating history.
Written in October 1962, by the husband and wife songwriting team, Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, the song describes a “prayer for peace”, as it was written at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. It contains the famous line, “Pray for peace, people, everywhere.”
Regney penned the lyrics, while his wife wrote the music. The couple felt strongly about the political situation in the early 1960s, with the missile crisis creating the biggest threat to world peace since the Second World War.
The USSR was constructing bases for nuclear missiles in Cuba. The weapons would have been able to hit the United States. As a result of US president John F Kennedy’s intervention, the anticipated deadly confrontation was finally averted when the missiles were dismantled.
Baker said neither she nor her husband could bear to personally sing the song after they wrote it, because of the very real threat of a nuclear war at the time. The lyrics choked them up and they could never get to the end of a performance.
In a newspaper interview in 1986, Regney said he found it hard to believe that some people had no idea it was a peace song. He blamed the fact that people didn’t listen to the lyrics all the way through – claiming we were so “bombarded by sound” and had such a short attention span that we listened “only to catchy beginnings”.
Regney was born in Strasbourg and had been a student of classical music when World War II broke out. He became a fighter with the French Resistance and survived being shot during the conflict. Entering the music industry after the war, he met his future wife during a tour of the United States.
He related how they came to write the song when he gave an interview in later life. He had been asked to write the B-side of a single that was expected to become a chart hit. With a vision of a new-born lamb in his head, he began writing the lyrics based on what he thought it might hear on the night Jesus Christ was born.
The line, “Do you hear what I hear?” was the wind whispering to the lamb. The star of Bethlehem is shining brightly in the sky as the new-born lamb listens to the wind. Then, the lamb says to the shepherd boy, “Do you hear what I hear?”
The lamb describes “a song high above the trees, with a voice as big as the sea”. The shepherd boy describes how “a child shivers in the cold”, telling the Three Kings, “Let us bring him silver and gold.”
Regney gave the lyrics to his wife and asked her to write the music. As the story goes, she was shopping in Bloomingdale’s when she came up with the tune.
Although it was supposed to be the B-side of a planned record, the deal fell through. Regent Publishing Company snapped it up, recognising what a great Christmas song it was in its own right.
Do You Hear What I Hear was originally released by Harry Simeone Chorale, selling more than 250,000 copies during the Christmas holiday period in 1962.
Bing Crosby made the song a worldwide hit when he recorded it for his album, I Wish You a Merry Christmas, in 1963. In an ironic twist, considering the song was a prayer for peace, on the day Crosby went in the recording studio (22nd November 1963), President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Following its initial success in 1962, when Bing Crosby released his version of the song in 1963, it sold more than one million copies. Over the years, it has become one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time and has been recorded by many artists.
The most recent version was recorded by Scottish singer Susan Boyle, who sang a duet with New York vocalist Amber Stassi on Boyle’s 2010 album, The Gift.
There are many other joyful sounds at Christmas, such as church bells ringing out, or the “jingle bells” of Santa’s sleigh, played on many a festive song.
If I close my eyes, I can picture bright, warm flames dancing around an open fire and the sound of crackling wood as the logs slowly dissolve into warm embers. What does Christmas sound like to you?
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Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!