There are many people who complain about radio stations that play Christmas music too early.
I am not one of those people. I’m a member of my church’s choir, and we start rehearsing for our annual Christmas cantata three months ahead of time in September. Our choir director provides us with a CD to practice, and we rehearse every Wednesday evening until the performances in December.
No matter what’s going on in my life or in the world at the time, each year the cantata music brings me peace and puts me in the right frame of mind for Christmas. It’s easy for performers to get caught up in singing the right note or lost in the melody of a familiar tune, but our director reminds us regularly in our rehearsals that the meaning behind the words has the power to bring hope, comfort and salvation to Christ’s believers.
While it’s hard for me to pick a favorite Christmas song (even when allowing for multiple favorites across categories of songs, like hymns, carols and secular songs), one that has continued to top my list the last few years is “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
I love the fact that the song plays out like a movie, with the word of Jesus’s birth being spread from the night wind to the lamb to the shepherd boy and finally to the king. By the time I hear the king’s message in the song, “Pray for peace, people everywhere,” I have tears in my eyes.
It turns out that this song was written as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The songwriter, Noël Regney, penned the lyrics in 1962.
Though the song was written during the Cold War, Regney also lived through World War II, where he was drafted into the Nazi army despite being a French native. According to his obituary, shortly after he was drafted, he joined a group of French resistance fighters and once intentionally led his German platoon toward a group of French partisans.
Regney, who had moved to Manhattan in 1952, became well-known for his music composition of TV shows and jingles. He was asked by a record producer to write a holiday song – but feared that he wouldn’t be able to because Christmas had become “too commercial.”
An American Catholic article reports that while reflecting on the despair and hopelessness many felt because of the threat of nuclear war at the time, Regney was inspired by a sight on a city street.
“En route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers,” he said. “The little angels were looking at each other and smiling. All of a sudden, my mood was extraordinary.”
He wrote the lyrics while his wife, Gloria Shayne Baker, composed the accompanying music. This was a switch for the couple, as usually she wrote the lyrics and he the music. The couple was so overwhelmed by the finished song and the emotions it spurred that they felt they couldn’t perform it.
Bing Crosby made it a hit in 1963 when he released his version of the song. To date, more than a hundred artists have covered it. Regney once said his favorite version was Robert Goulet’s recording in 1968 because he practically shouted – rather than sang – the line, “Pray for peace, people everywhere.”
“I am amazed that people can think they know the song – and not know it is a prayer for peace,” Regney was quoted as saying in a 1985 New York Times article. “But we are so bombarded by sound, and our attention spans are so short, that we now listen only to catchy beginnings.”
This Christmas, with all the chaos and war in the world and personal battles we each fight, I encourage you to reflect on the words of your own favorite Christmas songs. Take comfort in Christ’s birth and the hope it brings. Know that He will bring us goodness and light. And join me in praying for peace, people everywhere.