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Three Memorable Holiday Classics

December 20, 2017

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There are certain things that we see, read, sing or eat every year during the holidays. We never tire of our traditions. Or, as Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!” Below you’ll find a Christmas carol, an editorial in response to a letter and a lengthy poem that are examples of holiday cheer that we look forward to revisiting year after year.  

SILENT NIGHT: WRITTEN IN THE 19TH CENTURY      

In 1816, a young priest, Joseph Mohr, wrote the original six stanzas of Silent Night in German. (Always remember: on the page before it’s on the stage.) Two years later he asked a musician, Franz Gruber, to compose a melody for his work.

On Christmas Eve, 1818 the two men, backed by a choir, sang Silent Night, Holy Night (Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht) in St. Nicholas Church, located in Oberndorf, Austria.

In 1839, it was performed for the first time in America at Trinity Church in New York City. It has been translated into roughly 140 languages and sung in small chapels and great cathedrals worldwide.

Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan where Silent Night, Holy Night was first performed (1839) in this country

CLICK HERE: To hear a wonderful rendition of this carol sung by the choir and congregation at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 2012

YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS

Here’s another gem from the 19th century. Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asked her father, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon if Santa really existed. He thought a moment and then suggested that she write a letter to The Sun, a well-respected newspaper in New York City. His final words of wisdom on the topic were, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Virginia wrote the letter and mailed it to the paper. Then she waited and waited some more.

Three months before Christmas 1897 there was an editorial that appeared on the front page of the paper. It said Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. Why the delay? It turned out that the editor who was given this assignment was Francis Church, a war correspondent, cynic and atheist who did not want to write it. Finally, he sat down and knocked it out in less than a day. He did not want his name on it. Readers loved his response to Virginia.

Virginia O’Hanlon, top left, as a young girl

One would think that The Sun would reprint it every year. Not so. Bowing to reader demand, the paper finally started to republish it regularly in the 1920s. It has since become part of Christmas folklore and is the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language. On its 100th anniversary (1997) the New York Times ran a tribute. CLICK HERE: for Virginia’s letter, The Sun’s editorial and the NY Times celebratory article.

‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

When I started this blog I certainly didn’t intend to concentrate on the 19th century but that’s how things have turned out. I picked the carol Silent Night, Holy Night and Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Clause simply because I really like both of them and their stories are fascinating.

Now I’ve hit a roadblock, or at least a speed bump. All the research for ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas went in one direction: a tangled tale of WHO IS THE REAL AUTHOR OF THIS PIECE?

Do I care? No, not really because this poem still makes for great reading. It was first published anonymously on December 23, 1823 in The Sentinel newspaper located in Troy, New York. In 1837 it was attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. He said that he wrote it for his children. THEN HENRY LIVINGSTON, JR was said to be the author.

This dispute is reported ad infinitum on the web. Finally, I came across an interesting tidbit: Livingston is a distant relative of Moore’s wife. That’s it! This is just an old-fashioned family squabble.

Four handwritten copies of the poem are known to exist and three are in museums, including the New York Historical Society library. The fourth copy, written out and signed by Clement Clarke Moore was a gift to a friend in 1860. It was sold in December 2006 for $280.000. CLICK HERE: To read the entire poem

Shaun Nelson-Henrick


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