Everyone has a favorite Christmas carol. There are so many beautiful ones, each one evoking a time and place in our lives. When I hear “The Little Drummer Boy,” I immediately think about my mother because that was her favorite. “White Christmas” reminds me of Bing Crosby singing to the troops in Europe where my father served during the fierce winter of 1944.
Silly songs like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” take me back to my suburban childhood and the magic of the season.
But none of these is my favorite. As far as classic carols go, my all-time best is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” There’s just something about its lilt and lyrics that elevates my spirit and rings in the true meaning of Christmas.
I also have a favorite, more contemporary, Christmas song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” written in 1962 by Noel Regney. The story behind it has much to do with why it speaks so strongly to my heart.
Regney was born in France in 1922, a brilliant music student destined for a shining career –
until the Nazis invaded his homeland and impressed him into the German army. Regney, however, used his position to support the French underground and undermine German plans however he could. At one point, he deserted and went to live among the French underground.
After the war ended in 1945, he became musical director for radio, a nightclub and a French singer. Seven years later he moved to the U.S. and settled in New York City, writing scores for television shows as well as advertising jingles. He met and married his wife, Gloria Shayne, a pianist and composer.
Ten years later in October 1962, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war, a terrible, tense time between the U.S. and Soviet Union. The Russians had been caught in the act of building nuclear missile sites in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland. As President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev wrote and responded to terse messages, Noel Regney fell into despair.
A record producer had just asked him to do a Christmas song, but he couldn’t get into the idea because he believed the holiday had become too commercial. Besides that, his mind and heart were far from a Christmas mood that awful October. Horrible images of a world gone mad were more prevalent than warm holiday feelings. Maybe the no one would even be alive to hear any song he might write.
Then one day as he walked the streets of Manhattan, Regney saw two mothers pushing their babies in strollers, struck by the way the children were looking into each other’s faces and smiling. Something in that simple gesture broke through his despair. Instead of mushroom clouds, his minds eye filled with images of babies, lambs – and hope. Before he got home, he had come up with a Christmas song, which he later said was really a prayer for peace.
“Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, /“Do you hear what I hear? / Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy, /Do you hear what I hear? /a song, a song, high above the tree/with a voice as big as the sea”
Back at home, he quickly wrote down the lyrics and shared them with his wife. Normally Gloria wrote the words and he did the composition. In later years she recalled what happened that day:
“Noel wrote a beautiful song and I wrote the music. We couldn’t sing it through; it broke us up. We cried. Our little song broke us up. You must realize there was a threat of nuclear war at the time.”
The words to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” still ring true to a weary world, its message of hope echoing the sounds of a Baby’s first cries from the Bethlehem manger. This Christmas song reminds me that God never gives up on us, that He still has a plan and a purpose for the people He created, that it is good, and that it will surely come to pass.
From my heart to yours, I wish you a hope and wonder-filled Christmas.
(Regney’s Favorite Rendition of his song was performed by Robert Goulet)