Sing Noël! Sing Gloria!

It was probably inevitable that a married couple of songwriters named Noël and Gloria would write a Christmas song. Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne wrote Do you hear what I hear? (first recording, by the Harry Simeone Chorale) in October 1962. 

Or maybe not, because his name was actually Léon, and he was hesitant to write a Christmas song due to the commercialisation of Christmas. Noël wrote the words, influenced by the then-current Cuban Missile Crisis and Gloria the music.

Gloria came into English straight from Latin, and also via Old French glorie to become Middle English glory. I couldn’t figure out what the origin of noël (or noel) might be, and would not have guessed that it comes from Latin diēs nātālis day of birth (compare nativity). French did drastic things to Latin (note also that glorie became gloire), but that one is a stretch. Noël is a relatively late arrival into English, dating from 1805-1815. The First Nowell was first published in 1823.


13 thoughts on “Sing Noël! Sing Gloria!

  1. Never knew that Do You Hear What I Hear (a song I’ve accompanied choirs and singers on for many a Christmas season) was inspired by the Cuban missile crisis. I suppose it’s timely again now that Russia is threatening to move missiles into Cuba again in response to our concerns over Ukraine … but let’s not think about that too much.

    The Wikipedia page for that song led me to read about “Carol of the Drum” (commonly known as “The Little Drummer Boy”), another song we frequently did, in many arrangements. I had insisted long ago that Katherine K. Davis didn’t write the song but merely arranged an old Czech folk song, but Wikipedia says I was misinformed.


  2. Songs “inspired by” current events tend not to last much longer than the events themselves, unless they all have enough universality. “A star with a tail as big as a kite” might just be poetic (note that the start of Bethlehem is always shown as big and bright) and “pray for peace, people everywhere” is always applicable.
    As well as “The little drummer boy”, there’s also “Patapan”, which has a similar theme but is much faster. “The little drummer boy” cops flak for being unrealistic (like, is St Mary *really* going to want a drum playing right there right then?) and the melody is sometimes criticised as saccharine, but it’s really well crafted, with a touch of European (I can’t pin it down any more than that) folk.


  3. “Saccharine”? Really? When I think back on all the “contemporary” Christmas music we had to rehearse and perform every church concert season, that’s the definition of “saccharine.” The Carol of the Drum tune is a classically constructed melody with intriguing rhythmic/phrasal variation. One of my favorite seasonal parlor tricks was to play that tune in the style of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. It works amazingly well.

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    • “Saccharine” wasn’t the word I was looking for, but I couldn’t think of anything else. The melody is almost all stepwise, and the rhythm and phrase shape is largely the same throughout (though the extension of the phrases gives some variety). Also, more than half of the words are repetitions of the one word.
      At least the words are about the birth of Jesus. Many of the contemporary songs mention “Christmas” only in passing (Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer or You are all I want for Christmas


      • Not to mention all the songs about winter that are traditionally considered Christmas songs (“Let It Snow”, “Winter Wonderland”, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, etc.). I guess in Australia you don’t play those songs in December. Maybe in July? What must you think when these show up in holiday playlists?

        Frankly, speaking as someone north of the Equator, we could use those joyous winter songs in January and February when the holiday spirit has left and all we have is the lousy weather.

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      • BTW searching for ‘the little drummer boy criticism’ found ‘LDB is the worst Christmas carol ever’ and ‘LDB, the worst Christmas carol of all’, but also ‘The story behind the LDB Christmas carol (which is an objective history of words, music and recordings, without taking a stance. (In any case, it’s not a carol; most of what we sing aren’t carols.)


      • I get very annoyed at winter imagery at the height of the Australian summer. It’s got nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, and nothing to do with the Australian summer. “Christmas in July” is a thing, which I have always avoided in that it’s got nothing to do with the birth of Jesus and is more about pagan feasting.
        Surprisingly, it does occasionally snow in Australia in December – the usual weather pattern in either hot and dry from the north-west or hot and wet from the north/north-east, but just occasionally there’s a cold and wet system from the south. 2006 was my first year in Korea. I told my students ‘December in Australia is hot. It’s really hot’. The day after Christmas I said to them “Umm … it kinda … *snowed* in some parts of Australia yesterday”. (Most snow is June-August, though. September-October is not unusual in some parts. The Blue Mountains lie just inland from Sydney. Three (?) years ago saw snow in the first weekend in Oct.)


      • I was persuaded to refer to LDB as “Carol of the Drum” by a drummer friend from church (we played together for years) who hated being called “The Little Drummer Boy” as a youth. Whether it fits the definition of a carol is something I never looked into. As far as whether it’s the worst Christmas song ever, you can find such claims for any song if you search for ” criticism”, I wager. I have my own list of personal unfavorites, but out of charity I will refrain from sharing them.


  4. That controversy sounds like it was initiated by a Jehovah’s Witnesses family (aren’t they the ones who don’t believe in singing about Christmas?). And I read lots of this on the choral conductor mailing lists I used to subscribe to. But there’s also, in the US, a First Amendment issue as a public school is not supposed to do things that expressly are religious, so celebrating Jesus or the Maccabees would technically fall afoul of that limitation, though few people would actually object on that basis considering the backlash that would generate.

    When I was in elementary (public) school one of the teachers would regularly read from the 23rd Psalm during assemblies. We also sang the last verse of “America” (Our Father’s God to Thee … Praise God our King) instead of the usual first verse (My country ’tis of thee) that everyone else did. No idea why. Anyway, I never gave it much thought at the time, but on reflection it was a flagrant violation of church-state separation.


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