A church organ breaks down, and "Silent Night" is composed as a last-minute addition to a Christmas Eve service.

A minister journeys from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback and three years later writes a carol for his Sunday School children titled "O Little Town of Bethlehem."While office halls and shopping malls are awash in such holiday ditties as "Jingle Bell Rock" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" - musical confections as ephemeral as their tinseled surroundings - a Virginia artist has traced the origins of some of Christendom's most enduring carols in search of the true spirit of Christmas.

What Patrick Kavanaugh says he has found is that the hand of God has touched the composers of each of the timeless classics, sometimes when they least expected it.

"In a true classic, there is always a spiritual element. God sovereignly gives inspiration to a composer, and the work carries with it a quality that can't be explained in purely musical terms," Kavanaugh writes in the December issue of Charisma magazine.

Christmas carols do not have a long history.

The oldest Christmas hymn in the form familiar to us today was written in 1700, according to Jerry Rushford, a religion professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. "While Shepherds Watched" was written by Nahum Tate and set to music by Handel.

Prior to that, many people would sing psalms from the Bible. Hymns were considered sacrilegious by some.

"Silent Night" was born on Christmas Eve, 1818. When the organ broke down at St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf in Upper Austria, the Rev. Joseph Mohr had to come up with a musical substitute. He wrote out the words to "Silent Night, Holy Night" and asked his friend Franz Gruber - the village schoolmaster and organist - to set them to music, Kavanaugh said.

The two sang the song that night, with Gruber accompanying on the guitar. It was left to the organ repairman, Karl Mauracher, to set in motion the events that would lead to the carol's international fame. When Mauracher heard the song, he asked for a copy and shared it around the countryside.

The song eventually was sung at the Leipzig fair of 1831, where it created a sensation and would soon be known throughout the world, Kavanaugh said.

What makes a Christmas classic is not just the melodic writing or interesting harmonies, surmises Kavanaugh, executive director of the Christian Performing Arts Fellowship in Fairfax, Va.

"It has to do with the heart of the composer, the manner in which God desires to use the music itself and the world surrounding the music that God wants to touch with his love."