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The surprising stories behind top Christmas songs

Ever wondered about the backstory of “Carol of the Bells?” Here’s your chance to learn it

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Children dressed in Ukrainian folk costumes sing Christmas carols as they visit neighbors to mark Orthodox Christmas outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

Children dressed in Ukrainian folk costumes and carrying a symbol of the Bethlehem Star sing Christmas carols as they visit neighbors to mark Orthodox Christmas in the village of Pirogovo outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

Efrem Lukatsky, Associated Press

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, Christmas lovers can now play holiday music nonstop without controversy. It took just a few days for me to get used to hearing it as I grocery shop and get gas.

Christmas music’s recent return to public spaces reminded me of a great podcast I recommended in this newsletter last year. “Hark!” explores the little-known histories behind popular Christmas carols like “Silent Night.”

After a little internet research, I discovered that “Hark!” is back for a second season this winter. The first episode, released Sunday, investigates “Carol of the Bells,” which apparently has a more intriguing backstory than you or I could have ever guessed.

“In the case of ‘Carol of the Bells,’ that tale involves two music teachers, 76 choir singers, a political revolution and, believe it or not, a murder,” America magazine reports in its preview of the podcast episode.

I haven’t had a chance to listen yet, but I have been able to do some more reading about Christmas songs, which are quickly becoming my favorite thing to research.

If you want to be a nerd like me, I encourage you to check out these articles on the history of holiday music, the enduring popularity of group caroling and the factor that explains why old Christmas songs are more popular than new ones.


Fresh off the press

Although I haven’t written much about Christmas songs, I did have an opportunity to interview the director of the famous St. Olaf Choir in 2014 about what it’s like to spend the Christmas season leading high-pressure performances. His insights were featured in my story, “This is your brain on Christmas.”


Term of the week: “Sacred Spaces Act”

Lawmakers in Ohio are debating a bill that would increase the punishment for someone convicted of disrupting a religious service. The “Sacred Spaces Act,” which passed the state house in April, would make such an act a first-degree misdemeanor, according to the Ohio Capital Journal.

“The heightened penalties would apply within a house of worship or elsewhere on its property, as well as in a virtual gathering held over a platform like Zoom,” the article said.

The bill’s supporters have pointed to rising antisemitism to explain why the “Sacred Spaces Act” would benefit the people of Ohio. They’ve also highlighted situations in which abortion rights protesters interfered with religious services.

“The measure appears to be on firm footing. It passed the Ohio House 95-1, and 68 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors. It has also yet to pick up an opponent in committee,” the Ohio Capital Journal reported.


What I’m reading ...

A Missouri church was on the verge of collapse when it decided to sell its building and do something radical with the funds. It invested in a 22-year-old with a dream of running a community coffee shop and using part of her proceeds to help people in need. “Teaming up with (Olivia) Tischler and investing in the coffee house proved to be a godsend for the congregation, now known as Embrace Church. Rather than owning a building that was empty most of the week, they’re part owners of a thriving third space — filled every day with the sounds of conversation and friendship,” Religion News Service reported.

As surplus bison from national parks are moved to Native lands, tribes are looking to “reconnect with the humpbacked, shaggy-haired animals that occupy a crucial place in centuries-old tradition and belief,” according to The Associated Press. In the past, some Indigenous people thought of bison as relatives, teaching respect for the animal in rituals and songs.


Odds and ends

Forget Thanksgiving and Christmas. My new favorite holiday is the Monkey Feast Festival in Lopburi, Thailand.

The Associated Press recently interviewed two Lyft drivers on a religious mission. Two days after reading the story, I’m still wondering how I’d react if I stumbled into one of their “mobile Christian ministries.”