(RNS) — Mary, did you know … how that perennially divisive song got made about you?
Many people don’t know the stories behind their favorite Christmas carols, it turns out. That’s where Hark! The Stories Behind Our Favorite Christmas Carols comes in. The new podcast produced by Jesuit-owned America Media and hosted by Maggi Van Dorn explores the meaning and making of some of the best-known and most-loved Christmas carols.
Van Dorn, the audio producer at America Media, describes herself as a “big consumer of podcasts” and said the idea for Hark! was inspired by another one of her favorites: Song Exploder, a podcast in which musicians take apart their songs and explain how they were made. She thought it would be interesting to apply the same idea to hymns and other church music. The only problem: Many of those songs were written decades or even centuries ago and their composers have since passed away.
So, she turned to the musicians, composers, musicologists, biblical scholars, theologians, and cultural commentators studying and performing their music today. And, as the holiday season approached, she realized Christmas carols were “almost a slam dunk” for a podcast.
“Of all the church songs and hymns, these are the most popular, and if you don’t go to church, even if you’re not a religious person, you probably still grew up singing Christmas carols and might enjoy a few today,” Van Dorn said.
They also are packed with theology and history that even the most regular churchgoers may not know.
Take “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” for instance. The tune and lyrics to what is now the most published Christmas carol actually developed independently of each other, Van Dorn said she learned in making the podcast. It began as a poem written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, who founded Methodism. Later, the poem was paired with a tune written by German composer Felix Mendelssohn to celebrate the 400 anniversary of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press.
“Had it not been paired to Mendelssohn’s tune, it might not be the banger we love today,” she said.
“Hark!,” which released its first episode Nov. 24, is diving into a new carol each week leading up to Christmas. Its first few episodes have focused on popular hymns and church music, such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Discussions include the origins of each carol, its composition, and its religious and cultural significance.
Which songs will be featured in the future is being kept under wraps for now, Van Dorn said, though she noted there are clues at the end of each episode.
Along the way, the host has asked guests why they believe Christmas carols are so beloved, so widely known and evoke such strong opinions — including what can be classified as a Christmas carol and when it’s appropriate to sing them.
One popular response she’s received: nostalgia. Many people grew up listening to them with their families and have a host of happy memories associated with the songs. They’ve also passed into the popular culture — often covered by mainstream artists, featured on movie soundtracks and played ad nauseam in stores and on radio stations during the holiday season.
Plus, Van Dorn said, “They’re just really good songs.”