What’s the Historical Background of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”?

Note the nicety of the double question mark, please!

Okay. If you’ve ever thought about it at all, didn’t you assume that this Christmas carol was along the lines of an old folk song? I certainly did, at least partly because the words don’t make a lot of sense—to me, at least. But when I googled “Do you hear what I hear meaning” I found something quite different, and rather surprising, about its source.

Here goes: First, it isn’t an old folk song at all, but one written in 1962 at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. I’m not going to go into that whole story but will just say that the world sort of hovered on the brink of destruction for several days in October, as the standoff between the USSR and the US continued over the sending of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles by the USSR to Cuba. These missiles were being put in place as a result of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by US forces into Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Castro’s regime. Next time the US might not make such a hash of things, so the then-leader in Moscow, Nikita Kruschev, decided to put some strong deterrents in place. In the end the USSR backed down and removed the missiles, with a lot of back-channel negotiating coming into play. The world breathed a little easier.

I was ten years old at the time and honestly don’t remember a thing about it. But there was very real fear at the time that this might be the moment when things reached a tipping point. In New York City the then-married songwriting team of Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker were worried along with everyone else. They had been asked to write a Christmas song but were having a difficult time getting in the mood to do so. Then a small event set the creative juices flowing. Here’s what Regney had to say:

“’In the studio, the producer was listening to the radio to see if we had been obliterated. En route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling. All of a sudden, my mood was extraordinary.’ A glimpse of these babies filled Noel Regney’s heart with poetry. The little ones reminded him of newborn lambs. Thus, the song begins, ‘Said the night wind to the little lamb….’”

Regney was a very interesting figure even apart from his musical career. He was originally from France and had been conscripted into the German army after the Nazis overran his country in WWII. But he didn’t just grin and bear it, instead becoming a double agent for the French Resistance and passing on intelligence about German strategy. In one case he led his unit into an ambush and was wounded himself. Thereafter he deserted the Germany army and worked full time for the Resistance until the war was over, at which time he came to America and began a successful musical career. (Remember the smash hit “Dominique” by the Singing Nun? He wrote that.) He met and married Gloria Shayne Baker, an accomplished pianist, and together they wrote a string of hits.

Even with the explosive popularity of “Do You Hear,” which especially took off after Bing Crosby recorded it in 1963, few people thought of it as anything other than a standard Christmas song. And the mention of “the Child” certainly places it within a Christmas context. There are clues in it, though, if you listen for them, that it has a contemporary framework, in particular the plea for people to “pray for peace . . . everywhere.” I had wondered vaguely if that line was a later addition to a standard text, when it is of course the whole point of the lyrics. And the line about the star with “a tail as big as a kite” has also puzzled me, but I figured it was simply a reference to the illustrations we see in which the lower ray of the star is lengthened until it actually touches the roof of the stable. When you know the context of the words suddenly that “tail” becomes more ominous: it indeed evokes the biblical Star of Bethlehem, leading the Magi to the Christ child. It also evokes a nuclear missile. It’s almost as if the song is asking, “Which one will it be?”

Notice how the slow build in volume and excitement mirrors the climb up from the inanimate wind to the king who has the power to proclaim peace. Regney and Baker said that they couldn’t get through the song themselves without tearing up. It was performed at Regney’s funeral in 2002.

Since Regney and Baker said that out of all the performances of the song they liked Robert Goulet’s version the best (mainly because of the way he practically shouted out “pray for peace”) I thought it would be nice to hear it: