DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR? The Apocalyptic Birth of a Classic Christmas Song - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR? The Apocalyptic Birth of a Classic Christmas Song

Do you hear what Alexander Wallace hears?

It’s a song filled with vivid imagery, of wind and of stars and of kings bellowing orders to their subjects. It’s a song that has been covered by many a singer, most famously by Bing Crosby. It’s a song that has become almost quotidian in how ubiquitous it is in December, at least in the United States. On the surface, Do You Hear What I Hear? is your typical religious-themed Christmas song about the Baby Jesus.

But it was never just that.

Do You Hear What I Hear? was written in October 1962. The lyricist, by the name of Noel Regney, who was originally from France, had been drafted into the German Army and later became a double agent for the French Resistance. He was a man who had known the terror of war. As Regney penned the lyrics, his wife Gloria Shayne Baker wrote the music, inverting the roles in their songwriting that they usually had.

That month was not an uneventful one. On October 16th, an American spy plane had found Soviet missile facilities in Cuba (one of the giveaways, it should be noted, was the presence of football, or soccer, stadiums; Cubans generally play baseball). For an agonizing few weeks, the fate of the entire world hung in the balance; had cooler heads not prevailed, millions would have died. For the Communists, Fidel Castro was encouraging the use of the missiles; for the Americans, Curtis LeMay (the mastermind behind the firebombing of Japan during World War II) did much the same. (A small aside: For those interested in a good history of the conflict, I’d recommend One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs. For those curious about what the world may have looked like had the missiles begun to fly, I’d recommend Brendan Dubois’ fantastic novel Resurrection Day). That was the existential dread that permeated the time in which the song was born. Regney found further inspiration from seeing children pushed up and down the streets of New York during the crisis.

Neither he nor Baker could bring themselves to sing the song in full for a while, so intense was the sense of dread.

Take a minute and listen to my favorite version of the song, as recorded by Andy Williams:

Listening to Do You Hear What I Hear? with the knowledge that the song is ultimately a cry for help written in full view of a nuclear-tipped sword of Damocles creates a very different experience than hearing it without that backdrop. For one, the steady drumbeat that plays throughout sounds like the rumble of war drums that accompany missile launchers preparing to fire, warships at sea, and bombers readying for liftoff. The horns likewise sound like war horns, as two massive empires ready to blow each other to Kingdom Come.

As a Christmas song, it gives me further images, the most vivid one rather dire. I imagine a million nuclear-armed Stars of Bethlehem shooting through the sky like a deadly meteor shower, visible to all the world’s wise men and from all its mangers, bringing not a speck of goodness but a superabundance of light. These stars, high above the trees with the roars of rockets as big of the seas bring not salvation, but rather a new slaughter of the innocents.

Consider the line “Pray for peace, people, everywhere.” That isn’t the regular exhortation of Christian music; rather, it is a very direct call to the people alive in October 1962, to ask Providence to ensure that Kennedy and Khrushchev don’t blast them all to hell. That, ultimately, makes an already well-written song into something incredibly powerful. Do You Hear What I Hear? is a call for simple decency in a time of a very real danger that is beyond the merely indecent. It demands that human beings, and especially those with power, live up to the principles that underlie the Christian religion and human morality more broadly in a time that is dedicated to those principles at its core.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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