Christmas on the Radio – December 2017
CHRISTMAS ON AMERICAN RADIO
For many, the first Christmas song on the radio is a welcome change to the daily routine. It brings to mind a more innocent time. A time of wonder, of warmth, of childlikeness. Memories flood your mind. Suddenly the stress is gone from your daily commute, and you’re singing along to songs of joy and merriment.
And then it hits you. It’s nearly Christmas, and there’s still so much to do! The non-stop, heartwarming songs on the radio set the backdrop for an otherwise hurried time, helping minds and hearts stay focused on Jesus, the real soundtrack of Christmas.
When we think of the history of Christmas on the radio, we’re likely to picture a 1940’s family, gathered ‘round a lovely wooden speaker as if it were a crackling fire, huddled together with innocent smiles to enjoy the comfort of old familiar songs.
But Christmas radio has been the backdrop for many scenes, some of which may be surprising.
THE FIRST CHRISTMAS ON RADIO
In the early 20th Century, radio was neither comforting, pleasant nor musical. Listeners were accustomed to hearing the tap-tap-tap of Morse code transmissions.
But a Canadian child prodigy named Reginald Aubrey Fessenden changed all of that. Fessenden previously worked with Thomas Edison and was now inventing solo. He and developed around 200 patents of his own, including a brand new technology called “radio”.
In 1906, Fessenden “alerted the media” using his own voice, inviting wireless operators to tune in on Christmas Eve. The invitation was monitored and duly noted in Norfolk, Virginia, and the folks in Virginia and crews on ships within a several hundred mile radius enjoyed an unforgettable broadcast that night. Accustomed only to code, they couldn’t believe what they were hearing – a man’s voice in their headphones! As amazed listeners strained to hear the sound, Fessenden serenaded them on violin. O Holy Night became the first Christmas carol to hit the airwaves on the first produced (music and voice) radio broadcast – “superimposed audio” or “amplitude modulation” (AM) generated over a continuous radio frequency carrier.
WHITE CHRISTMAS FOR A BLACK DAY
In 1941, the unthinkable happened – the attack on Pearl Harbor. 18 days later, college age fans tuned in to Kraft Music Hall and Bing Crosby warmed their hearts with his rendition of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. In the shadow of the recent attack, the song took on a somber tone, and it was a memorable broadcast
One short year later, young American troops found themselves overseas on Christmas Day. Armed Forces Radio played White Christmas over and over to remind them of the comforts of home. It remains the one of the most popular Christmas carols to this day.
JOY TO THE WORLD: CHRISTMAS IN THE TRENCHES
Wartime was the backdrop for some of the most memorable Christmas radio broadcasts because it was, for many, their primary source of comfort. While radio remained off-limits to the general public during WW1, wireless technology utilized a short-range electrostatic induction system so that hospitalized soldiers could be entertained with music and news. And at the end of the civilian radio restrictions in 1919, military personnel fired up transmitters to boost the morale of the servicemen. On January 10, 1919, Ensign Sanford Lawton remembered the broadcast Christmas At Sea in his letter to his parents. He happily reported that “All of the latest music from the states was played over the wireless” as part of the festivities.
Christmas Broadcasts in 1940, particularly in England, were rays of light in an otherwise war-ravaged land. Christmas dinner was nearly impossible. Families spent their holiday in air raid shelters, searching desperately for the highly coveted “short Christmas tree” – one short enough to fit in the shelter confines. Instead of giving gifts, people were encouraged instead to give their meager funds to the war effort. Among most popular gifts were flasks, sleeping bags and “pretend gas masks” for dolls.
Home-made presents were popular too, as were second-hand ones. For working-class people ‘make do and mend’ was the norm. Dads carved sailing ships and dolls’ houses, whilst mums knitted with spare bits of wool and made sweets. Children’s gifts were also donated from other countries and charities. – BBC History
You can imagine the impact those heartwarming melodies and sweet words – broadcast so rarely but treasured like gold – had on wartime families. As Europeans made their homes in submarine-style bomb shelters, huddled together, there was the radio, broadcasting entertainment whenever signal allowed. BBC Radio broadcasted Kitchen Front, the King’s Speech and variety shows. They also broadcast a Christmas sermon from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. People were allowed to attend church, but bells were forbidden. Bells became a signal of an oncoming invasion, so no bells, and no heart-warming lights in the window.
MEANWHILE, IN AN SUV SOMWEHERE …
Bells, colored lights, Christmas activities, store displays, and seasonal music piped in 24/7 on your favorite radio station. What’s not to love about Christmas?
Isaiah said, “Comfort, my people.” Take comfort. The word for comfort here is also the word, “repent.” Jesus was born to bring comfort, repentance and subsequently, eternal life with Him. He’s the One who formed us from our mother’s womb, who has known us since the beginning. He forgives us, and cleanses us of sin.
When we forget that, we’re left with only trimmings and trappings hustle and bustle, followed by a dead pine tree and debt and a messy house to clean.
That’s why Christmas radio is as important as it’s always been, featuring songs that glorify God to the highest; songs that bring us closer to the One who came to set us free. Whether we’re in a hospital, in the trenches, in our cars or at home, Christmas is still on the radio.
And Christmas provides you with great opportunity for ministry!