Since it’s my mother’s favorite carol, my family sings it a lot. I’m happy to do my part to make it better known.
Actually, it’s not that old. The music first appeared only in 1905. The poem itself is only a little older. How much older is an open question.
Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881) wrote the words to “There’s a Song in the Air.” He was born to a poor family in western Massachusetts, but managed to go to medical school, graduating in 1844. His practice failed, however, and he took teaching positions in Virginia and Mississippi before returning to Massachusetts in 1849 as assistant editor of the Springfield Republican.
He wrote a series of influential essays and became editor in chief of the paper in 1862. Shortly after the Civil War, he published a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Later, he co-founded Scribner’s Monthly and became its editor. In the last decade of his life, he published three novels and three books of poetry.
Most writers on the subject say this hymn, titled “A Christmas Carol,” was published in 1872 or 1874. They don’t agree on just which publication. Some find it odd that, so soon after the American Civil War, the text doesn’t plead for peace like the only slightly earlier “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.”
I found a library catalog record for “A Christmas Carol: Song and Chorus” by J. G. Holland published in Boston in 1848. Only one library, Harvard University’s Countway Medical Library, reports owning it. If Holland dusted off an old poem and published it in at least one anthology in 1874, no wonder it contains no hint of the war!
The poem begins by juxtaposing a supernatural song and star with the apparent ordinariness of a newborn baby. But there’s nothing ordinary about a virgin giving birth to the King of the universe. The last line of each stanza asserts Jesus’ kingship. The text may seem overly romantic and sentimental by modern standards. But then, so do many other popular hymn texts of the time.
Karl Pomeroy Harrington (1861-1953) wrote the familiar tune. After teaching Latin at various universities, he became the Robert Rich Professor of the Latin Language and Its Literature at Wesleyan University in 1905. His father had previously occupied that chair. He followed in his father’s footsteps also as an amateur musician and hymnal editor.
Together with Peter C. Lutkin, the younger Harrington complied the 1905 edition of the Methodist hymnal. Harrington like to read poetry to relax from his labors. He found “A Christmas Carol” in Holland’s Complete Poetry Writings and immediately set it to music. He called his tune “Christmas Song.”
Lutkin and Alfred G. Wathall also set the poem. Lutkin called his tune “Kolding,” and Wathall called his “Stella.” All three versions appeared in the hymnal. Carl F. Crusius set the text with a tune called “Starlight” in 1921. Harrington’s setting is by far the best known.
Christmas classics: the story behind 40 favorite carols / David McLaughlan. Ulrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Pub., 2010.
Guide to the Karl Pomeroy Harrington papers, 1856-1981 / Wesleyan University archives
History of hymns: There’s a song in the air / C. Michael Hawn, Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Churcn
There’s a Song in the Air / Cyberhymnal
There’s a song in the air / Revolvy.com