Backstory: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

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“Do You Hear What I Hear?” was NOT one of my favorite Christmas songs … until I learned the backstory.

To really understand “Do You Hear What I Hear?” you have to go back to 1942. World War II is raging. France has been occupied by Nazi Germany. A young Frenchman named Noel Regney is drafted by the German army.

Here’s a man who hates the Nazis and everything they stand for and he’s being forced to fight for them against his own people!

So Noel becomes a double agent. Even as he serves in a unit of the German army, he sneaks information to the French resistance.

One day, towards the end of the war, Noel Regney purposely leads his unit of the German army into an ambush.

It was what he meant to do.

It was a victory for his people, the French.

But when Noel saw his fellow soldiers shot down because of what he did–when he saw the death and carnage on the battle field that he had caused–he was horrified.

Noel escaped from the German army and he hid out with the French resistance until the war was over.

After the war, Noel Regney became a successful musician and songwriter. He eventually moved to New York City, where he wrote commercial jingles and TV theme songs.

He met a beautiful piano player named Gloria Shayne, and a whirlwind romance began. Within a few months, they were married – and they began working together, writing pop music, selling records, storming the charts.

By the early 1960s, Noel Regney was a highly successful songwriter. He had come a long way from the days when he was forced to fight for the Nazis.

But he never forgot the horrors of war. He never forgot that battle where he led his fellow soldiers to their deaths.

In October of 1962, Noel and Gloria’s record company asked them to write a Christmas song.

Noel was not keen on this proposal. He had never written a Christmas song, and he didn’t want to write one now. For him, Christmas had become way too commercial.

BUT THEN … 

The unthinkable happened.

US military planes discovered nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba—placed there by the Soviet Union—pointed at us.

Enough missiles to completely destroy the southeastern United States.

And launch sites being constructed–which meant more missiles on the way!

President John F. Kennedy set up a blockade around the island of Cuba. He declared that any attack by the Soviet Union would be met with “full retaliatory force.”

The Soviet Union responded by calling the blockade an act of war.

And just like that, the world stands on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

The US Military goes to DEFCON 2 for the first time in history.

Soviet and American ships are literally staring at each other in the water.

All across America people are on edge: They’re getting out of the cities. They’re loading food into fallout shelters.

They’re saying goodbye to each other.

And in the middle of all this tension, Noel Regney is walking home from work in Manhattan. Like everyone else, he’s stressed out – but for him it’s even worse, because he knows what war is like. He’s been there.

As he’s walking along, he sees two young mothers pushing their little babies in strollers. The babies are looking at each other, and they’re smiling.

In the midst of all the fear and anxiety and chaos, these babies are smiling.

Almost like they know something that others don’t.

Almost like they can hear something that others can’t hear.

At the sight of these babies, Noel Regney feels a sudden rush of hope. The babies remind him of newborn lambs. And these words come into his mind:

Said the night wind to the little lamb

Do you see what I see?

Way up in the sky, little lamb

Do you see what I see? 

And the song continues to form in his head, with the message traveling from the lowest to the highest:

  • The night wind tells the little lamb,
  • the little lamb tells the shepherd boy,
  • the shepherd boy tells the mighty king,
  • and finally the song reaches the crescendo:

“Pray for peace, people everywhere!”

Noel Regney rushes home and jots down the lyrics. His wife Gloria composes the music. The song is released and recorded in time for Thanksgiving.

And a quarter million copies are sold.

Since then, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” has been recorded by Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Glen Campbell, Whitney Houston, Carrie Underwood, Bob Dylan, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Rosie O’ Donnell (with special guest Elmo), the cast of Glee—and hundreds of others.

But Noel Regney said that his favorite recording is the one by Robert Goulet. Why? Because he practically shouts the line, “Pray for peace, people everywhere!”

Years later in an interview, Noel Regney reflected on the song and its backstory. He said to the interviewer,

 “I am amazed that people can think they know the song and not know it is a prayer for peace.”

A prayer for peace.

Yes!

Now that I know that, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is one of my favorites.