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Origins of America's favorite Christmas carols

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The composer of the carol, James Pierpont, was serving as an organist and music teacher at Savannah's Unitarian Church in Georgia, now known as the Jingle Bells Church, when in 1857 he copyrighted the song "One Horse Open Sleigh." But it's not clear when the New England-born Pierpont wrote the song. His hometown of Medford, Mass., also lays claim to the carol. What is clear, however, is that Pierpont made little money from the classic carol and died impoverished, despite the fact that he was the uncle of the wealthy financier J.P. Morgan. [Editor's note: The original misidentified the Jingle Bells church.]

Before visiting the Concord, Mass., grave of Katherine Davis, a Wellesley-educated music teacher, Clancy read the transcript of an interview in which Davis spoke about a tune she had running through her head "that practically wrote itself" in 1941 and that she titled "The Carol of the Drum." Eighteen years later, Davis was as surprised as the friend of hers who called to say:

"Kay, your carol is on the air, all the time, everywhere on radio!"

"What carol?" asked the surprised Davis.

"The Little Drummer Boy."

Davis's carol was becoming a hit, with a new title, some minor changes, and no mention of her as composer and lyricist. Able to prove authorship, she secured both credit and royalties, and, of course, a place in the pantheon of American Christmas carol creators.

Harvard University and the town of Cambridge are home to several carols. For example, the Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, wrote the words to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."

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