The Apocalyptic Fear in ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’

It’s the nativity story, retold during the Cold War.

A Russian missile test in 2015 (AP)

Welcome to The 12 Days of Christmas Songs: an attempt to uncover the forgotten history of some of the most memorable festive tunes. From December 14 through 25, we’ll be tackling one secular song and one holy song each day.

When Bing Crosby or Robert Goulet or Carrie Underwood sing of “a star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite,” it evokes the biblical Star of Bethlehem, leading the magi to the son of God.

It also evokes a nuclear missile.

Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker wrote “Do You Hear What I Hear” in 1962, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in response to the existential dread they felt because of the Cold War. “In the studio, the producer was listening to the radio to see if we had been obliterated,” Regney once explained. “En route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling.” This inspired the first line of the song: “Said the night wind to the little lamb … ”

With this context, a carol that may feel like a classical standard suddenly seems much more haunting, urgent, modern. Not that it’s not haunting on its own. Like many a great Christmas song, it is one of call and response, and of dramatic shifts in volume and pitch. Each refrain begins with a question sung solemn and low, and then jumps up the scales for the answer. This creates a sense of size, of craning upward for revelation.

The lyrics are impressionistic, writerly, about a chain of communications between objects animate and not; I have always felt a bit frightened at the notion of “a voice as big as the sea.” The mentions of The Child make the song Christian, of course. But when there’s the command for “people everywhere” to pray for peace, the import is beyond any one religion.

Baker once said that because of the fearful mood of the nation at the time, she and Regney had a hard time singing “Do You Hear What I Hear” without crying: “Our little song broke us up.” There’s reason enough for it to have the same effect today, unfortunately.