“When A Child Is Born” — Johnny Mathis

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Photo by Rodolfo Marques on Unsplash

I’d always thought “When A Child Is Born” was a traditional Christmas song Johnny Mathis had covered. But it’s nothing of the sort.

Although it might sound like a long time ago now, “When A Child Is Born” was written in the early 1970s, not a couple of hundred years earlier at least, as I used to imagine. The song came together in 1974 when lyricist Fred Jay added some lyrics to an pre-existing tune which had been written just a couple of years earlier by the Italian composer Zacar.

“When A Child Is Born” is also one of those anomalies — a song everyone thinks of as a Christmas song, but which doesn’t mention Christmas at all. There aren’t even sleigh bells or a Santa booming “ho, ho, ho” in there for a Christmassy feel.

Yet “When A Child Was Born” was the UK’s Christmas Number One in 1976.

For a singer who’d only occasionally troubled the very lower reaches of the singles charts since coming to the public’s attention in the late 1950s with songs like “Misty” and “The Twelfth Of Never”, “When A Child Was Born” was an unexpected late-career revival for Johnny Mathis.

While he’d maintained his popularity among the fans of easy-listening music in the meantime with albums of standards and covers, recording a song which reached Number One in the UK charts was, I suspect, as much of a surprise to Johnny Mathis as it probably was to everyone else.

And while the song failed to chart in the US, never mind reaching Number One, “When A Child Is Born” has been firmly associated with Johnny Mathis in most people’s minds ever since becoming, alongside “Misty” perhaps, his signature song.

Fred Jay’s neat trick when he wrote the lyrics for “When A Child Is Born” was to take the well-known biblical story and make it a story for everyone, about everyone.

If you’ve been blessed with children, you’ll know that when that little bundle of humanity makes its first appearance in the world your world changes for ever. Your brain is instantly flooded with wave upon wave of nature’s most powerful chemical cocktails, creating stronger feelings of love for this small helpless person than you’ll ever feel for anyone else, including yourself…

Yes, there’s a nod to biblical imagery in there and “this comes to pass” is certainly the sort of expression you might well associate with a biblical passage.

But for all new parents, this is the story of their experience.

When your child is born, you have hope for their future. You swear to yourself that you’ll give your child everything you can, support them in any way you can, give up your own life for them, if necessary.

And a brand new chapter opens up in your life…a brand new morn, if you like…a chapter that won’t reach its end until your very last breath on earth.

That’s the power of the feelings that come to brand new parents in successive floods of nature’s most powerful chemicals when every child on earth is born.

I love the line “the winds of change whisper in the trees”…my recollection was that change come into my life more like a rampaging herd of elephants than a gently whispering breeze, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Every new little person on the planet has a special place in the hearts of the people who created them. And that goes on long after their baby grows up, leaves home, has a family of their own and perhaps moves halfway around the world, only to be seen in person very occasionally from that point onward.

But the feelings never leave you, as a parent. You don’t need to see your children to know in your heart that you’d give them anything you could — your own life if you had to — if they need it. You’d give them everything you had and more besides without question and without expecting to be repaid.

For a species normally wired for self-preservation above all else, that’s quite a shift we go through in the fractions of a second between a child being an intellectual concept you’d been looking forward to into a physical manifestation you hold in your arms…gently in case you break them.

You whisper in their ear that you’ll love them for ever, no matter what, even though you know they can’t understand you. And even though they’ve absolutely no idea what is going on, in that moment too, they know they’ve found someone who will love them for ever, no matter what.

They snuggle down into their blanket to feel the warmth of your body next to theirs. They know in that instant they’ve found the person who is going to look after them all their lives and love them more than anyone else ever will.

Most of us spend our lives trying to find someone who will love us unconditionally.

The truth is, we’ve known that person all our lives. It was the person who held us to their chest in the seconds after we came into the world.

We don’t remember the event, but we do remember the feelings, subconsciously at least. And a child’s feelings for their parents never leave us until our very last breath on earth either.

Yes, this could be interpreted as a biblical story, or the hope for a future messiah to come and sort out all the world’s problems.

But in reality it’s what every child who comes into the world does. They bring us joy. Longstanding family rifts are put aside because everyone can agree to put the needs of this new baby above their own petty quarrels. Everyone comes together when a child is born.

Humans are always looking for a solution to their problems “out there somewhere” in the physical or spiritual world. And I’m not knocking anyone’s faith or belittling anyone’s beliefs for a moment.

But the unrequited joy, the unconditional love and the peace and contentment we all seek has been hiding in plain sight all along.

It’s right there in the bond between ourselves, our children and our parents…a bond like no other…a bond that transforms the lives of all parties forever…a bond that nothing can sever, even if parent and child live thousands of miles away and rarely get to hold each other close and tell each other they love them the way they wished they could.

That’s the bliss, joy, love and hope at we’ve been looking for all our lives, and we’ve had it all along.

It’s been many years since I last saw my older children…my fault not theirs…but I’ve never stopped loving them.

Whenever I think of them, all those feelings I remember from the first time I held them close come back to me. I imagine I’m still cuddling them on the sofa, reading a book to them while they drink their night-time milk.

Those were the happiest times of my life.

There’s no greater gift the world can give than that tiny bundle of humanity who will love you forever. And there’s no greater gift you can give your child than to love them right back just the same.

Here’s Johnny Mathis with the UK’s Christmas Number One for 1976… “When A Child Is Born”…


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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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