Well, you've got me on that one as far as any absolute reference; I'll give my own explanation below. At first I vaguely thought that the year must be a historical reference, possibly to World War I. But of course WWI didn't start until 1914, so that idea was a non-starter, although Europe, particularly the Balkans, was in the middle of a spate of smaller conflicts in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Great War. There is
Which leads us to this particular poem. Its basic subject matter isn't groundbreaking in any way: The poet goes for a solitary walk on Christmas Eve, and he includes the year because (presumably) he particularly remembers his thoughts and impressions at that time. He climbs a hill and looks down into the valley where there are many villages, each with its own church, and he can hear the distant music of the bells. He's then reminded of the first Christmas, and the shepherds who also heard “music in the fields.” Here's where his poem departs from the conventional and expected, because he says that the shepherds could not tell whether the singing that they heard was the angels or the “bright stars shining.” You can see where he got this imagery if you look at Luke 2:9: “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Can't you imagine those men falling on their faces, blinded by that glory and not daring to look into the face of the angel? The sky had suddenly exploded into light, and they had no point of reference to explain it. (But they do hear and understand what the angels say, and as soon as those beings depart they very sensibly decide to check out the story and “see this thing which the angels have made known unto us.) To him also, Bridges says, the bell peals are “starry music.” His wording here challenges the reader to think about how we know anything at all about that first Christmas:
The singing of the angels,
The comfort of our Lord.
Words of old that come a-traveling
By the riches of the times.
What are “the riches of the times”? He must mean the long tradition of belief that has persevered since that first announcement, anchored by the written Scriptures that preserved the events of that night. Without those riches, our poet couldn't draw the parallels that he does between the music he hears and the music the shepherds heard.
The poem has been cut substantially and the wording changed in several places in the move from poetry to song, so I could go through line by line and point out the differences. I don't know that my efforts in doing so would really be all that helpful, though, so I will simply point out the following wonderful lines in the original that he wrote to describe and honor the actual bellringers whose music he's hearing as he tramps alone through the frosty Christmas Eve:
Who are ringing for Christ in the belfries to-night
With arms lifted to clutch the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above and the mad romping din.
(As I'm sure you'll be fascinated to know, the art of bellringing is called “campanology,” and that apparently dissonant and unstructured sound you hear when bells are being rung together actually follows a strict pattern. One of the greatest detective novels of all time, Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors, actually has a death caused by that same “mad romping din.” Only when Lord Peter Wimsey foolishly enters the belltower while a peal is being rung and is almost killed himself is the mystery solved.)
So that's the author of our text. What about the composer of the music? Well, he's pretty fascinating too. Lee Holdridge is still living today, aged 71, and has composed music for a number of films (including a Grammy-winning score, written with Neil Diamond, for Jonathan Livingston Seagull), TV shows (including Beauty and the Beast), plus concert works and arrangements. In 2013 he premiered his full-length opera Dulce Rosa with the Los Angeles Opera Company, directed by Placido Domingo, no less.
Since our concert includes a collaboration between John Denver and the Muppets for our selection “Alfie the Christmas Tree,” perhaps it will not come amiss if I mention that JD's performance of “Noël” is just mesmerizing. You may not be a fan of his, but you'll have to admit that his voice simply floats as he sings this piece; I can't tell if he ever takes a breath or not. You can listen to it below. Go on, you know you want to! And then come to our concert and hear us.