King's College Choir Cambridge
Most people who've heard it more than once or twice (sung here by my favorite choir) probably know the story, which those of us who struggle through the holidays would do well to remember. Here's the summary from the youtube site:
Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was a Lutheran minister in Eilenburg, Saxony. During the Thirty Years' War (1618--1648), the walled city of Eilenburg saw a steady stream of refugees pour through its gates. Eight hundred of the 1000 homes in the city were destroyed by passing armies. Famine and plague were rampant. During the year 1638 eight thousand people died, including the pastor's wife. There was a tremendous strain on the pastors who had to conduct dozens of funerals daily. Finally, the pastors, too, died, and Rinkart was the only one left - doing 40 - 50 funerals a day. When the Swedes demanded a huge ransom, Rinkart left the safety of the walls to plead for mercy. The Swedish commander, impressed by his faith and courage, lowered his demands. Soon afterward, the war ended, and Rinkart wrote this hymn (based on Ecclesiasticus 50:22-24) for a service of thanksgiving for the end of the war. It is a testament to his enduring faith that after such misery he was able to write a hymn of abiding trust and gratitude that is still known and sung in many languages by Christians all over the world.