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For 24 holiday seasons, Christmas music historian William Studwell chose a Carol of the Year. He didn't just pick a song, he tackled its history with the zeal of an investigative reporter exploring who wrote it, what the song means and how it's changed over the years. Studwell could take the most familiar overplayed Christmas number and with his research make it feel new.

Well, the retired Northern Illinois University professor died earlier this year before he could deliver his 25th essay. But thanks to the help of others, there will be one last Carol of the Year.

From member station WNIJ, Susan Stephens reports.

SUSAN STEPHENS: Every year, just before Thanksgiving, newspapers, radio newsrooms and TV stations around the country would get their annual notification: William Studwell had proclaimed the Carol of the Year.

(Soundbite of song, "The Christmas Song")

Professor WILLIAM STUDWELL (Northern Illinois University): Now this song is interesting. Not only is it a song with depth, it has a claim - the Christmas song, not a Christmas song, the Christmas song.

(Soundbite of song, "The Christmas Song")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

STEPHENS: The songs ranged from "We Three Kings" to "Jingle Bells." His comments ranged from dispelling a popular rumor about "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to the untimely deaths of both the composer and lyricist of "Winter Wonderland."

Prof. STUDWELL: They didn't enjoy the financial rewards or the pleasure of knowing that they had written a classic.

(Soundbite of song, "Winter Wonderland")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

STEPHENS: Northern Illinois University official Joe King helped Studwell get the Carol of the Year message out for the past 14 years.

Mr. JOE KING (Official, Northern Illinois University): Every year, from the time you're a child, you sing these songs and they kind of just become part of the soundtrack of your life, and you don't give them a second thought. And then you would sit down and you would talk to Bill and all of a sudden, he would make you see it in a whole different way.

(Soundbite of song, "O Holy Night")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, holy night, the stars are brightly shining.

STEPHENS: It all started with a handwritten pamphlet Studwell gave family members four decades ago: the story of the song, "O Holy Night." They ate it up. And he was on his way to thousands of hours of research in libraries across the country. It wasn't unfamiliar territory for someone whose day job was as a library science professor and the university's head cataloger. Studwell turned his hobby into four books and dozens of journal articles. He made himself America's go-to-guy for Christmas carols. And Joe King says Studwell loved the spotlight.

Mr. KING: He wasn't one to brag; he wasn't one to rub your nose in anything, but he also wasn't one to hide his light under a bushel.

STEPHENS: This year, King received his envelope full of Studwell's Carol of the Year notes months early. And they were typed. Not the familiar handwriting made hard to decipher by Studwell's long-term neurological disorder, Studwell had dictated them to his daughter Laura from his hospital bed this summer.

Ms. LAURA STUDWELL: He did all the final edits and revisions and looked over everything. Took it back to his house, before I left, printed it out, stuck it in an envelope and mailed it.

STEPHENS: Studwell died the next day.

Christmas is especially difficult for Laura Studwell this year. Not only was her father an expert on the music of the season, he adored Christmas. The celebration always started Thanksgiving night, and it was a month-long whirl of decorations, huge parties, songs and presents. This Christmas Eve, she'll raise a toast to her late parents and play the song that just happens to be this year's Carol of the Year.

(Soundbite of song, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas")

Ms. STUDWELL: "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." I know it sounds cheesy because it's the 25th year, but I feel like it's kind of what he's saying to me. That he wants me to have a merry Christmas.

STEPHENS: For NPR News, I'm Susan Stephens in DeKalb, Illinois.

(Soundbite of song, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas")

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