Christmas is heralded as one of the most beloved times of the year for many. For some it’s all about the hustle and bustle of the crowds in stores while shopping for the perfect gift for a loved one. For others their favorite part of Christmas is putting up the tree and decorating their house for the holidays. For many it is simply about spending time with family and loved ones. But whatever part of the season that you love the best, Christmas songs can be found at the center of it all.
Like it or not, Christmas music can be heard throughout the holiday season wherever you are whether you are driving in your car, out shopping, or watching television. Many start listening to Christmas music even before Thanksgiving in anticipation of the coming season. It’s a magical time of year marked by musical standards that have gone on to make Christmas a genre all its own. Whether you like traditional, pop, hip hop, rock, jazz, country, indie, classical, or dance you will be able to find a Christmas song to match your taste.
Although Christmas songs are considered some of the most cherished music by many, most of us don’t know the history behind some of the oldest and most well known songs of the holiday season. We grow up hearing them. We know all of the words. But what are the stories behind how they came to be written? I have compiled a list of seven of the most popular Christmas songs that are known and loved by many. Some of the stories are inspiring. Some of them are sad. But all of them have grown through the years to become an important and universally loved part of the holiday season.
Carol of the Bells
This song, though now synonymous with Christmas, was not originally written to be a Christmas song. Known for its signature four note melody, Carol of the Bells was originally a Ukrainian “well wishing” song which would’ve been sung during their New Year in April. It wasn’t until after Christianity was adopted and the Julian calendar established that Ukrainians began singing the song for their New Year celebration in January.
Originally written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich, the song was originally titled “Shchedryk” which was a loose translation of the Ukrainian word “shchedryj” meaning “bountiful”. The original lyrics told of a swallow which flew in to a house to let the family know that the coming year would be a bountiful one. The song became popular amongst Ukrainians during this time and eventually the Ukrainian National Chorus began performing the piece during their world tour.
The song was first performed in the United States on Oct. 5, 1921 to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall where it was heard by American choir director Peter Wilhousky. The song reminded him of bells and he decided to rewrite the lyrics which he copyrighted in 1936. Wilhousky’s version of the song soon became a hit in the United States and became one of the most loved and widespread Christmas songs after it was officially recorded in the 1940s.
This Christmas classic was first heard during a sad and unsure time for our country. It first aired on a radio show sponsored by the Kraft Company (which mainly attracted the attention of listeners in their late teens and early twenties) on Christmas Day 1941 – just eighteen days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The song’s slow melody and sad lyrics talk of missing home during the holidays, which many of the listeners on Christmas Day in 1941 would be doing the next Christmas while fighting overseas.
The song was the brainchild of an unlikely source – a Jewish man by the name of Irving Berlin who, for obvious reasons, never celebrated Christmas. In fact, his own Christmas tradition since 1928 was to visit the grave of his son who had died at the age of three. After the first performance of the song in 1941 it became an instant hit. During the Christmas season of 1942 the Armed forces would play the song over and over for the troops to remind them of home. When Berlin would travel overseas to perform for the troops he was hesitant to play the piece because he felt it would make the troops miss home and be sad. He tried leaving it out of his set but the troops begged to hear it – to which he obliged.
After the war was over the song went on to become the best selling song of all time. It held on to that position for fifty six years until the release of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” – which marked the death of Princess Diana. The original radio airing of the song was either lost, thrown out, or recorded over and the Armed forces recordings were played so much during that time that they eventually were worn out. The version that remains that has gone on to become a Christmas classic is the one recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942. It continues to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time.
Jingle Bells is not only one of the most well known Christmas songs but one of the oldest as well. Written in Medford, Massachusetts in 1850 by James Pierpont it was originally a winter song (not a Christmas song) called “One Horse Open Sleigh”. Pierpont penned the words for the song after being inspired by the one horse open sleigh races that were held on Salem and Pleasant Streets between Medford and Malden Squares. The music for the piece was written by Oliver Ditson in 1857 in a boardinghouse called Simpson’s Tavern – which at the time had the town’s only piano.
There has been some talk that the song was not actually written in Medford, Massachusetts but rather in Savannah, Georgia where James Pierpont later lived and served as music director in a church. But it is much more likely that it was, in fact, written in Massachusetts. Either way, the inspiration did derive from Pierpont’s memories of winter in Medford – that remains undisputed.
After the song itself was first published in 1857 it would still be years before it would catch on and gain any traction. Pierpont died in Winter Haven, FL in 1893 – five years before the first recording of the song (which had been renamed “Jingle Bells”) was preserved on an Edison Cylinder by the Edison Male Quartet. I think that he would be proud to know that it has gone on to become on of the most cherished Christmas songs nearly one hundred and sixty years later.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
In the summer of 1939, retail giant Montgomery Ward wanted to get a jump on the Christmas season so they began brainstorming ideas to develop their own Christmas themed book that would be distributed to children as part of a holiday promotion. The assignment was put on the shoulders of a copywriter for the company by the name of Robert May. He was just told that they wanted him to develop an animal themed Christmas story for the upcoming holiday season.
At the time that May was given the assignment he was going through a very trying season of his life. His wife had been diagnosed with cancer and the family was in debt because of her medical bills. Sadly, his wife passed away in July 1939 leaving May to raise their four year old daughter, Barbara. May’s boss at Montgomery Ward offered to give the assignment to someone else while May grieved over the loss of his wife but he refused the offer. Writing the story of Rudolph was somewhat of a welcome distraction for May as he struggled to cope. He decided on writing a story about reindeer not only due to their appropriation to the holiday season but also because his daughter loved to visit them at the zoo. The story of Rudolph was largely based off of May’s own experiences growing up and being teased by classmates for being small.
The story of Rudolph was finished in August 1939 and compiled in to a thirty-two page illustrated book that was distributed out to children visiting all six hundred and twenty Montgomery Ward locations that Christmas. A total of 2.4 million copies were handed out. It received rave reviews and the company planned to distribute more but couldn’t because of the paper shortage brought on by the war. After the war was over, however, they distributed another 3.6 million free copies to children. Though the handout was doing well Montgomery Ward didn’t really see it as being a “money maker” so they decided to sign the copyrights over to May in 1947.
In 1949, May’s brother in law, songwriter Johnny Marks, set Rudolph to music. Bing Crosby turned down an offer to perform the piece which was then handed over to Gene Autry. In 1964 a television adaptation of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was introduced which featured the now popular tune. The Rudolph television special has gone on to become the longest running Christmas special in history. And Rudolph himself has become an icon of the Christmas season.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good to be good for goodness sake.
These lyrics have become a focal point of the folklore behind the Christmas season. Written in 1932 by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots it was not initially well received due to many perceiving it as simply being a children’s song – which was not very marketable at the time. Coots was a writer for The Eddie Cantor radio show and he kept pestering Eddie to perform it on his show. Eddie Cantor kept turning him down but was eventually convinced by his wife, Ida, to give it a try (What could it hurt?). It became an instant hit and has gone on to become one of the most well known and well loved Christmas songs for many.
Written in 1949 by Honolulu born composer Robert Alex Anderson, Mele Kalikimaka is one of the most unique and fun of all of the traditional Christmas songs to come about through the years. The phrase itself originated in Hawaii in 1904. Christmas had been declared a national holiday by King Kamehameha IV in 1862 but native Hawaiians did not become familiar with the phrase until they saw it written much later in the Hawaiian newspaper Ka Nupepa Kuokoa.
As with any language, what we know as Hawaiian today has undergone many evolutions throughout time. The Hawaiian language is made up of primary vowels,has no r’s or s’s, and syllables do not end in consonants. “Merry Christmas” is a particularly difficult phrase to translate out in to Hawaiian so over time it eventually worked itself out to be pronounced “Mele Kalikimaka”.
Having been born in Hawaii, Robert Alex Anderson was a businessman who eventually went on to become a well known composer of what is known as the hapa haole genre – which focuses primarily on Pacific Island sounds. He wrote Mele Kalikimaka because he wanted to write something that would be representative of Christmastime in Hawaii. For this reason he strayed away from the traditional Christmas song writing themes which focused on snow and ice and instead gave Hawaiians a Christmas song that would reflect their culture and heritage – which includes a Christmas filled with sunshine and palm trees. The song was first recorded in 1950 by Bing Crosby with the accompaniment of The Andrews Sisters. It has gone on to become a well loved classic and is heard every Christmas by most every one thanks to its inclusion in the Christmas staple film National Lampoons Christmas Vacation.
“The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting on An Open Fire)
On a hot summer day in 1945 Mel Tormé showed up to a writing session with his lyric partner Bob Wells. Tormé let himself in to Wells’ room at the Toluca Lake House where he found a notepad sitting on a piano with some verses written out, starting with the phrase “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”. When Wells arrived Tormé asked him about the words written on the notepad to which Wells replied that it was such a hot day out that he had decided to write about Christmas a cold weather in an attempt to cool himself off. The “chestnuts roasing on an open fire” line was inspired by Wells’ own memories from childhood of vendors on the streets in winter selling paper cones filled with roasted chestnuts.
Tormé believed that Wells was on to something and he sat at the piano where he began to work out a melody. A mere forty-five minutes later the two had penned the entire song. They then called Carlos Gastel who at the time was Nat King Cole’s manager. They would then travel to Hollywood where they played the song for Gastel, who loved it. He eventually had them play it for Nat King Cole who would go on to record the song in the fall of 1946. It has gone on to become a staple for many Christmas music lovers.
These are just a handful of a vast amount of Christmas songs that have been written throughout time and gone on to become classics. I encourage you to research some of your own favorite Christmas songs to find out their stories. Some of them may surprise you.