12 Songs of Christmas: Surprising Secrets of the Season’s Most Popular Tunes
From chestnuts to carols, games to sleigh races, and loose translations to loose women, there are some interesting facts about the sounds of the season. Recording artist and commercial music composer Scott G presents some eyebrow-raising information about the most familiar and famous holiday music of all time.
December is filled with joyful emotions and honored traditions, including the playing of songs about snowmen, St. Nick, evergreen trees, and presents wrapped up with big pretty bows. No matter how you celebrate the season, you’ll hear these tunes on the radio, on TV, at the mall, in the office, and just about anywhere music is performed.
If you think the same songs are played over and over, you’re right, but if this bothers you, consider the alternative: Christmas carols were banned in England between 1649 and 1660. Oliver Cromwell, serving as Lord Protector of Britain, believed Christmas should be solemn and therefore banned songs and parties, limiting celebrations to sermons and prayer services.
Lots of holiday songs are festive, many have spiritual overtones, and all are played so often that they are familiar no matter what your faith. But what do you know about how these songs were created and the people who wrote them?
There are some fascinating facts behind this memorable music. So, toss a log in the fireplace, pour yourself a hot toddy or some cold eggnog, and sit back as we reveal the secrets behind many of the tunes you are going to be hearing dozens of times during December.
“The Christmas Song”
Mel Torme and Bob Wells, 1944
On a sweltering July day in Los Angeles, 19-year-old jazz singer Torme worked with 23-year-old Wells to create this beautiful tune. Full of wintry images and a charming wistfulness for all the delights of the season, the song became an enormous hit by Nat “King” Cole the following year. In Torme’s autobiography, he says Wells wasn’t trying to write lyrics but was simply jotting down ideas that would help him forget about the heat wave.
“The First Noel”
Traditional, 16th or 17th century
Some say this is a song with a British background while others insist it has French origins. So far, no one has any definitive proof. Two things are for certain: first, it’s very popular if two countries are claiming it; and second, counting the title, the word “Noel” appears in the song 30 times.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
Felix Mendelssohn, Charles Wesley, and William Cummings, 1739-1855
Wesley’s opening line was “Hark how all the welkin rings” and he protested when a colleague changed it. Wesley wanted a slow and solemn anthem for his song, but William Cummings set the lyrics to rousing music by Felix Mendolssohn (from a cantata about movable type inventor Johann Gutenberg). For his part, Mendolssohn specified that his composition only appear in a secular context, not spiritual. So both original authors’ wishes were thwarted in the creation of this glorious song. Meanwhile, Cummings became a co-creator without writing a word of the lyrics or a note of music, thus serving as the prototype for the Hollywood producer as well as most entertainment attorneys.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, 1943
The songwriting team of Martin (music) and Blane (lyrics) worked together for five decades, producing Oscar- and Tony-nominated songs. This hauntingly lovely tune was made famous by Judy Garland in the 1944 film, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” While the song is a bittersweet gem, the original lyrics were actually darker and not to Garland’s liking. Since she was a huge star at the time, and was dating the film’s director, Vincent Minnelli (she married him the following year), the changes were made.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, 1942
Gannon (lyrics) and Kent (composer) worked often together, but even with her three Academy Award nominations, nothing was as successful as this wartime song. By getting it to Bing Crosby, they were assured of big sales even though it competed with Crosby’s recording of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” The song is a perennial favorite, and appears often in films, including “Catch Me If You Can” and “The Polar Express.”
James Pierpont, 1850s
Starting out as a lively celebration of the Salem Street sleigh races, the song called “One-Horse Open Sleigh” made a fast transition to the more sober atmosphere of the church social and became known as “Jingle Bells.” While there are four verses, only the first is usually sung because of the lyrics in the remaining three verses. A woman named Fannie Bright appears in verse two, which also features a sleigh crash. The third verse displays an anti-Samaritan laughing at a fallen sleigh driver and leaving him sprawled in a snow bank, while the final verse offers such lines as “Go it while you’re young” and “Take the girls tonight.” Ah yes, just good clean mid-nineteenth century fun.
“Joy to the World”
Isaac Watts and Lowell Mason, 1719 and 1822
The words, inspired by the 98th Psalm, were written by Watts, a British pastor, preacher, and poet. More than a century later, banker and choral teacher Mason composed music for the piece but attributed it to Handel, presumably to make the hymn more popular. It took another century for the hoax to be uncovered.
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
Johnny Marks, 1949
Beginning as a coloring book written by advertising copywriter Robert L. May in 1939, the story of an unloved caribou triumphing over adversity was a promotional item for Montgomery Ward department stores. May’s fairy-tale was enormously popular, and became even more so when May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Marks, composed music and lyrics and got the composition to singer Gene Autry. That version sold 2 million copies the first year alone. While most of the other reindeer names were invented by Clement Moore in his 1822 poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” the hero of the May story was called Rollo. Wait, that name was nixed by store executives, so he became Reginald. Oops, that was rejected, too. Finally, May’s daughter suggested Rudolf.
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”
Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots, 1932
After countless versions by stars as varied as Bruce Springsteen and Perry Como, it’s hard to believe that Gillespie and Coots’ song was turned down all over town because it was “a kid’s song.” Even though Coots was a writer on the Eddie Cantor radio show, Cantor at first passed on the song, only agreeing to do it at the urging of his wife. Now it’s so successful there’s even a parody version by Bob Rivers (in the style of Springsteen) called “Santa Claus is Foolin’ Around.”
Joseph Mohr and Franz X. Gruber, 1816-1818
There are numerous stories and fanciful speculations about the origin of this beautiful song. Tossing aside the more lurid stories, we are left with this: the poem, “Stille Nacht,” was written by Mohr, who became assistant pastor of the St. Nicholas Church (really!) in Oberndorf, Austria. Mohr gave the poem to Gruber, the church organist, reportedly on Christmas Eve, 1818, and was performed that same midnight. Oddly, the first version did not involve an organ, but was arranged for two voices, guitar and choir. Both Mohr and Gruber created manuscripts with different instrumentation at various times from 1820 to 1855. The tune first made its way around the world as a “Tyrolean Folk Song” before gaining enough fame to be instantly recognized with its first two words or first four notes. The Silent Night Web page (www.silentnight.web.za) claims there are more than 300 translations of the song and features links to 180 versions in 121 languages.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas”
Traditional, 16th Century
Okay, let’s get the two most popular myths out of the way: the dozen days are December 26 through January 6, and there is no hidden religious meaning to the lyrics. It’s simply a song that’s also a memory game. Little brother sings a line, you sing two lines, Aunt Lucy sings three lines, and so on around the room. This passed for a good time in 1590. The “four calling birds” are another popular misconception. It’s actually “four colley birds” (or blackbirds). Besides the seven swans a-swimming and six geese a-laying, there are more birds in the lyrics than you might think, as “five golden rings” actually refers to ring-necked birds, such as pheasants.
Irving Berlin, 1942
Sometimes considered America’s most popular holiday song, Berlin composed it for a movie soundtrack (“Holiday Inn” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire). With its quiet power and elegant longing for the simple pleasures of the past, it was the perfect song for the gloomy months during the middle of World War II. Composer Berlin was not positive about the song when he first presented it to Crosby, but Bing’s confidence was well-founded. Spawning a movie of its own (1954’s “White Christmas” with Crosby and Danny Kaye), the song hit the Top 30 nearly 20 times and has now sold more than 30 million copies. There are reportedly 500+ recorded versions of the tune in two dozen languages.
Photo illustration by Phil Hatten Design.