The Twelve Songs Of Christmas
Surprising Secrets Of The Season's Most Popular Tunes
The holidays are 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 songs 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 also banned 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
"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
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
"Jingle Bells," 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
"Joy to the World," Isaac Watts and Lowell Mason, 1719
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."
"Silent Night," Joseph Mohr and Franz X. Gruber,
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
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.
"White Christmas," 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
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