Because Christmas is quickly approaching, most people are probably hearing Christmas tunes on the radio, and surely you heard them at shopping malls, churches, and holiday parties. You know every word they say by heart. But do you know where some of your favorite songs came from?
1. Silent Night
Silent Night was a popular carol during the nineteenth century. On Christmas Eve 1818, schoolmaster Franz Xaver Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr sung the carol in its original German (Stille Nacht) in the church of St Nikola in Oberndorf, Austria.
“Silent Night,” one of the most popular Christmas carols, has two genesis stories: one authentic and one fake. According to folklore, an Austrian priest requested music for the Christmas Eve ceremony, but the organ broke. He scribbled a poem quickly and had his friend Franz Gruber compose music that didn’t require an organ.
In actuality, the priest penned the poem in 1816 when there was no pressing need for it. He invited Gruber to make guitar music for him two years later, and they performed the song together on Christmas Eve in 1818. The song was originally written in German and was not translated until 1858. It has since been translated into 142 languages.
Its popularity grew over time (it is said to have been translated into over 300 languages and dialects), and it reportedly played a significant role in the unofficial truce in the trenches in 1914 since it was one of the only songs that both British and German soldiers recognized.
2. The Jingle Bells
“Jingle Bells,” though one of the most popular non-religious Yuletide songs, was not initially written for the holiday season. The song, originally titled “The One Horse Open Sleigh,” was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1850s Savannah, Georgia, and was intended to honor Thanksgiving.
A man named James Lord Pierpont wrote “The One-Horse Open Sleigh” in the 1850s. What is his motivation? To spend Thanksgiving in Georgia. According to other reports, Pierpont really introduced the song in Medford, Massachusetts, and the argument continues to this day. Regardless of where it came from, the lyrics changed when it was formally published in 1857. This is the more wintery form that most people are familiar with.
“Jingle Bells” cemented its place in history when it became the first song to be broadcast in space in 1965. On December 16th, the Gemini 6 crew broadcast a holiday greeting in which they claimed to see an “object” making a “polar orbit” across space and returning to Earth. They then performed “Jingle Bells” with a harmonica and bells. “You’re too much, 6,” mission control said in response to the unexpected serenade.
3. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Hugh Martin wrote this fairly sad song for the film Meet Me In St. Louis. Judy Garland sings it to her character’s younger sister, who is saddened by their departure from their village. Originally, the lyrics were substantially darker, with the line “Have yourself a happy little Christmas/It may be your last.”
Martin was convinced to make the song more upbeat by one of the film’s actors, and he omitted the foreboding phrase about imminent death. Martin modified the words once again for Frank Sinatra, adding the Christmas-appropriate line, “Hang a shining star up on the highest bough.”
4. The Christmas Carol (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
Bob Wells and Mel Torme were suffering through an excruciatingly hot summer day when they penned a song about winter to try to cool off. It only took the pair around 40 minutes to finish the texts and music… Chestnuts roasting on an open fire | Jack Frost nipping at your nose…
“Improbable as it may sound, ‘The Christmas Song’ was completed around 45 minutes …” Tormé writes in his memoirs. “We contacted Carlos Gastel [manager of Nat Cole and Peggy Lee], sped into Hollywood, and played it for him, then for [lyricist] Johnny Burke, and finally for Nat Cole, who fell in love with the song. It took a full year to him to go into a studio to record it, but his record finally came out in the late fall of 1946; and the rest may be called our financial pleasure.”
The image of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” was inspired by Wells’ youth in Boston, where there would be sellers on street corners selling paper cones full of roasted chestnuts during the holidays.
Nat King Cole was the first to record the song. It was 1946, and despite his label’s reservations, Cole recorded the song twice that year. He added a string part this time, and the song became an instant hit. Cole recorded the song twice more, with the 1961 orchestral version becoming the canonical version.
Cole recut the song with arranger Nelson Riddle in 1953, then again in 1960. This final version, with his voice at its smokiest, has become the undisputed holiday standard. The first line alone is one of the most memorable in the vast canon of seasonal music.
It wasn’t mentioned at the time, but Cole’s rendition of “The Christmas Song” marked the first time a black American debuted a holiday tradition. It paved the way for Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, and others to record their own versions of holiday favorites.
5. White Christmas
This Irving Berlin classic is not only one of the most well-known Christmas songs of all time, but it is also the best-selling single of all time. It’s debatable whether Berlin penned it at a La Quinta in California or the Arizona Biltmore. However, Berlin actually penned it while visiting at a friend’s house in Banning, California. It was early in the morning, and as he looked out the window, he was taken aback by the sight of snow. Before writing the melody for “White Christmas,” he jotted down the lyrics. While the song is best recognized for its appearance in the film White Christmas, it first featured in the film Holiday Inn. Bing Crosby also sang that rendition, which won the Academy Award for Best Song for the film in 1942.
6. The Twelve Days Of Christmas
The Twelve Days of Christmas, with its befuddling array of words, is the most difficult of all the Christmas carols we sing today. What are we to make of this bird aviary, with its swans, geese, doves, hens, and calling birds, and what is a partridge (strictly a ground bird) doing up a pear tree? The origins of the carol help to clarify matters. Historians generally agree that the verse began as a seasonal memory game. With each stanza, the list of objects or creatures grows longer, and penalties are levied for forgetting one.
But that still leaves us with the partridge issue. While the English partridge is a creature of the plains and moors, its French counterpart appears to prefer climbing trees. If the partridge is truly French, it would be referred to as “une perdrix.” Correctly pronounced ‘pere-dree,’ this term suddenly sounds eerily similar to that pear tree.
7. We Wish You A Merry Christmas
The customs revealed by this pleasant little tune are what make it intriguing. Wassailing and mumming were remained popular during the Tudor era, with carollers and musicians performing from door to door. It was a terrible mistake not to thank their hard work with food and drinks, especially the ‘figgy pudding’ – an early version of what we now call Christmas pudding.
8. Here Comes Santa Claus
In 1946, Gene Autry was riding his horse, Champion, down Hollywood Boulevard for the annual Christmas parade when he was inspired to create a song after hearing the masses of youngsters excitedly crying, “Here comes Santa Claus!” He gave his sketch to Oakley Haldeman (who was then in charge of Gene’s music publishing companies) and famed A&R executive “Uncle” Art Satherley. They finished the lead sheet and rushed a copy to singer/guitarist Johnny Bond’s house so he could produce a vinyl disc of the finished product.
Uncle Art had a martini drinking near the microphone while Bond sang Here Comes Santa Claus for the first time. The trio was inspired to utilize a “jingle bell” sound on Gene’s album after hearing the ice cubes jingling so happily on the playback! It was the first Christmas release by Gene Autry, a major commercial and creative success that paved the way for an unforeseen extension of his extraordinary career.
9. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Following the popularity of Here Comes Santa Claus, every songwriter on the planet begged Gene Autry to record their or her magnificent Christmas piece. He was given hundreds of lead sheets and home recordings, which he meticulously analyzed.
Ina Autry, Gene’s wife of nearly a half-century, was a woman of charm and sound judgment, and she was as well-liked by fans and industry insiders as the cowboy himself. When Gene passed on Johnny Marks’ “Rudolph” because he felt it didn’t fit his image, Ina pushed him to reconsider. She liked the phrase about Rudolph being excluded from “reindeer activities,” and she thought the “ugly duckling” concept would appeal to the young at heart.
Ina’s advice was as sound as it had always been. Gene’s 1949 platter became the Columbia label’s best-selling record. For several years, it resurfaced on the charts around the Christmas season, and the 1957 rendition for his own Challenge label was also a hit. Despite the fact that the lyric has nothing to do with cowboys or country & western themes, Gene Autry’s all-time best-seller is the simple story of the physically challenged reindeer.
10. Joy To The World
At this point in history, the majority of songs sung in European church services were Old Testament Psalms. Though Isaac Watts loved the Bible, he believed that singing these songs in their current English translations felt “unnatural.”
Isaac, 15, grumbled about “the horrible worship” after one Sunday service. “Give us something better, young guy,” one of the deacons challenged. He returned home and wrote his first hymn, and his love of hymn-writing remained with him for the rest of his life.
In 1719, he released “Psalms of David Imitated,” which was not a new paraphrase of David, but rather an imitation of him in New Testament terminology. Watts saw the Psalms as bursting forth in their full completeness. Joy to the World is an “impersonation” of the final half of Psalm 98.
11. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
This poem was originally written by Charles Wesley to be performed on Christmas Day, but it was not the version we know today. The original song was 10 four-line verses long, and instead of singing “Glory to the newborn King,” the lyric was “Glory to the King of kings.”
George Whitfield, a student of John Wesley’s, modified that line, and he was also the one who omitted the lines we no longer sing and lengthened the ones we do. The switch from “King of kings” to “newborn King” was a contentious statement at the time; the former asserts that the angels applauded God the Father when Jesus was born, while the latter implies Jesus himself was praised. This sparked a schism between these two men.
12. O Holy Night
Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, a local poet and wine commissionaire, was commissioned by a parish priest in a tiny French hamlet to write a poem for the village’s Christmas Eve mass. Cappeau read through the gospel of Luke’s account of Christ’s birth en route to Paris, and by the time he arrived, he had completed the poem O Holy Night.
Cappeau enlisted the help of a friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to write music for the poetry, and three weeks later, the song was sung in the town on Christmas Eve.
The hymn was brought to the United States by John Sullival Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War. He published it in his magazine after being moved by the passage in the third verse, “Chains shall he shatter, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all injustice shall stop,” and it immediately garnered appeal in the north throughout the conflict.
Despite being forbidden in France, the song remained popular among the general public. On Christmas Eve 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian War, an unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked onto the battlefield, and began singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est la solennelle or L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the song’s first line in French.
After singing the first three verses, a German solider appeared and began singing, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her.” “Ich bring’ euch good new Mar, Der good Mar bring’ ich so much, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” says Martin Luther at the start of a popular hymn.
Fighting ceased for the next 24 hours in observance of Christmas Day. The French Church soon re-embraced O Holy Night.
13. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
This upbeat music, written by James “Haven” Gillespie, was first heard on American performer Eddie Cantor’s radio show in 1934. But, for all of its hilarity, its inspiration originated from a place of loss. Ace Collins describes Gillespie as a vaudevillian-turned-songwriter who had fallen on bad times, both financially and personally, in his book “Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas”. Gillespie received the request to write a Christmas song for Cantor shortly after learning of his brother’s death.
He initially turned down the opportunity because he was too affected with loss to consider writing a lighthearted holiday song. But a subway ride back in time with his sibling and his mother’s warnings that Santa was watching changed his mind. He finished the lyrics in 15 minutes and then enlisted the help of composer John Coots to create the music, which became a great hit within 24 hours of its debut.
14. All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth
This sugary song is sung from the perspective of a child with a simple request, and it was inspired by a fleet of such children. Donald Yetter Gardner and his wife Doris sat down with a group of second-graders in Smithtown, New York, in 1944, to help them compose a Christmas carol. While the origins vary, they all contain a group of children declaring, “All I want for Christmas is…” Gardner was delighted by their toothless lisping, not so much because any of the pupils desired those missing front teeth.
Gardner claimed that he returned home that night and wrote the Christmas song that would earn him royalties until his death in the fall of 2004 in just 30 minutes. Performance of the song at his school led to a meeting with Witmark Music Company, which led to Spike Jones and his City Slickers recording it in 1948. Gardner quit his teaching career to become a music consultant and editor, and he subsequently stated, “I was amazed at the way that silly little song was picked up by the whole country.”
15. O Tannenbaum
This German carol is commonly translated as “O Christmas Tree.” Melchior Franck penned a folk song about the tradition of bringing a tiny fir tree into one’s home to adorn and sit alongside the yearly nativity scene in the 16th century, which inspired the first version of the song. This decorating custom, as well as its accompanying song, migrated from Germany to the United States with the emigrants.
Joachim August Zarnack revised the lyrics in 1819, and Leipzig organist Ernst Anschütz revised them in 1824. “O Tannenbaum” rose in popularity when Christmas tree trimming became fashionable in the 1800s. The song has appeared on several Christmas albums throughout the last century.
16. O Little Town Of Bethlehem
This devotional ballad, inspired by a pilgrim’s emotional Christmas Eve experience in the Holy Lands, relates the story of Jesus’ birth.
Phillip Brooks was a guy of great faith and intellect. He was a Boston-born Episcopalian preacher who had received a Doctorate of Divinity from Oxford, taught at Yale University, and actively advocated against slavery throughout the Civil War. However, he is best known for writing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” during a life-changing journey.
Brooks rode his horse from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in 1865, where he participated in the Church of the Nativity’s five-hour Christmas Eve celebration. When he returned home, this encounter had such an impact on him that he put it into the hymn that is still performed in churches today. Its first public performance occurred three years later, on December 27, by his church’s children’s chorus.
17. Feliz Navidad
Bridging two cultures resulted in one of José Feliciano’s most stunning tunes. He sung the lyrics in English and the chorus in Spanish for his 1970 release, finishing out the title phrase with “próspero año y felicidad” or “a prosperous year and happiness.” “If I had left in Spanish only, then I knew the English stations might not play it,” he told Billboard. “So I decided to write an English lyric.” Fifty years later, this cross-cultural classic had a greater influence than ever before, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard chart
18. Last Christmas
Last Christmas, a Wham! hit, combines a chirpy tune with lyrics that are deeply melancholic. They’re riddled with inconsistencies that center on the lies we tell ourselves to cope with rejection… Christmas greetings!
George Michael, who was 21 at the time, wrote and produced the song, which was recorded in August 1984 at London’s Advision Studios. He also performed every instrument on it, making it a one-man show.
In 2017, his buddy Andrew Ridgely wrote about the song: “We went to his old room, […], and he played me the introduction and the beguiling, wistful chorus melody to ‘Last Christmas.” It was an awe-inspiring moment.
The video for the song features the couple with girlfriends and friends at a ski resort, with several sequences shot in Switzerland. It’s also George Michael’s final appearance sans a beard!
In 1984, the song was released ahead of Christmas. With over two million copies sold, the song is the best-selling UK single that never reached number one. Every year, it returns to the top of the charts, especially following George’s untimely death on Christmas Day 2016.
19. Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Despite being released ahead of Christmas in 1971, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and its origins date back several years. The setting of the song is the Vietnam War and the 1960s counterculture, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were peace campaigners participating in the antiwar movement.
The United States had entered the Vietnam War in 1965, and the counterculture had grown more opposed to participation in the fight. During their honeymoon in 1969, Lennon and Ono became key figures in peace activism, leading antiwar bed-ins.
“Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” was released in 1971 as a holiday-season message of hope – but it was also a call for change, coming in the midst of the Vietnam War and just a few years before its conclusion. (War is over / If you want it.) The track reached the top of the charts around the world in 1971 and again shortly after Lennon’s death in December 1980.
The song’s start also includes “Merry Christmas” greetings from Ono to her daughter Kyoko and Lennon to his son Julian. Phil Spector collaborated with the couple on the production, and the Harlem Community Choir of 30 youngsters sings on the song and appears on the original record cover. On December 1, 2021, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” will be 50 years old.
20. All I Want For Christmas Is You
Mariah Carey, an American singer-songwriter and record producer, recorded the song for her fourth studio album and first-holiday album, Merry Christmas (1994). Carey and Walter Afanasieff wrote and produced the song, which was released as the album’s lead single on October 29, 1994. The song is an upbeat love ballad with bell chimes, backup voices, and synthesizers. The song has become a Christmas classic, and its popularity grows with each passing holiday season.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” was praised by critics, with The New Yorker calling it “one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon.”
The song went on to become a global hit, topping the charts in twenty-six nations including Australia, Canada, France, and Germany. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States for the first time in 2019, 25 years after its first release, breaking multiple records, including the longest road to number one.