Ah Christmas carols, how we love them. The gaiety of the festive season certainly wouldn’t be the same without them. Wouldn’t be the same without the halls a decking, chestnuts a roasting and good old Jack frost nipping at our nose.
To me a Christmas without carols would be like Thanksgiving without turkey or dressing–incomplete. It would be hard to imagine not hearing the sweet strains of Silent Night or White Christmas in the background while you do your holiday shopping; or the warmth of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as you bake cookies or get ready for the Christmas Eve church service.
Below are 10 of our favorite Christmas carols and holiday songs that have become near and dear to our hearts. They have brought us comfort and joy throughout the years. These are some of the stories of how they came to be.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
Believe it or not, this song was actually inspired by the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Written by Noel Regney with the music arranged by his wife Gloria Shayne Baker, it was written by the couple as a plea for peace during that turbulent time in history when everyone was anxiously waiting a resolution to the standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Says Regney in an interview “In the studio, the producer was listening to the radio to see if we had been obliterated, en route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling.” This inspired the first line of the song: “Said the night wind to the little lamb … ” In an interview years later, Shayne said that neither of them could personally perform the entire song at the time they wrote it because of the emotions surrounding the Crisis. Since then the song has gone on to sell millions of copies and has been sung by hundreds of artists including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Robert Goulet, Carrie Underwood, Mannheim Steamroller, Brenda Lee and many others.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
This song was penned by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine in 1944, for Judy Garland’s movie Meet me in St. Louis. It was felt that the first draft was too sad, and rightly so when you read some of the original lyrics:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York
Garland refused to sing it, saying that it would be cruel to sing those lines to a brokenhearted sister. After she protested Martin did a re-write which she went on to sing in the movie, and the holiday song has become one of our favorites over the years, sung by artists like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Sarah MacLachlan, Kelly Clarkston, Lady Antebellum and Michael Buble to name a few.
Of all the carols, this is probably the most wistful and melancholic of all. Written by Irving Berlin and first airing on the radio in 1941, this cozy little song went on to have an even deeper meaning because of the tragedy of the Pearl Harbor attack that happened just 18 days before the song aired. The following winter, the Armed forces played it repeatedly over the radio for the young American soldiers who had found themselves overseas during the war to remind them of home. It was said that whenever Bing Crosby traveled overseas to perform for the troops it was by far the most requested song, even though he had reservations about playing it because of its sad undertones. By the end of the war, White Christmas was the best-selling song of all time and held that spot for 56 years until Elton John’s remake of “Candle in the Wind” when Princess Diana died in 1997.
O Holy Night
This song was first written in 1847 as a poem by a local poet in France named Placide Cappeau. He later had music added to it by his friend Adolphe Charles Adams and weeks later the song was sung in the village on Christmas Eve. At first the song was well-loved and received by the church of France, but when it became common knowledge that Cappeau was a socialist and Adams a Jew, it was pronounced unsuitable for church services. The common French people loved it so much they continued singing it anyway. It eventually came to the U.S. through John Sullival Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War, and was published in his magazine, finding tremendous favor in the north during the war. On Christmas Eve of 1871, during the war between French and German soldiers, fighting ceased for 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day after a French soldier walked out onto the battlefield and sang three verses of the song, prompting a soldier from the German army to sing another popular hymn by Martin Luther. Soon after this event, the French Church re-embraced O Holy Night.
Over the years, the song has been recorded and sung by various artists including Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Mariah Carey, Celine Deon, Faith Hill, Josh Groban and Trans-Siberian Orchestra and many others.
This famous song was originally called “Tinkle Bells” and first appeared in The Lemon Drop Kid, the 1951 film starring Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. It was written by composers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (Livingston the music and Evans the lyrics) when they were asked by Paramount Pictures to come up with a Christmas song for the film. The inspiration came from the tinkling bells of the department store Santa and Salvation Army workers. Completely satisfied with the song, and clueless to the fact that the word tinkle also had another meaning, Jay happily went home and played it for his wife who asked him if he was out of his mind and went on to explain him the bathroom connotation for the word tinkle. Luckily (for all of us) he listened to his wife and went back to the drawing board. Since the duo loved everything else about the song, they simply replaced the word “Tinkle” with “Silver.” Over the years, Silver Bells has been sung over the airwaves by artists such as Dean Martin, Perry Como, Jim Reeves, Johnny Mathis, Martina McBride and Peggy Lee to name a few.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
This song, composed by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon and recorded by Bing Crosby, was first released in the Christmas of 1943, and written from the perspective of a soldier serving overseas during World War II. When Gannon first pitched the song to the people in the music industry, they turned it down because they felt that the final line “If only in my dreams” was too sad for those separated from their loved ones in the military, but when he sang it for Crosby, Crosby decided to record it. One of the most touching stories associated with the song was that of the Battleship North Carolina. The chaplain of that ship, realizing how homesick the men were, collected $5 from each crew member who had children back home. He then sent the money, together with the addresses of the men to Macy’s Department store, asking them to buy gifts for their children using the money and have the gifts mailed to their homes in time for Christmas. When Macy’s received the money they were so touched by the gesture that they decided to take it a little further by reaching out to the families and asking them to come in to make a special recording for their loved one who would not be home with them that Christmas. It was said that the men aboard the Battleship North Carolina wept and rejoiced that Christmas day in 1943 when they saw their wives, children and loved ones appear on the screen, since Macy’s had videotaped each of their families sending them a Christmas message. While I’ll Be Home for Christmas was not written on account of this story, it very well could have been and it certainly is clear to see the sentiment that connects them. The poignant Christmas song, has also been also recorded over the years by Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Sara Evans and Kelly Clarkston, to name a few.
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
Also known as The Christmas Song, this classic was written by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé in 1945. Strangely enough, it was written during an extremely hot summer. The idea, according to Tormé was to”stay cool by thinking cool.” What first started as four playful lines penned by Wells , Chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping, Yuletide carols and Folks dressed up like Eskimos, scribbled on a piece of paper and not at all meant to be lyrics to a song, ended up forty-five minutes later- with the addition of Tormé’s music- being the famous Christmas carol that we now know and love, sung by many well known artists like Trace Adkins, Johnny Mathis, Martina McBride, Bing Crosby and Justin Bieber.
Even though this is one of the more jolly Christmas favorites, the story behind the song is anything but. The lyrics were actually written by Richard Smith while he was being treated for tuberculosis at the West Mountain Sanitarium in Scranton, Pennsylvania. As he spent long, lonely days in the comfort of his room, he daydreamed about what it would be like to be normal and healthy, living a life that would enable him to play outside in the snow like the children he was observing from his bedroom window. This inspired him to write a poem that captured the carefree, fun-filled, snowy day. He showed the lyrics to his friend and musician Felix Bernard in 1934 who, touched by the lovely poem, immediately set to work to compose a melody to go along with the words. Sadly Smith never got much of a chance to see all that the song would eventually become, passing away a year after its release in 1934; but Felix went on to enjoy the fame that resulted in the years following. The classic has been sung by over 200 artists. You can hear renditions of it every year by artists such as Tony Bennett, Elvis Presley, Barry Manilow, The Andrews Sisters, Michael Buble, Harry Conick Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald.
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
The composer and author of this cheeky Carol with the demand for figgy pudding is to this day still unknown. It is an English folk song from the 1500s and goes back to a time when poor carolers would wander from house to house singing Christmas songs to the wealthy people of the community. The line “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” was sung as a greeting to the household, while the lines “O, bring us some figgy pudding; we won’t go until we get some” was the call for treats they usually received as payment, and yes they would keep right on singing until they got them. It is said that the figgy pudding mentioned was once an integral part of the Christmas celebrations but has now seemingly lost its importance. The carol is a popular finale to many holiday events and is one of few to mention the New Year celebration.
This is one of the best-known and most commonly sung American songs in the world. It was written by James Lord Pierpont and published under the title One Horse Open Sleigh in the autumn of 1857. Pierpont, at the time, was hired as an organist at his brother’s church in Savannah, Georgia. It was there that he composed the song originally written for a Thanksgiving program. It wasn’t very popular when he released it in 1857. He tried again in 1859 under the new title Jingle Bells which flopped again. It slowly gained popularity over the years, becoming associated with Christmas rather than just a regular sleigh song which was very popular at the time among teenagers. In 1890, three years before Pierpont’s death the song had become a huge Christmas hit, and from 1890-1954 held a spot on the top 25 most recorded songs in the world. Over the decades it has been sung by many, including The Beatles, Gene Autry, The Carpenters, Louis Armstrong, Nsync, Nat King Cole and Barbara Streisand.
Which Christmas Carol is your favorite this time of year? And which artist sings it best?
Here is a link to some fun Christmas music quizzes
A treasury of Christmas songs and carols – Henry W Simon