It’s tricky trying to plug a Christmas book in September. But I did say I’d blog from the book leading up to its launch on Sept 15th, and into the festive season, so here’s everything summery that I can find…
It’s long-known that the media industry gears up to Christmas in August. As you’ve been enjoying time by the pool, a team hired by John Lewis have been faking snow and throwing loveable animals into it, hoping to pull on the heartstrings this December if accompanied by a plinky-plonky cover version of a song we used to like.
What’s less well-known is the summer origins of these Christmas classics:
THE CHRISTMAS SONG:
Allegedly the world’s most performed Christmas song, this was written in – and inspired by – the sweltering summer of 1945. Sick of roasting in the open sun, lyricist Bob Wells wrote four wintry lines about chestnuts and carols to take his mind off the heat. Perhaps he could (snow-)drift off into these words, of Jack Frost nibbling at toes, Yuletide choirs and kids dressed up like eskimos.
His collaborator, noted jazz singer Mel Tormé, saw the scribblings and forty minutes later – poolside – they had their song. Nat King Cole recorded it but knew he could improve on his first rendition, so insisted on a new version, with the now famous string arrangement. Shame about the ageist lyrics – excluding a Merry Christmas for anyone below the age of one or over the age of ninety-two. Tut tut.
LET IT SNOW! LET IT SNOW! LET IT – oh what is it again, oh that’s right – SNOW!:
The same hot summer of 1945, just up the boulevard (it was Hollywood), this snowy favourite was written. Dean Martin made it his own, with a voice as warm as mulled wine. But really it was written in a city far hotter.
Perhaps aware of the previous summer’s festive inspiration, Sleigh Ride was penned during the equally sweltering summer of 1946 – apparently again as a distraction from the unbearable heat. Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a Hollywood heatwave.
Even the best-selling song of all time has warmer origins than many think. Writer Irving Berlin never warmed to Christmas – not only because he was Russian Jewish, but because his young son had died on Christmas Day years earlier. While others were celebrating, Berlin was working, on the soundtrack for Holiday Inn. He normally wrote a song a day, but this one was something special. To remind himself of his snowy family mountain home back in Colorado, Berlin was inspired by the mild Hollywood December to write a song he knew would be a classic. He didn’t write musical notation himself, so told his secretary (who did it for him), “I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written – heck, I just wrote the best song anybody’s ever written.”
Its missing first verse gives it the warmer Hollywood context:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA
But it’s December the 24th
And I’m longing to be up north
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know…
(Hear it here)
When Bing Crosby travelled the world performing for WW2 troops, he’d be requested it even in the height of summer, to remind them of cosy home – he resisted to start with, then swiftly relented.
The song was also played out of season at the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. Operation Frequent Wind’s evacuation plan was triggered when American Forces Radio broadcast the code: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising…” followed by Bing’s song. The theory was that the enemy wouldn’t spot it as a Christmas song – but that those who ought to leave would be shocked at hearing it and race to the helicopters.
As for other summery Christmas nuggets, well, Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ was written in August, especially to cheer up working Brits in the politically and economically murky 1973 – making Britain’s first Christmas-themed Christmas number one.
Miracle on 34th Street was a summer film. I know. What? The film about an in-store Santa called Kris Kringle? The studio thought that no one would go to the cinema at Christmastime, so opted for a May release – and tried to downplay the Santa references in all the publicity. So this poster’s a tad misleading…
1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ aka ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’. It was so bleak that Byron’s summer break had to be kept indoors, so he challenged his guests to write a horror story: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, William Polidori wrote the first vampire story. Not very Christmassy… but the cold year meant thick December snowstorms and the end of the Little Ice Age, which were part of eight consecutive white Christmases for the young Charles Dickens, which meant that he associated snow with Christmas forever more – even though it rarely snowed at Christmas when he was an adult. And thanks to his snowy backdrop of A Christmas Carol, we think of Christmas as snowy to this day.
That’ll do. I’m all summered out. Can’t wait to talk about Christmas though…
Hark! The Biography of Christmas is priced £7.99, out Sept 15th and pre-orderable right on that link there.