The radio stations have turned the page on the calendar, and unlocked the cabinet of Christmas discs. At Radio 2 doing this Pause For Thought this week, I had a front row seat to popular beat combo Clean Bandit’s live cover of Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’. It has begun. Christmas songs are right in front of us.
So, as we play those festive classics for the umpteenth time, till at least December the umpteen, here are some stories behind ’em to wow your friends/co-listeners/co-tolerators. In chronological order…
- “WINTER WONDERLAND” – One of the first modern pop hits. Not that modern – 1934 – but while in West Mountain Sanitarium, Dick Smith wrote the song while suffering with tuberculosis, with a view of frosty fields for inspiration. He died the next year, before it became one of the first big Christmas hits.
- “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN” – …ever since the same year, 1934. Three years earlier, Santa had started advertising Coca-Cola, so it was all part of his new media career.Scholars still debate whether the definitive version is by Frank Sinatra, The Jackson 5, Bruce Springsteen, or Alvin and the Chipmunks.
- “RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER” – Started life as a colouring-book in the 1930s. Copywriter Robert L. May was asked by his boss at Chicago’s Montgomery Ward department store to come up with a jolly animal character, so he chose his daughter’s favourite zoo animal, trying Rollo and Reginald before landing on Rudolph. His brother-in-law Johnny Marks put it to music in 1949, and it was such a big hit that Marks dedicated himself to writing Christmas songs, including ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ and ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’. Meanwhile the singer of ‘Rudolph’, ‘The Singing Cowboy’ Gene Autry, was similar inspired, and created a new festive character to rival Rudolph: ‘Frosty the Snowman’.
- “WHITE CHRISTMAS” – In my new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, we zoom right in on the song’s debut, on Christmas Day 1941. Bing Crosby’s live Kraft Music Hall radio show was the scene, but the bigger context was that Pearl Harbor was just two weeks before, pushing America into the war. Bing took ‘White Christmas’ to the troops, and was partly responsible for selling the American Christmas to the rest of the world. ‘White Christmas’ had a significant role in a later war, serving as the warning alarm to leave Saigon in April 1975.
- “HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS” – Homely wartime reminders continued with Judy Garland’s performance in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis, though its lyrics have been changed over the years. The unfilmed original suggested this may be the listener’s last Christmas, till the lyrics were changed to cheerier talk of lightness of heart.
- “BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE” – 1944’s duet, dodgy sexual politics ‘n’ all, began as a party piece by Frank Loesser and his wife Lynn Garland, to tell guests it’stime to leave. When Frank sold the song to MGM, Lynn fumed as it was “their song”. A genuine marital row – how Christmassy.
- “THE CHRISTMAS SONG” – Allegedly the world’s most performed Christmas song, written in the sweltering summer of 1945. Sick of roasting in the open sun, lyricist Bob Wells wrote four wintry lines about chestnuts and carols. Jack Frost and co were intended to take his mind off the heat.
- “LET IT SNOW! LET IT SNOW! LET IT SNOW!”… The same hot summer, this snowy favourite was being written just around the corner.
- “SLEIGH RIDE” …was written in the also-hot summer of 1946 – yet another musical distraction. Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a Hollywood heatwave.
- “PEACE ON EARTH/LITTLE DRUMMER BOY” – Bing Crosby died between recording and broadcast of this song, filmed for a segment on his 1977 Christmas special with cameo by David Bowie.
- “DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?” – actually a protest song against the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- “STOP THE CAVALRY”… Another protest song that mentions Christmas – rather than a Christmas song, according to Jona Lewie.
- “HAPPY XMAS (WAR IS OVER)” – Soon after, John and Yoko’s protest against the Vietnam War (from their post- honeymoon bed-in) invited an eager press who thought they’d see some lovin’, rather than some love-out.
- “MERRY XMAS EVERYBODY”… Slade saw off Wizzard’s “I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday” in the glam war of December 1973. Noddy Holder wrote the song to cheer along working-class Brits amid economic gloom, creating Britain’s first Christmas-themed Christmas number one.
- “I BELIEVE IN FATHER CHRISTMAS” Borrowing from the classical world, Greg Lake’s 1975 hit used Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé; the same year, Mike Oldfield harked back 650 years for his new version of “In Dulci Jubilo”.
- “DO THEY KNOW IT’S CHRISTMAS” – The fastest-selling single in UK history, inspired by Michael Buerk’s 1984 news report on the famine in Ethiopia. Bob Geldof roped in Midge Ure, then bumped into Gary Kemp outside an antiques shop and asked him to join, and before you know it, you have a supergroup. Status Quo were meant to add their voices, but turned up hungover and couldn’t reach the high notes. Others, like Marilyn – and even Nigel Planer from The Young Ones – weren’t invited but turned up anyway.
- “DRIVING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”… Always the first song I play on my last commute home of the year, Chris Rea’s lift home from London to Middlesbrough inspired the classic.
- “MISTLETOE AND WINE” – Cliff’s 99th single began life in the musical The Little Match Girl: the titular character is kicked into the snow by middle-class baddies and ironically sings of the perfect Christmas she doesn’t have.
- “A FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK”… The result of a bet, from Pogues’ manager Elvis Costello, reckoning his band couldn’t write a Christmas song. The much-loved result draws on forties New York (the piano intro was inspired by Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in America, my own favourite soundtrack as it goes).
- “ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU”…A Christmas checklist of its own: part Nutcracker music box, part bouncy reindeer ride, a dose of Motown, a dollop of Garlandesque wailing, a few bells and whistles, all wrapped up in an unrequited Wall of Sound that says forget commercialism, forget the tree, forget the snow (in fact here’s a long list of all the things I don’t want…), I just want you.
Hark! The Biography of Christmas contains all the above and much more.
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