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Jul 20

Music Notes: Origins of our favorite Christmas songs

Posted on July 20, 2017 at 4:33 PM by Elizabeth Land

Staff Note: Notes from the Music Staff is a series of posts discussing what the library offers music fans. From our widely varied collection of music CDs to our nonfiction and fiction books covering all aspects of music, we've got something for everyone and we want to share our love of music with you!

Now that local radio stations have been playing Christmas songs for weeks now, many people may be wondering just where some of these classic songs originated. We shared that “Jingle Bells” was originally composed for the Thanksgiving season in a previous Music Notes post, but many of the most popular Christmas songs have their own histories.

Listed below are the stories behind some of our favorite Christmas songs:

The Little Drummer Boy

Originally "Carol of the Drum," this song was written by American classical music composer and teacher Katherine K. Davis in 1941, based on a traditional Czech carol. There was a very popular recording in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers (from Sound of Music fame). In 1958, 20th Century Fox contracted Harry Simeone & his famous Chorale to make a Christmas album; he retitled it "The Little Drummer Boy". On tour in London 1977, Bing Crosby recorded it with David Bowie using a countermelody of “Peace on Earth,” which you can listen to on YouTube.

White Christmas

The most popular Christmas song of all time was written by Irving Berlin in 1940, in warm La Quinta, California, at the La Quinta Hotel. Berlin told his secretary, "Grab your pen and take down this song; the best song I've ever written; the best song that anybody's ever written!" Many credit the song's initial success to nostalgia in the opening lines, especially for soldiers away from home. What's not well-known is an earlier verse:

"The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North."

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This popular Christmas song is from the 1940 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland. Hugh Martin changed his original cynical lyrics twice to make it more cheerful:

  • "It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past" became "Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight."
  • "Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” became “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”.

I’ll be Home for Christmas

Written by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon in 1943, the lyrics are from the viewpoint of a soldier away from home during World War II. In December 1965, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell hurtling back to earth on Gemini 7, requested "I'll Be Home for Christmas" sung by Bing Crosby to be played for them by the NASA ground crew.

The Christmas Song

Subtitled "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" or "Merry Christmas to You," this song was written in 1945 by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé during a blistering hot summer in an effort to "stay cool by thinking cool". The definitive version is performed by The Nat King Cole Trio and was first recorded in 1946. It is the most performed Christmas song ever and has been recorded in English by over 125 different artists.

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

This perennial favorite was written by Johnny Marks and was based on the 1939 story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which was created by his brother-in-law Robert May and published by the Montgomery Ward Company as an ad campaign. The most popular version of the song was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949.

Learn More Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins

If you don't see your favorite song listed above, check out Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins. The book covers the origins of 36 different Christmas songs. From "Angels We Have Heard on High" to "Here Comes Santa Claus" to "What Child is This," Collins provides the histories of some of your favorite Christmas songs. The book is available to check out from the York County Library.

Just log on to our online catalog to request your copy today!