Love them or hate them, this festive season, like every other, you will be hearing those tinny Christmas tunes just about everywhere you go when you’re not staying safely at home, that is. Shopping centres love playing them over a horde of speakers placed strategically wherever you walk. Radio stations will get in on the action, so chances are you’ll hear them while driving or working. TV specials are a staple of Christmas entertainment and include a variety of Christmas medleys.
On this list are just some of the more popular festive songs you are guaranteed to hear at least a hundred times, and the stories of when and how they were written.
10 You’re a mean one, Mr Grinch
This could be the tune for you if you’re not up for all the sparkly festive pomp and circumstance. The Grinch, introduced to the world by Dr Seuss, is a well-known hater of all things Christmas (much like Mr Dickens’ Scrooge). The character has been around for more than 50 years and its story began 10 years after the Second World War.
Theodore Geisel joined the US Air Force and during his time there was given the job of creating war propaganda and films on training. Geisel worked with animator Chuck Jones and together they created a cartoon called Private Snafu. Geisel returned to writing after the war and started producing the classic Dr. Seuss books (written under the pseudonym of Dr. Seuss). Geisel introduced the Grinch character in a poem he wrote in 1955 and then wrote “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” which was published in 1957. The Grinch was based on his own ill feelings toward how the festive season was being commercialized.
Geisel was very anti-Hollywood and wouldn’t sell the rights to The Grinch, but he trusted his former colleague, Chuck Jones, enough to sell the rights to him. The Grinch story was adapted into a 30-minute TV special. Tony Award-winning composer, Albert Hague, collaborated with Geisel to come up with the song “You’re a mean one, Mr Grinch” which included lyrics such as “He’s a monster. His heart’s an empty hole.” The song, sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, was sung three times throughout the TV special and his version remains the most popular to this day.
Since then the song has been used in a Broadway adaptation of The Grinch, and the movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas starring Jim Carrey that was released in 2000 as well as a host of other TV shows and films.
9 Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town
Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots wrote “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” in October 1933, and soon became increasingly frustrated at their lack of success in getting the song recorded and sold. Record labels had no interest in the tune and told the pair that the song didn’t have enough appeal to become successful.
They gave the song to comedian Eddie Cantor to sing to his radio audience in 1934 and the song was such a hit with listeners that Tom Stacks later recorded it too. Unfortunately, Cantor’s performance went unrecorded. Haven Gillespie eventually became a millionaire after the initial air play of the song led to droves of people requesting the sheet music and listeners going totally ga-ga over it.
Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town was recorded by a host of other artists but it hasn’t yet lost its shine. These include Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Sinatra. Today it is still used in films and is a firm favorite on radio stations and TV specials during the festive season.
8 Feliz Navidad
Whether it is Boney M. or Jose Feliciano singing it, “Feliz Navidad” is a Christmas staple. Feliciano didn’t have the best of times back in 1968 when he sang his own version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at a World Series game. He was jeered at for his Latin interpretation and people were screaming that he should be deported.
Fortunately, things turned around the following year when he won two Grammy awards for his album Feliciano! He took the lesson he learnt at the World Series game to heart however, and when he wrote his hugely popular song “Feliz Navidad” he included English lyrics alongside the Spanish because he knew otherwise English stations wouldn’t touch it.
His idea worked and the song remains one of the most popular bilingual Christmas tunes around the world.
7 Blue Christmas
Script and jingle writer, Jay Johnson, was on his daily one-hour commute on a train to New York in November 1948 when inspiration struck. While pondering the classic song “White Christmas” and other Christmas tunes, Johnson thought about changing white to blue and perhaps writing a song along those lines. He jotted down the first ideas about the lyrics for his new song that very morning, and his brainwave spawned the hugely popular song “Blue Christmas.”
When the song was finally ready to be released however, several Nashville recording artists who were approached to sing it, declined the offer. Hugo Winterhalter and His Orchestra took on the recording of the song and it landed him on the Top Ten chart for the first time in 1948.
By the mid-50s, the country music scene had latched onto the song and just about every country act included “Blue Christmas” as part of their festive show line-up. Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1957 and was annoyed when his producer wouldn’t allow him to sing it in a country style. Presley conspired with his musicians and backup singers to steer the rendition away from what the producer wanted, but this plan backfired when the producer, Steve Sholes, ended up loving the result. And thus, Elvis’ infamous version of the song was born but would only be released as a single in 1964.
6 Mary’s Boy Child
“Mary’s Boy Child” was written by Jester Hairston and first performed by the Schumann’s Hollywood Choir, but most people would probably only recognize the widely played Boney M. version. The song started out as a birthday party tune with a calypso rhythm and was originally written as a favor for a friend who wanted a song that would resonate with his West Indian friends. The original title was “He Pone and Chocolate Tea” and was never recorded.
Hairston was approached by Walter Schumann to write a Christmas song for his choir and Hairston rewrote the lyrics to the old birthday song. Harry Belafonte heard the new version of the song being performed by the choir and immediately sought permission to record it. He recorded it in 1956 and released it as a single that same year. Belafonte then became the first male artist of color to have a number 1 hit in the UK. When Boney M. recorded their version of it in 1978, it became one of the best-selling singles of all time in the UK and since has sold just shy of 2 million copies.
5 Happy Xmas (War is Over)
If you were to think that the song “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” was just another Christmas song, you would be mistaken. The song, written by John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, formed part of an international multimedia campaign the couple launched at the end of 1969, during a time where counterculture movements and protests against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War were all the rage. Lennon and Ono rented billboard spaces in at least twelve large cities around the world and plastered them with posters that read “WAR IS OVER! If you want it! – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”
To continue their campaign of social unity and peace, Lennon came up with the lyrics to the song in 1971 and became the first Beatle to release an original Christmas song after the band broke up. He recorded a demo in a New York hotel room and later brought in Phil Spector to produce the song. The song was only released in November 1971 after a dispute over publishing rights. It charted many times after peaking at number 4. After Lennon’s death in 1980, the song reached number two on the UK charts, behind “Imagine.”
4 Jingle Bells
One of the most beloved (and most played) Christmas songs is “Jingle Bells.” Children love it. Adults love it. Radio and TV love it.
“Jingle Bells” was written by James Lord Pierpont, uncle to J.P. Morgan. It was first performed at a Thanksgiving church service and wasn’t written with the intention of it being a Christmas song (as the lyrics attest to). According to research, the song became associated with Christmas many decades after it was written. There is some controversy over when and where the song was written, however. A plaque in Medford, Massachusetts, states that Pierpont had been sitting in a tavern on Salem Street watching sleigh races in 1850 when he wrote the song. Researcher, Kyna Hamill, refuted this by saying that Pierpont couldn’t have written the lyrics in 1850, because he would have been in California participating in the Gold Rush.
Another plaque in Savannah, Georgia, says that Pierpont wrote the song at the end of 1857 before leading a local church into a rousing sing-along of the tune.
In 1965, “Jingle Bells” became the first song played from space. Astronauts had some fun with ground controllers saying they had come across “some sort of UFO” while orbiting aboard Gemini 6 and Gemini 7. They then started playing “Jingle Bells” on a harmonica backed up by tiny sleigh bells for the entertainment of the ground controllers.
3 O Holy Night
“O Holy Night” has been covered by many artists, most notably Celine Dion, Patti Labelle, Ella Fitzgerald, Kelly Clarkson, Mahalia Jackson, and Jennifer Hudson. It is considered by many to be THE definitive Christmas carol, a must-listen during the festive season.
Its story began in 1847 when Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, a commissionaire of wines in a French town, was approached by his parish priest who requested that he write a poem for Christmas mass. Placide used the gospel of Luke as inspiration and soon penned “Cantique de Noel.” He was so moved by his own poem, he decided to rope in a friend, Adophe Charles Adams, to set the words to music. Three weeks later the song was performed at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
The song was embraced by the French church, but things quickly turned sour when Placide turned his back on the church and joined the socialist movement. On top of this, the leaders of the church discovered that Adophe was a Jew and considered this to be the last straw. The song was unceremoniously and unanimously denounced.
However, the French people remained enthralled by the song and continued to sing it. Ten years later an American writer too was enraptured by the song and decided to introduce it to America after translating it in English. It was a hit in the US and since then has been sung in churches all over the world during Christmas time.
2 Baby, It’s Cold Outside
This 1944 Christmas classic is the most controversial entry on this list. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has been blamed for the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and its lyrics have been torn to shreds as many looked for evidence that the song is about rape.
The song was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser and was intended to be a ‘call-and-response’ duet for himself and his wife which they were to perform at their housewarming party. In 1948, the song was recorded for the Neptune’s Daughter musical with the male and female leads labelled ‘the Wolf’ and ‘the Mouse’ respectively. This, for many, already alluded to a predatory situation in which a man tries to convince a woman to stay inside with him against her own wishes.
In 2004 a written piece for a humor column set the debate on fire. The article suggested that the song was an ‘ode to statutory rape.’ In 2005 a freelance writer wrote that the song alluded to ‘semi-consensual date rape.’ The controversy rages on to this day and flares up every year around Christmas when the song is inevitably played all around the world.
1 The Little Drummer Boy
“The Little Drummer Boy” is one of the most instantly recognizable Christmas songs ever written, mainly because of its distinctive intro. It is believed to have started out as a traditional Czech carol, called “Carol of the Drum”, and was translated to English in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis. Another version of the story says that Davis rewrote her own song based on the Czech lyrics and medley. The song was recorded for the first time in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers and further made popular by the Harry Simeone Chorale.
The drum rhythm that makes the song unique was never intended to be part of the song. It is believed that Davis wrote the rhythm to get the chorus to harmonize between the soprano, tenor, and bass parts. It was meant to be used during rehearsals only, but somehow was left in the song and picked up by those who recorded it afterward.
“The Little Drummer Boy” became so popular that a whopping 113 musicians have recorded their own version between 1957 and 2011. They include Bing Crosby, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M., Westlife with Dolores O’Riordan, Whitney Houston and Bob Dylan.