You’ve probably heard them over and over throughout the last month, and might even be dying for them to finally disappear again, but what do you actually know about Christmas songs other than the lyrics? Here are some fun facts about the carols you keep hearing.
The Man Behind The Music
While he hasn’t created every carol, no man has contributed more to the Christmas music genre than Jonny Marks, who wrote such classics as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Silver and Gold,” and “Run Rudolph Run.” Interestingly, despite writing so many of modern day Christmas classics, Marks didn’t even celebrate the holiday because he was Jewish.
His career in carols all started when he wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949. The song was based on a poem that was written by his brother-in-law, Robert L. May, for the Montgomery Ward Company. The song was also his biggest hit, selling a total of 25 million copies, making the album the best selling record of all time up until the 1980s.
The Best-Selling Single Ever
Because we might only listen to Christmas songs for a short part of the year, they often become some of the most enduring pop songs since they are a lot harder to get burned out on. In fact, the best-selling single of all time, with more than 100 million copies sold worldwide, isn’t sung by the Beetles, Michael Jackson or even Justin Beiber, but is instead by Bing Crosby. When you listen to “White Christmas” though, it’s easy to see why it has continued to sell so well throughout the years -Crosby’s classic crooning immediately sets the mood for Christmas, even seventy years after it was released.
Funny enough though, when it was featured in the film Holiday Inn in 1942, the song didn’t do well and was overshadowed by the movie’s other big hit, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” Within a few months though, the holidays were nearing and “White Christmas” started climbing up the charts. The melancholy, homesick vibe of the song only helped its sales, being as how it came out right during the middle of WWII, making it feel incredibly appropriate to both those away at war and those who stayed at home.
Think Christmas songs are too commercial now with Justin Beiber, Cee Lo Green and Mariah Carey topping the charts? Well, get used to it because that’s nothing new. In fact, two of the most widely celebrated Christmas songs were written for movies. As mentioned above, “White Christmas” was written for Holiday Inn, and the classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was first performed by Judy Garland in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, even if the more popular version was recorded later by Frank Sinatra.
Like “White Christmas,” WWII was part of the reason “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was so popular thanks to lines like “let your heart be light/Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” Interestingly, the song was originally much darker, but Garland and her co-star Tom Drake pushed creator Hugh Martin for a few rewrites to make it a little more cheerful. In fact, the lines above were originally, "It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past” –not quite as full of holiday cheer is it?
Hugh brightened up the lyrics even more upon Frank Sinatra’s request in 1957 and Judy Garland later re-recorded the song with the new lyrics, which is why pretty much any version you’ll hear now includes "hang a shining star upon the highest bough" instead of the original line "until then we'll have to muddle through somehow."
Think Cool Thoughts
Christmas in July sounds silly to some, but to many who live in warm climates, it can be a fun to at least imagine cool weather and holiday cheer instead of the reality of sweat, sweat and more sweat. That’s why a few Christmas carols weren’t actually composed during the holiday season, but instead during the peak of summer. “The Christmas Song,” better known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” is one such example. Writers Mel Torme and Bob Wells were trying to "stay cool by thinking cool,” during the miserably hot summer of 1944. When Bob started writing down things like “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” and “folks dressed up like Eskimos,” he didn’t realize he was even writing a song, but forty minutes later, the duo had created what was to become the most-performed Christmas song of the last century.
“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is another summertime Christmas song, as creator Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote the song while sweating away in Hollywood during one of the hottest days on record during July of 1945. As a San Diegian, I can relate to the longing for snow in the middle of summer
Image Via Christopher S. Penn [Flickr]
The Most Confusing Carol
The Twelve Days of Christmas is perhaps the one carol that people misunderstand the most. For one thing, people tend to think that the “twelve days” are the ones leading up until Christmas, but they are actually the ones after Christmas Day. Secondly, many people tend to think that the list reader is simply re-reading the gifts given the day before along with the ones given that day, but actually, the “true love” in question is actually giving all of those gifts mentioned for a specific day on that day. So, for example, the recipient would be getting twelve partridges and twenty two turtle doves, a total of 364 gifts. That’s why the Christmas Price Index that annually calculates the cost of all the gifts mentioned is so darn high –this year it reached $107,300.
More confusing than the context and the number of gifts though are some of the gifts themselves. For example, “four calling birds” are actually supposed to be “four colly birds,” and in case you’re wondering, a colly bird is a blackbird. Similarly, it seems strange that the gifter would jump from four birds to “five golden rings” and then go back to giving birds, but the reality is that the golden rings is actually a reference to pheasants –specifically the rings on their necks, not jewelry. That means all the first seven gifts are birds, which makes more sense, although that’s a heck of a lot of birds, especially by the time the whole song is over.
Image Via so_jeo [Flickr]
A Few More Fun Facts:
- "Jingle Bells" was originally written to be sung during Thanksgiving time, not Christmas. The song was also the first song to be broadcast from space, as Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra sang the song as a Christmas prank in December of 1965 after they told NASA, "We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit... I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit...."
- (YouTube link)
- In December of 1965, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell of Gemini 7 (they were in orbit at the same time as Gemini 6), requested NASA play them “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
- The “Winter Wonderland” line about getting married thanks to Parson Brown was once considered inappropriate for children, so the verse was revised to read “In the meadow we can build a snowman/and pretend that he's a circus clown./We'll have lots of fun with Mister Snowman,/until the other kiddies knock 'im down!” (By the way, a “Parson” is a travelling protestant minister who visits villages too small to have their own dedicated ministers.)
- “Up on the House Top,” written by Benjamin Hanby in 1864, is responsible for creating the idea of Santa and his reindeer landing on people’s homes before Mr. Claus heads down the chimney.
- “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was actually written by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missle Crisis.”
- The melody for “Deck the Halls” dates back to the sixteenth century and the original Welsh lyrics are about celebrating New Year’s Eve, not Christmas.
- If you sang all the lyrics of “Joy to the World,” rather than just the second half of Isaac Watts’ famous carol, you’d know that the song would be better suited to Easter because it is more about Christ’s resurrection than his birth.
- There is a sequel to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” titled "Grandpa's Gonna Sue the Pants Off of Santa.”
- During the WWI Christmas Truce of 1914, German, English and French troops sang “Silent Night” together because it was the only carol that everyone on the front lines knew the lyrics to.
- The original lyrics to “Silver Bells” were “Tinkle Bells,” but fortunately, writer Jay Livingston’s wife told him he couldn’t use a slang word for urination in a Christmas song.
- Gene Autry got the idea for “Here Comes Santa Claus” after hearing people whisper “here comes Santa” as he rode his horse in the 1946 Santa Claus Lane Parade.
If you still haven’t got enough fun facts about Christmas songs, then don’t miss Eddie’s great article about the only Christmas song to reach #1 on the charts.