Christmas Songs and Their Interesting History
Christmas songs are a ubiquitous part of our culture during the holiday season, but how often do you stop to think about how they came to be? There are some fascinating stories behind the development of the most popular holiday songs in the world. Read on to see if you knew any of these interesting facts!
“All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”
This ditty was written in 1944 by New York public school music teacher Donald Yetter Gardner. When he asked his 2nd grade class what they wanted for Christmas, he realized that the vast majority of them responded with a lisp through at least one missing front tooth. Later that day, he wrote the song in under 30 minutes. The song was published four years later after a music company heard Gardner sing it at a music teachers conference.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
When songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine first presented this song to be used in the 1944 movie “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Judy Garland said it was too depressing. That prompted a revision of the lyrics that continued on for years. For example, the lines “Let your heart be light, next year all our troubles will be out of sight” used to be “It may be your last, next year we may all be living in the past.” In 1957, Frank Sinatra didn’t like the line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” because it didn’t seem jolly enough for his soon-to-be-released Christmas album. The revised line was “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
“Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!”
Songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn most surely wanted some snow when they wrote this song during a Hollywood heatwave in July of 1945. The song makes no mention of Christmas and the piece is sometimes played in the Southern Hemisphere during their winter months of June, July, and August.
“Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”
Another song written during a heatwave was this precious gem. Mel Tormé and Bob Wells wrote the song in July in about 45 minutes. Nat King Cole made history when he became the first black American to record a holiday standard. He ended up recording two versions: in 1946 during the first recording session he accidentally sang ‘reindeers,’ placing a superfluous ‘s’ at the end of the word. Once the error was realized, he recorded the song again singing ‘To see if reindeer really know how to fly.’ The first recording is now a collector’s item.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas”
The oldest song on this list, ‘Twelve Days’ goes back to the 1700s, with the earliest known version appearing in a 1780 children’s book. Scholarly research indicates it was used as a ‘memory and forfeits’ game where singers tested their recall of the lyrics and had to concede defeat if they made a mistake. Lyrics used to vary, including the use of ‘bears a-baiting’ and ‘ships a-sailing.’ The ‘calling birds’ mentioned in the current version was originally ‘colly birds’ – an old-fashioned term meaning black as coal (indicating blackbirds). Additionally, many internet sources will tell you that the song is a coded primer for Christianity, with phrases such as ‘6 geese a-laying’ representing the 6 days of creation and the partridge in a pear tree indicating Jesus. This, however, is untrue: it’s a myth that has been perpetuated only in more recent years.
“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”
John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie came up with this classic as they sat in a subway car on their way to a music publishing meeting in 1933. In the winter of 1934, it premiered on Eddie Cantor’s radio show; Cantor’s performance (which occurred at the peak of the Great Depression) included verses that encouraged listeners to help the less fortunate during the holiday season. It was an immediate hit and received orders for over 30,000 records within 24 hours.
Perhaps the next time you hear one of these songs, you’ll think about them a little bit differently. Happy holidays to you and yours!
– Kaarin Record Leach