It’s that special time of year again when holiday music dominates the airwaves, stores, elevators and just about any other place you can think of — all to get us in the proper spirit to enjoy friends and family (not to mention shopping!). Here are the stories behind a dozen of the best-loved songs of the season:
1. Deck the Halls. One of the first Christmas carols, this is based on a Welsh melody from the sixteenth century, with lyrics added in 1862. Check it out here.
2. O Come All Ye Faithful. No one is really sure who wrote this! The oldest known manuscript is dated 1751 but the song may have been written as much as a century earlier. Check it out here.
3. Silent Night. This was composed by an Austrian schoolmaster in 1818. The melody that is used today differs slightly from the original rhythmically, and is also played at a slower tempo. Check it out here.
4. Jingle Bells. Written in 1857, this was actually intended as a Thanksgiving song but became associated with Christmas music in the late 19th century, when it was often used as a drinking song at parties: people would jingle the ice in their glasses as they sang. Check it out here.
5. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. First sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934, this song found instant success, with half a million copies of the sheet music and more than 30,000 records sold within 24 hours. Check it out here.
6. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This 1949 hit by Gene Autry was based on the 1939 story of the same name popularized in a booklet distributed by the Montgomery Ward department store. Check it out here.
7. Little Drummer Boy. Originally known as “Carol of the Drum,” this was written in 1941 by composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis. The most well-known recording of the song was made in 1958 by the Harry Simeone Chorale … but perhaps the most unusual was Jimi Hendrix’s cover version — his last recording prior to his tragic death in 1970. Check it out here.
8. White Christmas. Think the best-selling single of all time is a Beatles song, or perhaps something by Michael Jackson? Think again. This classic, written by iconic American songwriter Irving Berlin, has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, half of them the Bing Crosby rendition … although he had to re-record it in 1947 when the original 1942 master was found to be damaged due to frequent use. Check it out here.
9. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. First introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis, but the Frank Sinatra version we all know and love was recorded in 1950, with slightly modified lyrics that changed the song’s focus from anticipation of a better future to a celebration of present happiness. Check it out here.
10. Blue Christmas. This was a hit for various country artists in 1950, but it was Elvis Presley’s iconic 1957 recording that cemented the song’s status as a rock’n’roll holiday classic. The King’s version is notable musicologically in that the backing vocals utilize numerous minor thirds (so-called “blue” notes) that act as a musical play on words. Check it out here.
11. Do You Hear What I Hear? Twenty years after “White Christmas,” this was another holiday hit for Bing Crosby, even though it was actually written as a protest song in the midst of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Check it out here.
12. Feliz Navidad. Written and recorded by José Feliciano, this not only charted when it was first released back in 1970 but then proceeded to re-enter the Billboard Top 100 in 1998, and again in 2017 — a rare hat trick! Check it out here.