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Five Things You Might Not Know About Classic Christmas Songs

Posted: 12/10/2013 12:33 pm

For about six weeks at the end of every year, people everywhere are bombarded with the sounds of Christmas songs filling the air. The department stores play holiday tunes like crazy, and several radio stations go "All Christmas" for the month of December. Every song has a story, and here are five facts about some of your favorite holiday songs.

5. Wham! Got Sued For "Last Christmas". In 1984, the single "Last Christmas" hit #2 on the UK Christmas Singles Chart, a coveted spot for European artists. It lost the #1 spot to Band-Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" charity song for African famine, but was still the biggest selling UK single at the time to not reach #1. An enormous hit, still covered by artists to this day, "Last Christmas" sounded familiar to Arnold/Martin/Morrow, the songwriting team behind "Can't Smile Without You", a huge hit song for Barry Manilow in the late 70s. The publishing company behind "Can't Smile" sued George Michael (songwriter of "Last Christmas") for using the same melody, and the case was settled out of court, with the money going to the Band-Aid charity.

4. "Have Yourself..." Was a Depressing Little Christmas Song. In 1944, Judy Garland sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in the movie Meet Me In St. Louis, introducing the world to an instant holiday classic. When Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane originally wrote the song, however, the lyrics were quite different than the song everyone has come to know and love. The opening lyrics to the song originally were "Have yourself a merry, little Christmas/It may be your last". Considering that the song was being sung by a mother to her daughter, these lyrics were, needless to say, a tad bit depressing. Other lyrics about how the new year is going to essentially be miserable ("faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us no more") were also removed. Also excised was the word "Lord", replaced by "Fates", to make the song more secular. The changes helped the song, apparently, since the it has become one of the top five most-recorded Christmas songs in history.

3. We Almost Had Tinkle In Our "Silver Bells". Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote the 1950 Christmas song "Silver Bells" as a reference to the Salvation Army, whose workers stand on street corners every Christmas and ring hand bells while seeking donations. The song is noteworthy for being one of the first Christmas songs to focus on city life, and not the rural Christmas setting popularized in many holiday songs. When they originally wrote the song, however, Livingston and Evans wrote the title and chorus as "Tinkle Bells". They thought of the tinkling sound they heard coming from the street corner bellringers. When Livingston's wife heard their original idea, she informed her husband how people were most-commonly using the word "tinkle" those days. Rather than let this bad news pee on their parade, Livinston and Evans changed the name and chorus to "Silver Bells", sparing themselves embarrassment and giving the world one of the greatest Christmas songs ever written.

2. A Heat Wave Inspired Some Chestnut Roasting. 1944's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" became a huge hit for singer/songwriter Mel Torme and his writing partner Bob Wells. The Nat King Cole version of the song is called by most the definitive version of the song and easily was the biggest success of Cole's career. Since then, it has become one of the most-recorded Christmas songs in history, and it all began in the middle of July. During what was a blisteringly hot summer, co-writer Wells was hating the heat and dreaming of cooler days, still months away. He wrote down things on a notepad to make him feel cooler ("chestnuts", "Jack Frost"). From there, it took less than an hour in the middle of summertime for the two men to write one of the most beloved wintertime classics of all time.

1. "White Christmas" Beats Everybody. In 1941, when Bing Crosby recorded and released the song "White Christmas", he didn't think anything was terribly special about it. He told Irving Berlin, the song's composer, that he thought it was a fine song with "no problems". He also thought that anyone could have made the song popular and downplayed his role in its success. The song didn't perform that well when it was initially released (for the movie Holiday Inn) but suddenly took off a year later. It charted numerous times over the next several years and was one reason Billboard magazine created a chart just for Christmas songs. It's not only the most popular Christmas song ever recorded, it's the biggest-selling single ever made. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as such and Crosby's version alone has sold over 50 million copies worldwide.

Christmas songs are enormously popular, otherwise people wouldn't keep writing them, re-writing them, and re-recording them every single year. Artists from Mariah Carey to Manheim Steamroller have become millionaires based on their Christmas songs alone. As new songs come along, so will new stories and legends to be told about each of them. What are some of your favorite Christmas songs?

Ward Anderson is a comedian, author, and one-half of the talk radio program "Ward and Al", which is heard weekdays on SiriusXM satellite radio. His first novel, I'll Be Here All Week, will be released in May, 2014.

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  • Bing Crosby / David Bowie - "The Little Drummer Boy / Peace On Earth"

    At first glance, the pairing of traditional crooner Bing Crosby with the man behind Ziggy Stardust might seem like the ultimate odd couple especially considering Bowie was in the midst of the prolific Berlin phase of his career. In England to film his 1977 special "Merrie Olde Christmas," Bowie was enlisted to appear in the special. It is reported that Bowie was hesitant to perform "The Little Drummer Boy" and so the show's producers wrote "Peace On Earth" in a mere 75 minutes.

  • The Pogues (ft Kirsty MacColl) - "Fairytale Of New York"

    Undoubtedly one of The Pogues best-known songs, 'Fairytale Of New York" has also come to represent a seasonal favourite among music fans. The 1987 single, a duet between Pogues vocalist Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl, has proven its appeal year after year in the two and a half decades since its release. The song consistently re-enters the charts at this time of year and would earn the No. 1 position of VH1's Greatest Christmas Song Chart in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

  • Band Aid - "Do They Know It's Christmas"

    In 1984, after seeing a news report of highlighting a famine that was gripping Ethiopia, Ultravox’s Midge Ure and the Boomtown Rats Bob Geldof teamed up and wrote this song with the intention of releasing it as a benefit single. The song was rushed to market; only four days passed between the time the song was recorded to the time of its release. The track, featuring some of the biggest pop stars from England and Ireland at the time, sold more than one million copies during the first week of release.

  • John Lennon - "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)"

    There are times that the origins of songs that people associate with the holidays are not rooted in the Christmas spirit at all. Take this 1971 single from the late John Lennon: The song was originally conceived as a protest song against the Vietnam War. Produced by the eccentric Phil Spector, Lennon enlisted the help of The Harlem Community Choir to help fill out the song’s chorus.

  • The Beach Boys - "Little Saint Nick"

    First released in December 1963, in the shadow of the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy, this holiday favourite from California's Beach Boys borrowed heavily from their hit single "Little Deuce Coupe." Clocking in at just under two minutes, The Beach Boys' knack for melody and impeccable vocal harmonies help make the song one of the best original (i.e: non-traditional) holiday tracks of the last century.

  • Chuck Berry - "Run Rudolph Run"

    The Beach Boys weren't the only act to look towards their own catalogue to find musical inspiration for holiday material. Chuck Berry's upbeat and bluesy "Run Rudolph Run" bears a striking resemblance to the guitarist's "Johnny B. Goode," bearing many of the same sonic hallmarks of his previous hit.

  • Booker T & The MG's - "Jingle Bells"

    Some things are better left unsaid. Or in the case of legendary group Booker T & The MG's, some things are better left unsung. With fairly minimal instrumental backing, Booker T. Jones' organ handles the vocal line melodies, helping the track fluidly bounce along. I dare you to try to keep your toes from tapping along to the group's upbeat take on this Christmas classic.

  • Bing Crosby - "White Christmas"

    The only musician to appear in this Top 20 more than once, Bing Crosby's version of this Christmas classic is positively stunning. Listeners are treated to Crosby's rich baritone vocals while a selection of strings lushly provide background accompaniment. Crosby performed the song publicly for the first time on his radio show on Christmas Day, 1941.

  • Jose Feliciano - "Feliz Navidad"

    While "Sesame Street" might have been instrumental in helping children learn the basics of speaking Spanish, it was Puerto Rico's Jose Feliciano that taught just as many to say Merry Christmas in Spanish. In spite of the same two lines being repeated throughout the song, this 1970 single is a staple of holiday gatherings worldwide.

  • Elvis Presley - "Blue Christmas"

    Having made his recorded debut the year prior to the release of Elvis' "Christmas Album," that same excitement running throughout his first three full-length albums can also be found on Elvis' "Christmas Album." Undoubtedly one of his best-known Christmas songs, the danger that drove his earlier hits has been muted here in favour of a song that shone a spotlight on Presley's incredible vocal talent.

  • Louis Prima - "What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin')"

    One of the swingiest, most jazzy, most original holiday songs on our list, the Louis Prima-written "What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everybody Swingin'" is a breath of fresh air for those who can't stand to hear the same tired holiday standards. Despite the almost primitive sound that the song boasts in terms of recording quality, the track remains one of the holiday's most under-appreciated songs.

  • U2 - "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"

    In 1987, as they toured their mega-selling album "The Joshua Tree," Irish rockers U2 cut their version of this song which would go on to become the arguably best-known version of the track. The song was included on the 1987 compilation "A Very Special Christmas," a project spearheaded by industry veteran Jimmy Iovine to raise funds for the Special Olympics. This remains one of the sole holiday-themed songs that U2 has recorded.

  • Vince Guaraldi Trio - "Christmas Time Is Here"

    Whether or not you've seen the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, there should be no denying how poignant the Vince Guraldi Trio's performance of "Christmas Time Is Here" is to the listener. With minimal backing from the other members of his trio, Guraldi's minimalist approach to the song really lends power to the whole concept of "less is more."

  • Andy Williams - "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year"

    You can practically hear the smile in Andy William's voice In almost every note sung in "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year”. Written in 1963 by Edward Pola and George Wyle, Williams recorded the song for his first Christmas album, the appropriately named "The Andy Williams Christmas Album." In 2010, the song was the fourth most played holiday track on radio in the United States.

  • The Ramones - "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)"

    Perhaps one of the most left-field contributions in our Top 20 Christmas Songs, this song was, thankfully, The Ramones sole contribution to the crowded field of holiday-themed music. While it would have just come across as total cheese had the group chosen to perform a traditional holiday song, penning their own original tune (complete with sleigh bells) was a much more logical (and cool) thing for the punk legends to have done. Hey ho, let's go Christmas shopping!

  • Ella Fitzgerald - "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"

    Considered one of the finest female jazz vocalists to ever walk the earth, Ella Fitzgerald's animated take on this classic song shows why she is held in such high regard. Her vocal delivery is warm but lively enough to hold your attention throughout. The origins of the song date back to the early 1940's. It was introduced by actress Judy Garland in the 1944 musical Meet Me In St. Louis. Fitzgerald featured the song on her 1960 album "Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas."

  • Perry Como - "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas"

    If there was one area that it could be argued that the late Perry Como knew well, it would be the field of Christmas music. During his prolific career, Como recorded numerous Christmas efforts but this song has consistently been an audience favourite. While his music might have been closer in spirit to Bing Crosby than Sinatra (primarily because Como got his start before Sinatra), Como's warm baritone vocals on "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas" lend a jovial feeling to the song.

  • Dean Martin - "Walking In A Winter Wonderland"

    What Christmas list would be complete without the inclusion of a song from one of the Rat Pack? Dean Martin's vocals on "Winter Wonderland" are the very embodiment of laid-back. Without even trying, Martin brings elegance and class to the song that few others have been able to do quite as successfully. Sorry, Ozzy Osbourne and Jessica Simpson, but your version of the song has nothing on the King of Cool.

  • Frank Sinatra - "I'll Be Home For Christmas"

    While the bulk of Christmas and holiday songs are built upon a foundation of happiness, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" is undoubtedly one of the more somber holiday songs. Like practically everything he touched in song, Ol' Blue Eyes sings from the heart on this holiday standard, doing such an amazing job that this rendition is bound to stir up the emotions of even the most cold-hearted scrooge.

  • Bob & Doug McKenzie - "Twelve Days Of Christmas"

    Two of Canada's favourite hosers proudly tackle what is undoubtedly one of the longest Christmas songs ever written. Luckily, Bob and Doug deviate from the original version of the song. Instead of singing about golden rings, turtledoves and a partridge in pear tree, the McKenzie brothers instead sing of their true love's bestowing of beer, turtlenecks, toques and more upon them. Don't take the holidays so seriously, eh?

 

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