Christmas Songs: The Story Behind 10 Classics

Seasonal, Traditions
on December 18, 2005

As a favorite holiday song reminds us, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

And sound a lot like it, too—everywhere you go.

For weeks leading up to Dec. 25, Christmas songs abound. You hear them on the radio and television, in shopping malls and stores, as you’re wandering the grocery aisles or waiting to get your transmission repaired. They flow from concert halls, school auditoriums and church sanctuaries.

Over the centuries, thousands of carols, hymns, anthems, ballads and even novelty songs have been written about Christmas and everything associated with it. But of those thousands, only a relative handful continue to endure as evergreens from generation to generation, according to William Studwell, a music historian and retired Northern Illinois University professor who is nationally recognized as an expert on Christmas songs.

Studwell estimates that “handful” of tunes to be no more than 50.

“Those 50 songs, which might change a little bit from generation to generation, are very powerful culturally,” says Studwell, who has written four definitive books about Christmas music. “Just about everybody, except for a few Christmas grouches, sings and hears them for a month or more. You don’t have to be a Christian or even like Christmas, but you’re exposed to them. They have a great deal of impact.”

Like the gifts in Santa’s sack, the songs of Christmas are a mixed bag. They represent a variety of themes, topics and timelines. Some are distinctly American; others have roots in our country’s European ancestry. Some are serious and formal; others light, lively and even silly.

So sit back, pour yourself some eggnog and put on your favorite Christmas CD as we unwrap the stories behind 10 of the most popular songs of the season.

Jingle Bells

This festive, well-known Christmas song didn’t actually begin as a Christmas song at all. It was written by James Pierpoint for his father’s Sunday school class in Boston for children to perform as part of a Thanksgiving service in 1857. It’s not surprising, then, that it doesn’t contain a single reference to Christmas, the Nativity or any of the icons typically associated with the holiday. Yet, with its jaunty melody, colorful sleigh-ride imagery and join-in, sing-a-long chorus, it has been a musical staple of holiday programs for nearly 150 years and is possibly one of the best-known songs in the world.

White Christmas

Unquestionably America’s most popular Christmas song, this warm, sentimental classic is also the most commercially successful in history. Bing Crosby’s rendition alone sold more than 31 million copies. Written by Broadway and show-tune composer Irving Berlin for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Fred Astaire, it won the Academy Award that year for the best original song. When Hollywood remade the film in color in 1954, the title of the movie was changed—to White Christmas, of course.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

A misplaced typesetter’s comma somewhere along the way in this carol’s early life led many people, even to this day, to think of it as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” But the word “rest” meant much the same as “keep,” and the song was a boisterous exhortation of love and brotherhood with a blessing that “God keep you merry.” Its authorship is unknown, but it probably dates from England and the 1600s, where it was presumably sung on the streets by strolling, serenading carolers during the Christmas season. (In Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, the happy sound of a caroler—singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”—infuriates Ebenezer Scrooge.) The song’s unusual, minor-key arrangement makes it somewhat unique among traditional Christmas tunes.

Away in a Manger

Often misattributed to Protestant reformer Martin Luther, this gentle, lullaby-like song actually was written in 1855 by an unknown Pennsylvanian, who likely drew inspiration from an old German folk tune. A byline in an 1887 songbook gave credit (perhaps mistakenly or possibly deliberately, to hype sales) to Luther, who actually did write the words for many hymns and other songs—but not this one.

What Child Is This?

William Chatterton Dix, an insurance company executive by trade, wrote this soft and sweet ode to the baby Jesus sometime in the late 1800s. It was one of the first Christmas songs to depict the traditional Nativity scene in detail—the gifts of the “wise men,” the shepherds, even the ox and ass. Dix set his song to the tune of “Greensleeves,” a traditional melody so ancient it’s mentioned in two of Shakespeare’s plays.

We Three Kings of Orient Are

This stately, richly detailed carol was penned around 1857 by Pittsburgh native John Henry Hopkins Jr., who worked as a newspaper reporter, attended law school, edited a religious magazine and designed stained-glass windows before finally becoming ordained as a deacon—at the ripe old age of 72. Its narrative structure, depicting the three wise men bringing gifts to the Christ child, gives it a reverent, scriptural feel. But the wise men barely made it into the Bible—they are mentioned only in one account of Jesus’ birth (in Matthew). In the years before this song was written, the wise men—most likely astrologers from Persia—came to be described as “kings,” a significant symbolic shift that denoted even royal rulers humbling themselves in the presence of the infant Son of God.

The First Noel

One of the most ancient of Christmas carols, this song married words from the 1600s with a much older melody dating perhaps as far back as the 13th century. It’s been traced to France, but no one knows who wrote either the words or the music. Early English versions of the original French lyrics transcribed the word “noel” phonetically as “nowell,” which was fancifully thought to be a contraction of what the angels might have spoken to calm the shepherds: “Now all is well.” But actually, the French “noel” referred interchangeably to both “Christmas” and “carol,” and may have even been a variation of an older Latin word, “natalis,” which means “birthday.”

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

Pop star Eddie Cantor unveiled this new tune on his radio program in 1934, but didn’t want to record it—he thought it was too juvenile. His wife loved it, however, and convinced him to give it a try. It became a smash hit after Cantor performed it later that year at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, at the climactic moment as Santa was making his entrance into Macy’s department store. Written by Haven Gillespie, a Kentuckian transplanted to New York, and Brooklyn’s Fred Coots, a songwriter for Cantor’s radio show, it’s also been a hit for Bing Crosby, Perry Como, the Four Seasons, the Jackson Five and Bruce Springsteen.

Silent Night

Perhaps the most beloved of all Christmas carols, the tender “Silent Night” was written by a priest and hastily arranged by a church organist who had to improvise on guitar because the organ bellows had rusted and couldn’t be played. The priest, Joseph Mohr, had written the words previously and the organist, Franz Guber, mapped out the melody shortly before its first performance on Christmas Eve 1818 in an Austrian village. It went on to become a worldwide standard. On a Christmas Eve during World War I, fighting was temporarily suspended along several fronts in Europe while soldiers on both sides turned on their radios to hear a broadcast of an internationally famous Austrian opera star performing the song. Her name was Ernestine Schumann Heinke, and she had two sons—one of them fighting for the Allies, and the other on the side of the Germans. For a few tranquil minutes during the world’s first “great war,” this song’s powerful, hopeful message of “heavenly peace” rang dramatically true.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Probably the only Christmas song that began in the corporate towers of a giant retail conglomerate, “Rudolph” sprang to life in 1939 after Robert L. May, an ad copywriter for Montgomery Ward, was asked by his boss to churn out a storybook for the chain to sell at Christmas. May’s tale about a misfit reindeer who guides Santa’s sleigh sold millions as a children’s book before being set to music by his brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks. It was turned into an international smash by singing cowboy star Gene Autry in 1949, and later a perennial Christmas TV special and a feature-length movie. Autry went on to record numerous other Christmas songs, including another all-time classic, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which he co-wrote.

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