Everything You Need to Know About the Holiday Songs You’ve Heard a Thousand Times

Holiday music is everywhere these days—so many familiar songs that are played repeatedly right up until December 25th, but disappear on the 26th until the next November. Here are some tidbits about some of my favorite songs of the holidays, to be contemplated over eggnog and peppermint bark. Add a comment about your own favorite song and story to fill the number 12 spot.

1. White Christmas

Most holiday-music fans know that Bing Crosby’s recording of this song is the top-selling Christmas record of all time—and one of the top-selling singles of any genre or era. Many know that it was featured in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn and again in the movie White Christmas twelve years later. Some are aware that this Christmas standard was written by a Russian-Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin. Not many know that Berlin had a vendetta against Elvis Presley’s 1957 recording of the song, which he felt represented all the evils and indignities of rock ‘n’ roll, and tried unsuccessfully to get it banned from the radio. Presley’s version was based on The Drifters’ rollicking doo-wop #2 R&B hit version of 1954, which was in turn based on The Ravens’ forties version.

2. Blue Christmas

And speaking of Elvis, how about his contribution to the holiday pop pantheon? One reliable bit of shtick at holiday parties is for someone to start up, in best over-the-top Elvis voice, “Ah’ll ha-have a-huh bla-ue Christmas without you.” Then, right on cue, everyone else jumps in with the soprano “ooh-ooh-wee-oo-ooh” obbligato. Presley had heard Millie Kirkham singing a high “ooh” part on a Ferlin Husky record and wanted her to do the same thing on “Blue Christmas.” Kirkham is quoted in Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: “It was horrible. It was comical. It wasn’t supposed to be, but the longer it goes the funnier it gets.” Still true today—try it at your next holiday sing-along for some yuletide yuks!

3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Johnny Marks wrote this holiday favorite ten years after Rudolph was created for a 1939 Montgomery Ward advertising brochure.

4. Santa Baby

This kitschy classic was written by Philip Springer specifically for Eartha Kitt, whose version continues to be the definitive one more than sixty years on. Ms. Kitt sang comfortably in seven languages and read and spoke in four.

5. Winter Wonderland

My favorite Christmas song to sing is this one, written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and Richard Smith. For years, I was in a trio that sang carols in malls, at parties and at events. I recall on one occasion, happily harmonizing “Winter Wonderland” for a few families in a mall department store’s Kitchenware area and noticing a scowling sales clerk approaching us, brandishing a meat cleaver. We moved away quickly, as did the horrified families, and promptly notified management. Peace on Earth! Good will to men! The Phil Spector Wall of Sound recording of Darlene Love is my favorite, with Dino’s version a close second.

6. Feliz Navidad

This 1970 hit is one of our most recently penned holiday standards. José Feliciano was working on an album of Christmas standards, mostly instrumentals, when his producer suggested that it was high time for a new Christmas song. Feliciano liked that idea. The Spanish lyrics came to him first, but he knew that in order to get radio airplay in the U.S. he needed to add some words in English. He’d already been snubbed by some radio stations for his non-traditional reworking of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Radio loved “Feliz Navidad,” and that relationship continues today, with the song continually nearing the top of annual Latin- and English-format radio and download charts.

7. The Christmas Song

Singer Mel Torme wrote one standard, this holiday song he presented to Nat “King” Cole very early in Cole’s career. Nat recorded this cozy, wintry classic about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” in the sunny month of June.

8. Christmas Time Is Here

This centerpiece song from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which has aired annually for fifty years, is one I truly never tire of. As much as I love the version sung by the children, I love even more the instrumental version by the song’s composer, Vince Guaraldi, and his trio. “Linus and Lucy,” introduced in the Christmas special but featured in many Charlie Brown programs over the years, is also a pretty great Guaraldi number.

9. O Holy Night

The renovation of a church organ may not make the headlines these days, but back in 1843 it was big news, and one such renovation led to this perennial favorite of the holidays. To honor the new organ, poet Placide Cappeau, an atheist, was commissioned to write a poem about the redemptive power of the birth of Jesus. That poem was set to music by Parisian Adolphe Adam, a composer of ballet music and operas. Going on two centuries later, it is among the most-performed carols. It has been recorded by Bing Crosby, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and many others.

10. Little Saint Nick

One of the Christmas albums that I consider essential to my holiday season is The Beach Boys Christmas album. It’s got the great Beach Boys harmony end to end, but Brian Wilson also composed a couple of gems for the album. “Little Saint Nick,” with non-holiday words, could’ve been among their biggest singles. It did hit #3 in ’63 on Billboard’s Christmas chart.

11. The Twelve Days of Christmas

For a few years, the identity of the performer on a recording I howled at annually was unknown to me. The cassette tape a friend had given me was just labeled “Drunk Lady Christmas.” I later found out, through my daughter’s search efforts, that the “drunk lady” was Vegas entertainer Fay McKay. Look it up on YouTube! In her outrageous routine, the presents she’s being given, after the partridge in the pear tree, are booze: Cutty Sarks, dry martinis, bloody Marys. By the time she gets to twelve, she’s totally sloshed. Her words are so slurred you can barely make them out; she’s giggling, crying, belching, cheering and breaking into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Just like Aunt Betty at last year’s family Christmas party.

12. Reader’s Choice

The 12th song of Christmas is your pick—let us know in the comments  about your favorite holiday song and why you like it!

Steve is Collectible Merchandise Specialist (aka the “Buy Guy“) at Half Price Books Corporate.

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