The Christmas Song: A Deep Dive into a Holiday Chestnut

This year our holiday theme at Half Price Books is “Make the Season Bright.” Those four words appear in one of the most ubiquitous and aptly-named Christmas songs ever written, “The Christmas Song.” You might know it better by its opening lyrics: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”

Our line comes in the second section of the song: “Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright.” We’d argue that books, music and movies also do the trick.

Here’s a closer look at the history of this holiday classic.

During the summer of 1945, singer and composer Mel Tormé visited the home of his frequent songwriting collaborator, Robert Wells. Wells was nowhere to be seen, but Tormé found a pad of paper with some scrawled lines about Jack Frost and “folks dressed up like Eskimos.” Wells later said he was writing about cold weather in an attempt to cool off from the sweltering Los Angeles heat. (I’m trying that next summer here in Dallas) Tormé built on Wells’ wintry lyrical snippets, composed the music and finished the song in about 45 minutes.

mel-torme

Mel Torme in the BBC recording studio of the Paris Cinema.

Tormé, who was only about 20 at the time, was a musician and actor who would go on to a successful career as a jazz-oriented pop crooner. He was nicknamed The Velvet Fog for the light, smooth texture of his voice, and was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award a few months before his death in 1999. Robert Wells would go on to become a leading writer and producer of TV variety shows and specials and also wrote songs with the likes of Duke Ellington and Henry Mancini. He even co-wrote the theme to TV’s The Patty Duke Show.

After “The Christmas Song” was rejected by at least one publisher, Tormé and Wells took it to the up-and-coming singer and pianist Nat King Cole, who became the first to record the song in 1946:

After this first version with his influential trio, Cole added strings for a second recording of the song later the same year. This rendition became a hit and put the song on the map, making Cole the first African-American artist to introduce what would become a Christmas standard.

Cole would record the song two more times, in 1953 and 1961. The ’61 version, in stereo with a lush Ralph Carmichael orchestration, is probably the song’s best known recording. It’s the one that appears on Cole’s Christmas album—the bestselling holiday LP of the 1960s.

One bit of trivia: In his early recordings of the tune, Cole sings a grammar mistake, using the word “reindeers” when the correct plural of reindeer is “reindeer.” He sang it correctly in later versions.

As you might expect, Mel Tormé himself recorded the song several times during his long career. In 1963, he wrote a new opening verse, which he debuted on Judy Garland’s Christmas special. Tormé’s versions also usually include a coda borrowed from the traditional English carol, “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”

We interrupt this musical blog post for a word about chestnuts. That’s right, chestnuts, the nut everyone sings about but has never tasted. Roasted chestnuts were once a staple of street vendors in northern U.S. cities like Boston, where lyricist Robert Wells grew up. According to a 2010 New York Daily News article, this tradition is nearly extinct and can only be found right around Christmas in the most touristy parts of Manhattan. It seems Americans lost their taste for chestnuts, perhaps because the American species of the chestnut tree was nearly wiped out by a fungal disease during the early 20th century.

And now back to the song, which itself could rightly be called a chestnut. (Why do we call old, overdone songs chestnuts? That’s a subject for another blog.)

“The Christmas Song” is, according to BMI, the most-performed Christmas song in history. You could say it’s been sung “many times, many ways.” Seriously, it might be easier to list singers who haven’t recorded this song.

Most artists favor a straightforward approach, with many of them layering on heavy amounts of strings. That’s certainly the case for modern-day crooner Michael Bublé. John Legend also brings the strings on his brand new version; he also sings Torme’s little-heard verse and features, of all things, a trombone solo.

If melisma is your thing, you might check out the version by Justin Bieber and Usher from the Bieb’s 2011 album, Under the Mistletoe. If female melisma is more your thing, Christina Aguilera or Whitney Houston have you covered.

Zooey Deschanel turns in a pleasant, spare version accompanied only by guitarist M. Ward on their LP, A Very She & Him Christmas. Paul McCartney’s intimate version came from the same sessions as his 2012 standards album, Kisses on the Bottom, and appeared on the compilation Holidays Rule. Paul sings “some holly and some mistletoe” where “a turkey and some mistletoe” is supposed to go. Wait—is that a thing people do? It actually makes sense, because who wants to kiss someone right after they had a mouthful of turkey?

Jazz fans probably know Ella Fitzgerald’s relaxed swing version as well as Vince Guaraldi’s rendition that appeared on the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack (but not in the show). Jazz organ master Jimmy Smith did a cool version too.

It’s hard to find any truly different or unusual versions of the song, so Twisted Sister’s recording will have to do. It comes from their 2006 album, A Twisted Christmas. Yes, Twisted Sister has a Christmas album, and yes—even more surprising—Twisted Sister was still making albums in 2006.

I’m not saying it’s good. I’m saying it’s unusual. Honestly, it’s hard to beat Cole’s original recording, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.

Cole album

And so, if you’re still reading, I’ll offer this simple phrase: Stick with Nat. And Merry Christmas to you.

 

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