What are the origins of some classic Christmas songs?
We've got the scoop on Hollywood songwriters, a French poet and a Russian-born Jew.
Fri, Dec 16 2011 at 8:55 AM
Q: I love Christmas music. I always buy the CD of whoever has just released a Christmas album because I just love listening to that stuff. And now that it’s December — I’m in heaven because Christmas music is everywhere! Can you tell me where some of my favorite tunes came from? I’d love to know.
A: Sure thing. Seems these days, just about everyone and their mother is making a Christmas album, and the songs below are inevitably on the track list. And for good reason — Christmas albums always have great sales, and that’s because everyone loves Christmas classics. But from whence do they come? Just let me cue up my all-time favorite Christmas song, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” recorded a capella by Rascal Flatts a few years back, and I’ll be right with you. Ahh, there we go. OK, let’s get started!
“White Christmas” — Written by Irving Berlin, “White Christmas” was popularized by Bing Crosby, who released the single as part of the soundtrack for the movie “Holiday Inn” in 1942. The song portrays the idyllic Christmas setting, the one that schoolchildren all over the world dream of waking up to. Berlin suffered a tragedy on Christmas, when his 3-week old son died on Christmas Day in 1928. Every Christmas thereafter, he and his wife visited his son’s grave. (Incidentally, Berlin was Jewish). Berlin wrote thousands of songs, but “White Christmas” was definitely one of his most popular. Other well known hits by Berlin? “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and of course, “God Bless America.”
“The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” — Written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme in 1944 in the heat of July, “The Christmas Song” was their way of keeping cool during one particularly hot summer afternoon. An instant classic, “The Christmas Song” was recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946 and continues to be recorded by countless artists across all genres of music. Comedian Mark Evanier recalled a heartwarming story about a group of carolers stumbling upon Torme in the Los Angeles Farmers Market and getting the chance to perform the hit song for the writer himself.
“O Holy Night” — The oldest song on our list, “O Holy Night” was written by Placide Cappeau, a French poet, and was set to music by Adolphe Adam, a French composer. The song was first performed at a Christmas Eve Mass in France in 1847. Translated into English in 1855 by John Sullivan Dwight, the song was first played live over the radio in 1906, one of the first songs to be broadcast over the radio. Since then, “O Holy Night” has been known as one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time and has been recorded by artists such as Luciano Pavarotti, Mariah Carey, and even (gulp) Justin Bieber.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” — Duh! Of course I’m going to tell you about this one, being that it’s on repeat in the background as I write this column. “I’ll be Home for Christmas” was written by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon in 1943. Credit also goes to Sam “Buck” Ram who wrote a poem and a song with the same name (though the lyrics and tune were different) in 1942. Popularized by — you guessed it — Bing Crosby, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is sung from the perspective of a soldier off at war longing to be home with his family for the holidays. It became one of the most requested songs at Crosby’s many USO shows throughout World War II and remains a favorite (mine especially) to this day.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg, my friends. Christmas carols and classics abound, and though you may not always know where they come from, they’re sure to be savored and enjoyed any time of year. Happy holidays!
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