Behind the (Holiday) Music

The stories behind the holiday songs you've heard far too many times

Nov 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Despite the fact that we pretty much hear the same songs every holiday season, to many people classic Christmas tunes are transcendent, spreading enough nostalgia and good cheer that they never tire of them. Like commercial radio hits (corporate radio plays that Taylor Swift song every 15 minutes because you will like it, dammit), holiday music appeals to folks who can listen to the same song 500 billion times and still happily sing along, which is most people.

Granted, there’s a 10-month break between the over-saturation periods of holiday music, but isn’t there still a point where revelers want to pull the chestnuts out of the open fire and throw themselves onto it instead of hearing “Jingle Bells” one more time? Given the religious implications of the season, perhaps it is like worship music, where believers just mindlessly sing along because they think Jesus, Santa, Bono or the deity of their choice is watching.

In lieu of writing 100 new songs to replace every holiday hit (I tried, but threw in the towel when the only rhyme I could think of for “baby Jesus” was “maybe tease us,” which seemed a little inappropriate), I decided instead to investigate what led to the writing of a few all-time faves. Just as Behind the Music has made me appreciate Leif Garrett and Ratt that much more, knowing the impetus of a song might just make you revisit your preferred holiday classic with a fresh set of ears. If nothing else, you’ll be able to dazzle everyone at impending family gatherings with some fantastically worthless factoids. At least it beats talking about Sarah Palin.

“White Christmas”
Bing Crosby’s original version of this song is the best-selling recording of all time (yes, it has even sold more than Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”). It was written poolside in 1940 by Jewish Russian immigrant Irving Berlin, one of music’s most successful songwriters (he also penned “God Bless America” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”). Had Berlin been true to his faith, “White Hanukah” might be the song you hear in every mall and elevator in America. Crosby’s famed version was recorded in less than 20 minutes and became a chart-topper three different times in the ’40s. It also put Crosby on top of the “black” charts of the time, the Harlem Hit Parade, his only appearance besides that Parliament/Funkadelic tribute album. Everyone from Barry Manilow and Bob Marley to Twisted Sister, Katy Perry and Elvis has recorded the song.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
The lyrics to “Rudolph” sprouted from the mind of Robert May, who wrote ads for the Montgomery Ward department store chain. May’s wife was stricken with cancer and, reportedly in response to his 4-year-old daughter’s queries as to why mommy was “different,” he wrote the words to “Rudolph” instead of being honest. May fine-tuned the story by retelling it as a bedtime tale, shifting the reindeer’s name around a few times (Rollo and Reginald were tried) and tinkering with the idea of having Rudolph go on a shooting spree at a Montgomery Ward store. May’s wife passed away in 1938 and, while reluctantly attending a company holiday party that year, he read it to drunk staffers and execs. Despite some misgivings (red nose = alcoholic!), the poem was printed up and more than 2 million copies were distributed by Montgomery Ward. After 6 million copies were printed and Montgomery Ward reaped the profits from merchandising, May — broke and paying his wife’s medical bills — was finally given the rights in 1946. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, turned the poem into a kids’ song, but they couldn’t find anyone to record it until a pussy-whipped Gene Autry gave it a try at his wife’s insistence. The song greatly enhanced the “Singing Cowboy’s” popularity (something his wife undoubtedly never let him forget) and went on to become the third biggest selling recording ever.

“All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”
In 1944, elementary school teacher Donald Gardner wrote this novelty Christmas tune in 30 minutes, inspired by the lisping, whistling responses of his tooth-deficient second grade class when asked what they wanted for the holidays. Musical comedian Spike Jones took the song to the top of the charts in 1948. The song has been parodied a lot, notably by Ru- Paul (who declares she wants various plastic surgery procedures under her tree) and Country music jokester Cledus T. Judd, who did a fairly racist version in Hip Hop style called “All I Want for Christmas Is Two Gold Front Teef.”

“The Christmas Song”
Mel Tormé and Bob Wells wrote this song — which is better known to many by its opening line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” — in an effort to stay cool during a particularly miserable summer heat. Tormé says a sweltering Wells mindlessly began scribbling down cooling phrases and words — 40 minutes later they had what BMI publishing claims is the most performed Christmas song ever. Nat King Cole recorded the song many times, starting in 1946 and ending with the defining, symphonic version in 1961. Bob Dylan, Johnny Mathis, James Brown, Weezer, 98 Degrees and Korn are just a scant few of the artists that offered their own take on the song. Shit, you’ve probably recorded it and didn’t even know.

“Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”
One of the holidays’ biggest novelty songs (second only to “Dogs Barking Jingle Bells”), this tune was recorded by veterinarian Elmo Shropshire and his wife for friends and family as a “gag gift.” In keeping with the holiday tradition of lying to children, Shropshire’s friend, Randy Brooks, is said to have written the jokey song about his grandmother, using it as an excuse for her post-Christmas hangovers. As in, “Grandma is dry-heaving all over your Christmas presents because she got ran over by a reindeer … now shut up and fix her a shot of whiskey with a Gatorade chaser!” Some friends leaked the track to a San Francisco radio station and its popularity has kept “Dr. Elmo” in the Christmas song business (minus the overwhelming success of “Grandma”) ever since. Horray for alcoholism!