There are those handful of Christmas songs that you’ve heard a million times…but never get sick of because you only hear them for a month out of the year, and they’re Christmas songs, so they make you happy. But why the songs are well known, these facts and stories behind them are not.
1. “White Christmas” has to be re-recorded.
It’s probably the most famous Christmas song ever, and among the bestselling singles of any kind, ever. But the “White Christmas” you know is, technically, a remake. Bing Crosby’s original 1942 recording was so popular (what with World War II separating families for the better part of the decade…or forever) that his record company had to keep pressing millions of copies to keep up with demand. By 1947, the masters were worn out, and Crosby had to record a perfect remake of the song. He even used the same backup singers.
2. “Jingle Bells” is a Thanksgiving song.
It’s a Christmas song now, what it wasn’t at first. A Georgia church organist named James Lord Pierpont presented it in 1857 for a Thanksgiving service. (And it was called “The One Horse Open Sleigh.”)
3. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” was banned.
Okay, you get that Mommy isn’t really making out with the real Santa Claus, right? The kid singing the song is witnessing his mom kissing his dad, who is dressed up like Santa Claus. Shortly after the first recording of the song (by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd) was released in 1952, the Boston Catholic Archdiocese called for a ban of the song because the song sexualized Christmas and glorified a woman cheating on her husband.
4. “Silver Bells” originally had a pee-culiar title.
Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote the song in 1950, but at first it was a song called “Tinkle Bell,” about Salvation Army bell-ringers. Livingston proudly told his wife about the song. Horrified she replied, “Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word ‘tinkle’ means to most people?” Hint: It’s pee-pee. So Livingston and Evans changed “Tinkle Bell” to “Silver Bells.”
5. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” had its super-sad lyrics changed.
The song was written for the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis, which takes place in 1904. But “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” definitely reflected the mood of 1944 — in other words, it’s a deeply sad and yearning song about families and lovers that don’t get to spend the holidays together because of World War II. Probably the saddest lyric: “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” When Frank Sinatra recorded a popular cover of the song in 1957, he asked original songwriter Hugh Martin to “jolly up that line” for him. Martin’s fix: “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
6. Just who (or what) is “Parson Brown” in “Winter Wonderland”?
The adventures described in “Winter Wonderland” sound like, well, a winter wonderland, up until the downright bizarre offer from the singer to build a snowman and “pretend that he is Parson Brown.” This song was written in 1934, and this is actually what passed for flirting back then…flirting that comes on a little too strong. Back then, traveling Protestant ministers called parsons traveled through rural areas and performed weddings for people who didn’t have a permanent local minister. Basically, the singer is suggesting that you and them can pretend the snowman is a pastor, and that pretend pastor can pretend marry you two. Okay.
7. “Wonderful Christmas Time” makes Paul McCartney an obscene amount of money.
The 1979 Paul McCartney song is the ex-Beatle’s single-biggest moneymaker. He earns around $400,000 on royalties from “Wonderful Christmas Time” each year, more than any individual Beatles (or Wings) song.
8. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is different Down Under.
There are some variations sung in Australia, in which the odd gifts of birds, drummers, pipers, and milkmaids are replaced with native Australian animals. For example: “Nine wombats working,” “Seven koalas climbing,” “Five kangaroos,” “Four kookaburras,” and “A platypus up a gum tree.”
9. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” began as a department store promotional tool.
The brightly-nosed sleigh-puller is part of canonical Christmas legend now, thanks to this 1949 song by country music legend Gene Autry. The character originated as an ad. A decade earlier, an in-house advertising guy for Montgomery Ward named Robert L. May was tasked with writing a Christmas storybook to hand out to customers. He came up with Rudolph, and the whole story.
10. “All I Want for Christmas is You” almost materialized out of thin air.
Easily the most popular Christmas song of the last 20 years, it’s Mariah Carey’s biggest hit and money earner, bringing in $50 million in royalties. And it took her and co-writer Walter Afanasieff just 15 minutes to write it.