It’s that time of year again, and so begins our usual round of holiday activities: shopping at busy stores, going to office parties, decorating trees, visiting family. We do these things every year, and although we may not realize it, from year to year there is a connecting thread. Whether we’re in a store, at home, or in the car, it’s almost impossible to escape the holiday soundtrack that is piped into the mall, played on the radio, and maybe even downloaded on our phones. I speak, of course, of those tuneful perennials that have come to define the American Christmas holiday. “White Christmas”? Check. “Blue Christmas”? Certainly. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”? Why, of course!
We’ve heard these songs a million times, and they’ve become an essential part of our holiday experience. Yet, how many of us know anything about them? Where did they come from, and why have certain singers become identified with them?
Let’s take a brief look at some of the holiday hits that over the years have become stuck in our brains like sticky sugarplums.
1. “White Christmas” – Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby has become so associated with Christmas that nearly 40 years after his death he’s still the main man when it comes to holiday cheer. Although he charted many times with other Christmas songs, including a couple with the Andrews Sisters, he broke the bank with “White Christmas,” which remains not only Der Bingle’s most identifiable Christmas effort, but also, incidentally, the bestselling single in the history of the world.
Written by Irving Berlin while in California, a fact betrayed by the little-performed opening verse (“The orange and palm trees sway/There’s never been such a day/In Beverly Hills, L.A./But it’s December the 24th/And I’m longing to be up north…”), the song was originally sung as a male-female duet in the film Holiday Inn in 1942. Soon after, Crosby recorded it himself with full orchestra. At first a bit of a dud, the song caught on and eventually topped the chart for three months at the end of that year. It would return seasonally for 20 years afterwards.
Crosby considered the song a bit simple and regarded his performance of it as no more than adequate, but demand for the record was so strong that the original master recording got worn out and he had to re-record it in 1947. This is the version that you hear every year on the radio and in the stores.
2. “Blue Christmas” – Elvis Presley
Although “White Christmas” is largely a melancholy song, which Bing Crosby felt had a lot to do with its appeal during the World War II years, it’s practically sunny compared to its darker-hued compatriot on the Christmas hit parade. “Blue Christmas,” recorded by Elvis Presley in 1957, wasn’t released as a Christmas single until the early 60s, but it has become a holiday standard since.
The song has its origins in country music. Doye O’Dell, a cowboy singer and sometime member of the Sons of the Pioneers, first recorded it in 1948 (O’Dell also originated “Old Shep,” a famously sentimental song about a dead dog that Presley also recorded). Country legend Ernest Tubb had a hit with the song in 1950. Elvis, of course, was a big country music fan, and it was only logical that he would remember the song while putting together 1957’s Elvis’ Christmas Album, which remains the bestselling American Christmas LP of all-time. When he performed it for a live audience for the first time in 1968, Elvis referred to the song as “my favorite Christmas song of the ones I’ve recorded.”
In a bizarre footnote, an album called Christmas Duets was released in 2008 that featured country singer Martina McBride singing along with Elvis through recording studio trickery. An accompanying video featured Elvis’ performance from 1968 with McBride digitally inserted into the footage! This version of the song has largely failed to catch on.
3. “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – Gene Autry
As you make your way through the department store melee this season and you hear “Rudolph” start to play over the loudspeakers, you can pause a moment to reflect on the fact that a department store is this reindeer’s natural habitat.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an advertising gimmick dreamed up in 1939 by a man named Robert May, who worked in the copywriting department at Montgomery Ward, one of the biggest department stores of the era. Rudolph was used in the holiday flyer as well as in a kids’ coloring book, which sold remarkably well. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, happened to be a hit songwriter, so he put pen to paper and transformed the story into a song.
Turned down by most of the big stars of the day, including Perry Como, Dinah Shore, and Mr. Christmas himself, Bing Crosby, “Rudolph” was eventually recorded by Gene Autry, the cowboy star. Autry had already had some luck in the Christmas market with “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and he hoped to cash in a bit more. Autry didn’t care for the song much; he agreed to do it to please his wife, and it was dashed off in one take at the end of a recording session. Of course, the song sold two-million copies in 1949, would go on to sell another 25 million, inspired a popular animated film, and ranks not too far below “White Christmas” as one of the most popular holiday songs of all-time. Not bad for a reindeer with the world’s worst case of rosacea.
4. “Santa Baby” – Eartha Kitt
Christmas has not traditionally been seen as a very sexy holiday; it’s a time for tradition, children, and of course, that wee lad in a manger. But Eartha Kitt, a slinky nightclub chanteuse once referred to by Orson Welles as “the most exciting woman in the world,” entered the Christmas fray in 1953 with the coquettish “Santa Baby,” a salute to unbridled Christmas-gift lust.
Co-written by a niece of Senator Jacob Javits (whose name lives on in the New York convention center named after him), “Santa Baby” was well loved by Kitt, who credited it with bringing her to the attention of folks who didn’t go to smoky nightclubs. She liked it so much that she performed it in a movie and even remade it twice, once in 1954 as “This Year’s Santa Baby” and again in 1963 with a brassier arrangement. These two reconditioned versions failed to enchant audiences as much as the original.
Legal wrangling over the song’s lyrics, which existed in five different versions, prevented performers from recording the song for many years. However, in 1987, the song was finally given new life by that self-described “material girl,” Madonna. Although we generally think of a different kind of madonna at Christmas time, Ms. Ciccone’s version has since become almost as ubiquitous as Kitt’s original.
5. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” – Brenda Lee
Johnny Marks, who had so much lucrative fun playing reindeer games, didn’t rest on his Christmas laurels very long. In 1958, he composed a song based on the new fad of rock ’n’ roll music that would turn out to be just as long lasting as the genre itself.
While Christmas trees had been venerated, decorated, and celebrated in many songs, it was something new for a Christmas tree to be rocked around. The young lady who proposed this radical treatment was Brenda Mae Tarpley, otherwise known as Brenda Lee.
Lee was a child country singer from Georgia who seemed a natural for Christmas material. In fact, at age 11, she recorded a Christmas single called “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus.” It wasn’t a hit, and her next effort, recorded at age 13, didn’t look like it would be, either. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” laid a big Christmas egg in 1958 and again in 1959, when Decca Records re-released it to no interest. In 1960, though, Lee had a big pop hit with “I’m Sorry,” and when the holiday season rolled around, her record company gave it one more try. The third time was the charm, and ever since, people have been rocking around their Christmas trees “in the new old-fashioned way.”
6. “Jingle Bell Rock” – Bobby Helms
Elvis Presley may have had the biggest selling Christmas album of 1957, but 1957 was also a banner year for an unassuming fellow named Bobby Helms, whose seasonal song now vies with Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” as one of the most played and recognized holiday hits of them all.
Like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bell Rock” is an attempt to convert the new fad of rock ’n’ roll music into palatable holiday fare for the whole family. Like Brenda Lee, Helms was a country singer, in his case from Indiana, who came to prominence in 1957 with two big hits, including his still-popular-on-oldies-stations “My Special Angel.” When Christmas 1957 arrived, Helms offered “Jingle Bell Rock,” a song that would become his signature tune (and, incidentally, one which Brenda Lee would also have a hit with a few years later).
There remains some controversy over whether or not Helms had a hand in writing “Jingle Bell Rock”; a lawsuit filed by guitarist and alleged co-author Hank Garland asserts that he had. Whether he wrote it or not, Helms certainly retained affection for the song. He recorded it four more times for as many record companies, in 1965, 1967, 1970, and 1983. None of these competing versions proved as popular as the original, which re-charted several times over the intervening years and inspired admirers Hall and Oates to record their own version.
7. “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” – The Chipmunks and David Seville
It’s remarkable and perhaps appropriate that one of the most popular and beloved holiday hits of all-time is a novelty record featuring a trio of warbling cartoon rodents. Christmas is for children, as Glen Campbell once sang in another holiday hit, and no Christmas song is more child-friendly than “The Chipmunk Song.”
The chipmunks were the brainchild of producer Ross Bagdasarian, who spent the late 1940s and 50s acting on Broadway and in movies (he pops up in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window), as well as writing the occasional hit song (Rosemary Clooney’s smash “Come on-a My House” was written with his cousin, famous playwright William Saroyan). Fiddling with a new variable speed tape machine, Bagdasarian discovered that he could have a lot of fun making high-pitched voices. He used this technique for “Witch Doctor,” a novelty hit of 1958 that he released under the name David Seville. For his Christmas song of that year, he decided to triple the fun and record his voice at three different speeds. Thus, the three Chipmunks, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, were born. Bagdasarian slyly named them after the president, owner, and recording engineer at his record company.
“The Chipmunk Song” was a number one hit in 1958 and would chart every year for several years thereafter. Bagdasarian released many more Chipmunks records, all the way up until his death in 1972, and now his son continues the tradition. Alvin, Simon, and Theodore may turn out to have just as much Christmas staying power as their cartoon reindeer predecessor.