“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Six simple words and suddenly you’re in the Christmas spirit. Years of tradition have made Christmas carols and holiday jingles a crucial part of the season. In fact certain songs are so connected with Christmas, that without them, it wouldn’t feel like Christmas at all. However, if you dig into the history of some of your favorite songs, you might be pleasantly surprised at their backstories. Some songs weren’t expected to be popular at all, much less synonymous with the holiday season.
Check out these songwriters and singers that have created some of the most iconic Christmas songs in history.
“Little Drummer Boy”: Katherine K. Davis
Who could forget the stern drumbeat juxtaposed with the serene flute solo in the song “Little Drummer Boy?” A woman by the name of Katherine K. Davis wrote the melody of the song based off of a common Czech carol that had been passed down for years. The 1941 piece was originally made for choirs, which is no surprise with its strong rhythmic pacing and lyrical harmonies.
Originally known as “Carol of the Drum,” the tune made its way from obscurity into popularity by way of the Von Trapp singers (see photo), who recorded the song in 1955. Composer Jack Halloran later recorded it on the album Christmas Is A-Comin’. Although the song didn’t get released on the album, Henry Onorati, a producer for the track, brought the arrangement to singer Harry Simeone, who renamed it “The Little Drummer Boy” and released the song in 1958. It went on to become a U.S. hit for several years afterwards.
“The Christmas Song”: Bob Wells and Mel Torme
The last thing that a person thinks of when imagining “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or “folks dressed up like Eskimos” is an excruciatingly hot summer day. However, these were the forces of nature at work while “The Christmas Song” was being created. Songwriters Bob Wells and Mel Torme created the quintessential holiday tune in 1944 during the hottest season of the year.
What helped Wells and Torme keep cool were thoughts of “Jack Frost nipping” and “Yuletide carols,” and within an hour, they had a full-on Christmas song and future hit on their hands. From there, musical legend Nat King Cole recorded four renditions of the song, beginning with a recorded version in 1946, which has been cemented as one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time.
“Silver Bells”: Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
During the creation of the holiday film The Lemon-Drop Kid (1950), writers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans were given the task of writing a catchy tune for a particular scene. Wanting their song to be popular but believing there was slim chance since the holiday was already inundated with tunes, the two writers reluctantly accepted.
They came up with a song titled “Tinkle Bell” about the hustle and bustle of daily life in the city, interlaced with Salvation Army Santas who “tinkled” their bells for donations. The title of the song only changed after Livingston spoke with his wife, Lynne, who asked if he was “out of his mind” for writing lyrics about a Santa that tinkled up and down the streets. Livingston and Evans were completely unaware that tinkling could be interpreted as urinating, so they changed the title to “Jingle Bells.” The song was first performed by Bob Hope in the film The Lemon-Drop Kid and first recorded in 1950 by the iconic Christmas crooner, Bing Crosby.
“Winter Wonderland”: Dick Smith
Even though beautiful scenery brought about the vision for the popular Christmas song “Winter Wonderland,” you’d be surprised that the person who wrote it was suffering from a bad case of tuberculosis. In 1934 lyricist Dick Smith was motivated to write “Winter Wonderland” when he saw a pristine sheet of snow cover a nearby park from his hospital window in Pennsylvania. Seeing kids innocently combining fantasy and reality with their creation of snowmen, snow angels, and snow forts set the tone for his masterpiece.
Smith took his lyrics to musician Felix Bernard, who gave it a playful tune. Although the song doesn’t have any direct references to Christmas, “Winter Wonderland” is widely considered one of the most popular Christmas songs of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Dick Smith wasn’t able to see the song’s success since he died one year after he wrote it. Regardless, the “Winter Wonderland” legacy still continues, as hundreds of singers have taken on the song and made it their own, including Ella Fitzgerald, who released her own rendition of the song in 1960.
“All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”: Donald Y. Gardner
Christmas songs have made lots of requests from Old St. Nick, from sentimental gifts like love and friendship to materialistic items like jewelry and clothes. But only one song asks for a pair of teeth to make the holiday season complete. Considering a lisp could make it difficult to communicate what gifts you want from Santa, a second grader asking for his/her two front teeth isn’t a very startling request…is it?
In 1944 second grade teacher Donald Y. Gardner wrote the song “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” after asking his students what they wanted for Christmas and noticing he was getting a classroom full of toothless responses. He later wrote the song within half an hour, with no intention of making any type of profit. It wasn’t until someone heard the tune at the annual school Christmas pageant that the song was recorded by Spike Jones (see photo) and released in 1948.