Many Christmas songs owe their popularity to their inclusion in plays, movies, or television shows. Popular songs of all genres have originated in musical theater, but ironically, there’s only been one Christmas song that got its start on stage – “We Need A Little Christmas” from the Broadway musical “Mame.”
Three all-time favorite Christmas songs were originally introduced in motion pictures in an eight-year span. “White Christmas” from “Holiday Inn” in 1942, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from “Meet Me in St. Louis” two years later, and “Silver Bells” from the Bob Hope comedy “The Lemon Drop Kid” in 1950.
“Holiday Inn” featured the origin of another enduring Christmas song – “Happy Holiday.” The song was overshadowed by “White Christmas” in the film. In its original version, “Happy Holiday” wasn’t a very good Christmas song. As featured in the movie, the song’s lyrics talk more about the “Holiday Inn” than Christmas. The best part of the tune was its catchy chorus:
“Happy Holiday / Happy Holiday
While the merry bells keep ringing /
May your every wish come true”
The chorus was reworked, paired with new lyrics, and recorded by a number of artists in few different versions. Most notable is the medley version (paired with the Kay Thompson composition “The Holiday Season”) recorded by Andy Williams on 1963’s “The Andy Williams Christmas Album” as “Happy Holiday / The Holiday Season.” Ironically, as it did on the “Holiday Inn” soundtrack, the song again played second fiddle. The “Andy Williams Christmas Album” also includes Williams’ signature Christmas tune “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
The big screen version of “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” featured the original version of “Where Are You, Christmas?” (originally titled “Christmas, Why Can’t I Find You?”), which became a hit for Faith Hill. The 2004 film “The Polar Express” included “Believe,” a hit for Josh Groban.
In the ’60s and ’70s, a number of animated holiday specials made for television featured soundtracks that eventually took on a life of their own and became as popular as the shows themselves. The “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” television production is responsible for the popularity of “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Silver and Gold,” both sung by Burl Ives in the animated production.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” gave us an excellent jazz soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It features the original version of “Christmas Time Is Here” and the instrumental “Linus and Lucy.” Although the latter was used in other Peanuts specials, its inclusion in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has forever tied it to a holiday theme.
“The Year Without A Santa Claus” (1974) gave us the original version of “Mr. Heatmiser,” which became a hit when recorded by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The original “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” was the source of “Welcome Christmas” and “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
Actor Boris Karloff, famous for portraying the monster in the 1931 film classic “Frankenstein” was the narrator of “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” Many viewers believed his was also the distinctive voice singing “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” In fact, it was voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft who sang the song, uncredited. Ravenscroft was best known for providing the voice of “Tony The Tiger” in Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes television commercials for over 50 years.
The origins of one modern Christmas classic can be traced back not to a movie, play, or television show, but to the anti-war movement of the late-60s. The lyrics to “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” are based on a 1969 campaign protesting the Vietnam War by John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono. Billboards and posters were rented in eleven cities around the world, including New York, Tokyo, Rome, and London, that read:
“WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It)
Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.”
The song’s refrain “War is over, if you want it, war is over, now” was taken directly from the billboards. The song was recorded at Record Plant Studios in New York City in late October of 1971, with the help of producer Phil Spector. The children singing in the background were from the Harlem Community Choir and are credited on the song’s single.
There’s a common misconception as to what is whispered by John and Yoko at the beginning of the song. The lyric sheet from the 1982 compilation “The John Lennon Collection” erroneously quotes the introduction as, “Happy Christmas, Yoko. Happy Christmas, John.” In fact, the couple whispers Christmas greetings to their children. Yoko whispers “Happy Christmas, Kyoko,” then John whispers “Happy Christmas, Julian.”
CHRISTMAS YET TO COME:
Each year, contemporary artists release new original holiday songs. On rare occasions, one will blossom into an evergreen. Most turn out like last year’s fruitcake – not that great to begin with, and something you definitely don’t want to revisit.
It’s anyone’s guess which, if any, of the current crop of modern Christmas songs will endure in years to come. Will songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Mariah Carey, Pentatonix and Michael Buble spark childhood memories of Christmas in years to come, or will listeners still prefer to dream of snow-filled holidays with Bing Crosby?
No matter what form it takes in the future, it’s a sure bet that Christmas music will always play an important role in our holiday observances.