There are at least two dozen popular tunes considered “Christmas songs” that lyrically, have nothing to do with Christmas. The 1930s produced two future holiday classics – “Winter Wonderland” (1934) and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (1937). “Winter Wonderland” was a hit from the start, but it took more than ten years for “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” to hit the Top-10. The song was written by Irving Berlin for the 1937 film “On the Avenue” and performed by stars Dick Powell and Alice Faye in the film. Les Brown’s instrumental hit version was recorded in 1946, but didn’t become a million-selling Top-10 hit until 1948.
“Winter Wonderland” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” are not the only Christmas songs with lyrics that have absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. Consider “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays.” Which holidays are we talking about? With no specific Yuletide reference, it could be Thanksgiving, New Year’s, or even the Fourth of July.
The biggest imposter of them all is “Jingle Bells.” Easily one of the most popular songs of the season, it makes no specific reference to Christmas. James Lord Pierpont, a music director at his father’s churches in Savannah, Georgia and Medford, Massachusetts, wrote the song. The song was published in 1857 under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh.” It was most likely composed for a Thanksgiving celebration.
Since the definitive history of the song remains unverified, the cities of Medford and Savannah both claim the song originated in their city. According to the Savannah narrative, the children of the church’s congregation enjoyed the song so much they asked Pierpont to include it in their Christmas pageant. The song grew in popularity and became associated with Christmas from then on.
Medford claims that Pierpont was inspired by sleigh racing on a local street, and wrote the song at the Simpson Tavern, which at the time existed on High Street. Pierpont moved to Savannah in 1853, and lived there for four years before filing his copyright for the song “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857.
Since Savannah rarely gets snow, it’s logical that Pierpont’s experiences in Medford inspired the song. Whether it was written there or in Savannah will continue to be a point of debate. Most folks are familiar with the opening verses of the song, but the final two verses of the song are usually skipped. In case you’re curious, here they are:
“A day or two ago / The story I must tell
I went out on the snow / And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by / In a one-horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie, / But quickly drove away.”
“Now the ground is white / Go it while you’re young,
Take the girls tonight / And sing this sleighing song
Just get a bobtailed bay / Two forty is his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh / And crack! You’ll take the lead.”
“Jingle Bells” also holds the distinction of being the first song performed in outer space. On December 16, 1965, astronauts Walter “Wally” Schirra Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford were orbiting earth in Gemini 6, approaching Gemini 7 (piloted by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell) for a historic space meeting. Before signing off for the night, Schirra and Stafford decided to have some fun with Mission Control.
“We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit” they reported. “Stand by, he looks like he’s trying to signal…”
A few moments later, Schirra and Stafford produced a harmonica and sleigh bells stashed aboard the space capsule and played “Jingle Bells.” The duo had practiced the surprise performance, doing a few run-throughs on earth. Mission Control had no idea it was coming.
Along with “Jingle Bells,” favorites like “Let It Snow,” “I Love The Winter Weather,” “Over The River and Through The Woods,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “A Marshmallow World,” “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” “Sleigh Ride,” and the children’s favorite “Frosty The Snowman,” actually celebrate the winter season, which doesn’t even start until December 21. Of course, if you walk around singing “Jingle Bells” in the middle of January, people might think you’re a few branches short of a (Christmas) tree.
Both Jane Monheit (2005’s “The Season”) and Seth MacFarlane (2014’s “Holiday For Swing!”) recorded the song “Moonlight In Vermont” for their holiday albums, but there are no Christmas references in “Moonlight In Vermont.” In fact, the winter season is mentioned only briefly – most of the song alludes to the spring, summer, and fall seasons.
A handful of New Year’s Eve songs also pop up on the radio for a few weeks in December, including “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” (which lyrically takes place Christmas Eve), and, of course, “Auld Lang Syne.”
Then there’s “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” Though it’s a popular Christmas song, especially as recorded by Tony Bennett, it contains no Christmas references, unless you count the line about “…brown paper packages tied up with string…” But then again, who wraps Christmas presents in brown paper and string?