Ever wonder where the inspiration behind the song that talks about a reindeer with a red nose, or chestnuts roasting on an open fire came from? Below are the stories behind some of the most well-loved Christmas songs shared in the new LDS Christmas Songbook.
A Holly Jolly Christmas
Johnny Marks, who wrote the words and music to “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” earned a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars as a captain during World War II. Extraordinarily well educated, he graduated from the McBurney School in New York City, Colgate University, and Columbia University before studying in Paris. Though he was Jewish, he specialized in writing Christmas songs. In addition to “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” he also wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” among others. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” premiered in 1964 on the CBS children’s Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, where it was sung by Burl Ives; his recording sold more than two million copies.
Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Considered the definitive Christmas song, this carol was written in 1946 by vocalist Mel Tormé and songwriter Bob Wells—not as a tribute to Christmas but in an attempt to cool off on a blisteringly hot summer day. Thinking they could “stay cool by thinking cool,” Wells jotted down a few “wintry” phrases in a spiral-bound notebook: Chestnuts roasting . . . Jack Frost nipping . . . Yuletide carols . . . Folks dressed up like Eskimos. Forty minutes later, Tormé had filled in the rest of the lyrics and written the music. One of its sentiments—“for kids from one to ninety-two”—embraces the essence of the family Christmas, adding to the song’s enduring appeal.
Deck the Halls
The tune to “Deck the Halls” is that of an old air, dating to the sixteenth century. Originally popular as a dance tune in Wales, it was celebrated as a winter carol. It became widely known in the eighteenth century; Mozart used the tune for a violin and piano duet, and Haydn used it in his “New Year’s Night.” The repeated “fa la la la la” comes from medieval ballads and was originally played on the harp; the remaining lyrics are American in origin and were written during the nineteenth century. During the Victorian era, Christmas was “re-invented,” and “Deck the Halls” became a traditional English Christmas song, celebrating the custom of lavishly decorating homes for the holidays. The first English version appeared in 1881 in The Franklin Square Song Collection.
Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains
Written for a Christmas program in St. George, Utah, this carol was first published in The Juvenile Instructor on December 15, 1889. The words and music were written by John M. MacFarlane, a Latter-day Saint hymn writer, choir director, and civic leader who came to the Utah Territory in the early 1850s from his home in Stirling, Scotland. He settled in Cedar City in 1853 but moved to St. George at the urging of Erastus Snow, who wanted him to start a choir there. Besides leading the choir, he served as district judge and worked as a builder and surveyor; he was also involved in founding the academy that later became Dixie State College. He also wrote the music to “Dearest Children, God Is Near You.”
Away in a Manger
The author of “Away in a Manger” is actually unknown, but many throughout the world believe the words were written by Martin Luther; in Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses, published in 1887, it is titled “Luther’s Cradle Hymn” and bears the note, “Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” Some believe that the words of the text were written as a poem for the four hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birth and were credited to him as a marketing gimmick. In actuality, it was a poem of unknown origin published in a Sunday school book in Philadelphia. The music, while written by William J. Kirkpatrick, is based on a waltz Johann Strauss, Jr. wrote nineteen years earlier.
The First Noel
While we don’t know who wrote “The First Noel,” we do know it originated in England as early as the thirteenth or fourteenth century and that its origins were not in France, as has sometimes been believed because of the spelling of the word Noel. The carol was first published in 1833 in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, a compilation of seasonal carols. While the carol originated in England, its melody is unusual among English folk melodies—instead of the more traditional structure, it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a variation on that phrase. The refrain then merely repeats the melody of the verse, which is also unusual. The tune we use today is believed to be a corruption of an earlier melody sung in a church gallery setting.
Frosty the Snowman
“Frosty the Snowman,” the endearing song about the snowman who came to life, was written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson. The pair also wrote the popular Easter song, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” In addition, Rollins wrote “Smokey the Bear,” popular as the tune for the Forest Service public-service mascot, and wrote or co-wrote many country songs for recording artists such as Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, and George Jones. The most popular recording of “Frosty the Snowman” was done by Gene Autry in 1951—a version that sold more than a million copies and launched Frosty to fame.
I’ll be Home for Christmas
A product of the combined talents of Buck Ram, Kim Gannon, and Walter Kent, the lyrics to this song were originally written by Ram in 1943 as a homesick sixteen-year-old college student; its lyrics were inspired by World War I and the soldiers who thought the conflict would be short enough that they would be home for Christmas. Recorded by Bing Crosby, it became an instant holiday tradition. It was also the first song broadcast into space: In December 1965, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell were returning to earth aboard their Gemini 7 spacecraft after setting a record for the longest flight in the U.S. space program, consisting of 206 orbits. As they approached earth, they asked NASA communications personnel to pipe up to them Crosby’s recording of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
During the early 1900s, Montgomery Ward department store owners bought and gave away coloring books for Christmas every year. In 1939 they determined they could save money by creating their own coloring book—and they assigned one of their employees, Robert L. May, to come up with a coloring book design. As part of the coloring book, May—who had graduated from Dartmouth College more than a decade earlier—created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. His story, subsequently put to music, graced the pages of the coloring book, which was distributed to 2.4 million children in its first year of publication. The song—based on May’s character and introduced by Gene Autry in 1949 at Madison Square Garden—has sold more than 160 million recordings done by more than 500 different performers, in addition to 7 million copies of sheet music.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
When this song was first presented to publishers, no one was interested: it was a “kiddie” song, and they were notoriously uncommercial. But Eddie Cantor’s wife, Ida, persuaded him to take a risk on it—and the first time it was sung on Cantor’s radio show in November 1934, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” became an instant hit. More than 100,000 orders for sheet music flooded in the next day, and more than 400,000 copies were sold by that Christmas. The song was written by American songwriter John Frederick Coots, who wrote more than seven hundred songs, and Tin Pan Alley lyricist and composer James Lamont “Haven” Gillespie. Gillespie dropped out of the fourth grade, began working at a printing company, proposed marriage with a postcard, and started his married life with fifteen dollars in his pocket. He ultimately worked as a typesetter for the Cincinnati Times-Star and found work entertaining audiences at local vaudeville shows with the songs he had written.
The new LDS Christmas Songbook is beautifully illustrated.