We all sing, hum along with or listen to the Christmas carols and songs of the season, but how many know the stories behind some of the best-loved tunes? Here’s a history of a few of my favorites:
“White Christmas” is a holiday tradition beloved by millions. It’s also the most popular song, ever. Literally.
The classic was written by Irving Berlin, a Russian, Jewish immigrant who, though he couldn’t even read or write music notation, composed more than 1,000 songs. White Christmas, with just 54 words and 67 notes, remains his most popular.
Many think Berlin was inspired to write “White Christmas” during a stay in Beverly Hills while working on a movie. He was homesick for his family.
“White Christmas” premiered on radio at Christmastime in 1941, just 18 days after Pearl Harbor. The song aired on Bing Crosby’s radio show. Only eight months later, moviegoers would see and hear Crosby sing it in the film “Holiday Inn.”
The first time I remember hearing the song White Christmas was in my favorite movie of the same name (release date: Oct. 14, 1954). I was about 6 years old, in 1974, when I watched the show with my mom, on TV, the days before VCRs and DVD players. We had a record album from Coast to Coast ($2.99 with any purchase) and I remember carefully putting the needle down to play the beloved song.
Another of my favorite Christmas songs is “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
The names of the composers Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne may not be familiar; however, they composed many popular songs together, including “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” recorded by Bobby Vinton.
The song was written in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a plea for peace by Regney, who had experienced the horrors of war. He was French born, hated the Nazis but forced to join the German army. During the war he was caught in crossfire and shot. He deserted the German army eventually and fled to Manhattan in 1952.
I feel the song’s message of peace is as desperately needed today as it was then.
I have many favorite versions of this song, including Bing Crosby’s, Dean Martin’s and Burl Ives. However, my favorite version is the one my daughters, Avery and Hailey, sang at church two years ago.
I grew up in a small town in the country on the Canadian border. We did not have cable TV as it was not an option where we lived, on a dirt road that was not paved until I was in middle school. We got three television stations, all out of Canada, and none very clearly.
Once a year, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” would come on TV and if we were lucky and it wasn’t a church night, my two older brothers and I would gather around the 24-inch television with rabbit ears and watched the show.
It was years later that I learned the story of Rudolph was a book written by Bob May in 1939 and distributed by Montgomery Ward. Bob’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, made a song adaptation to Rudolph that was reportedly turned down by Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. It was recorded by the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was released in 1949 and became a phenomenal success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of “White Christmas.”
One of America’s best known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poetic words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Dec. 25, 1864. As a literature major, I was a Longfellow fan prior to knowing much about the famous words he wrote.
Longfellow’s words flowed from the experience involving the tragic death of his wife Fanny and the crippling injury of his son, Charles, from war wounds. However, throughout a period of several years’ of journal entries and culminating in the famous song at the end of the Civil War, Longfellow had come around with a message that ends in hope:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”
For further exploration, amazon.com has a variety of books available on the history of Christmas songs, ranging in price from $12 to $18. Books can also be checked out through local library ValNet systems.
“We wish you a Merry Christmas!” (This song has roots in 16th century England, but author and date written are unknown. Sorry. That’s all I know).
Lorie Palmer has worked for the Free Press for 20-1/2 years. Her favorite Christmas song of all time is Amy Grant’s “Heirloom,” which she sings over and over in her car each Christmas season. The song makes her cry, but the tears are cleansing. She has listened to and loved Amy Grant her entire life.