WASHINGTON – At this time of the year, CDN’s writers past and present have often expressed their fondness for those beloved, mostly traditional, hymns, tunes and songs of old. Songs that are among the highlights of our year-end Christmas and holiday seasons. Some years back, we polled our writers, asking them which Christmas songs they loved the most. Their picks ranged from serious expressions of faith, to family favorites, to the slightly odd and the somewhat unusual.
Better yet, most don’t involve the hideous overstyling of Christmas music that’s become far too fashionable in this decade. There’s nothing wrong with the old tunes in their gloriously UNstyled versions. That’s why we still remember them.
Now it’s nearly Christmas 2019. So we’d like to share this updated column with you once again. We hope that at least some of our authors’ articles and video clips bring back pleasant memories of holidays past and will also inspire you to share your own favorites with CDN in the comments section that appears way below after a bank of obnoxious ads we need to run to pay for this site.
May you, your family and your friends have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday and the best of everything in 2016!
I grew up on 1930s and 1940s classics performed live in the family kitchen or on the turntable of our unstable 45-rpm record player. Those live performances, BTW, were by my mom, a former “territory band” singer in the 1940s.
No Christmas song was more ubiquitous at that time than Bing Crosby’s rendition (probably the second recorded one) of Irving Berlin’s immortal “White Christmas.” The song was first encountered on film in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn.”
“White Christmas” is one of my favorites, and I’m not alone. The Guinness Book of World Records has declared it the best-selling single of all time, with sales estimated to be north of 50 million copies throughout the world. Elton John fans pooh-pooh this number, claiming Elton’s “Candle in the Wind” has sold more. But in sheer numbers, including those logged before formal pop recording records were kept, Der Bingle’s Christmas single still rules.
Never out of print
Bing’s jolly 1949 Christmas album, which includes this song, has never been out of print, an astounding achievement in the annuals of popular music. Records, CDs, MP3s and 4s, however you want Bing’s “White Christmas,” whatever your preferred format, it’s out there.
Here’s a video of Crosby performing the song in the 1954 film “White Christmas,” a considerably updated remake of “Holiday Inn” that featured Danny Kaye as Bing’s sidekick. (Fred Astaire had ably filled that slot in the earlier film.)
You can hear the muffled sound of exploding shells in the distance as Bing’s GI audience falls somber and silent, chilled to the bone by the winter winds, clearly dreaming of those crackling home fires and how much they longed to win the war and return at last to friends and family for the holidays.
The video is a little blurry, but you’ll quickly get the picture and the poignancy of the moment. Perhaps today’s young U.S. vets who have returned or are returning from the seemingly endless conflict in the Middle East will relate to this moment, even if they’ve never seen the movie or have somehow never heard the song.
When the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed his famous poem “Christmas Bells,” America was months away from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Virginia’s Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.
Longfellow’s poem reflected not only the prior several years, when the embattled United States was almost overwhelmed by war’s despair. It also embodied his own lingering despair over the death of his beloved wife, Fanny, two years earlier, and the Civil War wounding of his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac.
Happily, Charles survived, and Longfellow’s poem remains, reflecting both the poet’s and our still young nation’s looking forward to the promise of brighter days to come.
The final version of Longfellow’s poem was published in the following year. It was not set to music, as the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” until 1872, when it was set to music by British organist John Baptiste Calkin.
This song speaks to everything that’s important to me: family, country, honor and loyalty. My heart fills with joy and pride whenever and wherever I hear it.
(Video clip of a live performance of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” from the 2008 presentation of “Christmas by Candlelight” [CBC] at Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.)
When I was growing up in South Korea, my parents were always working, even during the holidays. While I watched Christmas movies on TV, my Christmas was pretty humble. I waited for my parents to get home, and then went to bed. So I never really learned to indulge in traditional holiday spirits. Instead, I learned to indulge myself with a sense of accomplishment and ambition.
But one morning, the song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” was playing on the radio. Something about the song filled my heart with the quietness, peace and everything else that Christmas offers in many people’s hearts.
The song reminded me to stop running so hard and cherish a quiet moment with a cup of coffee in front of a fireplace to enjoy the Christmas spirit. The holiday doesn’t have to be fancy or big. Instead, I most enjoy a small, intimate Christmas that only I can savor with my cup of coffee as I watch the snow drifting down from the sky and falling to earth before my window.
Judy Garland, then 21, sings the song here in a clip from her 1944 blockbuster film musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The song itself starts at roughly 35 seconds into this clip.
In searching for a new video for this song to replace one no longer available, we discovered the original verse of this song. Penned by lyricist Hugh Martin for this film, these words and sentiments were not very happy ones. Perhaps they more realistically reflecting the moment during which the song is sung. Judy Garland finally persuaded Martin to provide her with the more positive lyric we all know and love today. But for contrast, here’s the discarded lyric:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
In defense of Martin’s original verse, we’d note that for all the hope and happiness wrapped up in our traditional year-end festivities, many Americans each year find that the holidays can trigger remorse and regret for lost opportunities, relationships and memories—the poignant side of the holiday season.)
Katherine K. Davis, Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone composed the words and music to “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1958. Although it eventually suffered from too much airplay and has become a joke today in some circles, it still has a place in my heart.
My mother’s pride and joy in the year of 1958 was the six-foot-long RCA stereo my father bought from Sears and Roebuck. She joined a record club, and soon we had Ray Charles, Elvis and the Bill Doggett Trio performing in our living room.
As the year came to a close we looked forward to hearing all the popular Christmas carols (in living stereo!) Sitting in front of our impressive, late ‘50s entertainment center in a family room illuminated only by the light from the Christmas tree, we listened to Christmas music on vinyl LPs, including one by the Harry Simeone Chorale. All the songs we listened to were beautiful. But when that choral drone of “drum, drum, drum” started, we were transfixed.
To a 10-year-old during the Christmas season, “The Little Drummer Boy” provided a magical trip across space and time, transporting him back 2,000 years to the little town of Bethlehem. Almost like Gregorian chant, the repeated thrum of this evocative tune allowed a young mind to transcend time and space to touch an ancient world, or at least what we all imagined it to have been. The music built a sweet, lyrical backdrop, enabling us to imagine what it must have been like to behold the newborn baby Jesus in that humble stable long ago.
We replaced the video from an earlier version of this article with the following, which is essentially the original way everyone back in the day first heard this wonderful character. Before today’s “pop artists” decided to style it to death. Here’s an interesting comment posted below the following YouTube video:
“Would anyone like to know why I love this song SOOO much? Just in case you might, I’ll tell you. It’s the story of a little boy who recognizes that he has value even though he has nothing valuable. You know? That little drummer did not care about what anyone else thought…he went to see a KING he knew deserved his (and all people’s) respect and honor. He went even though he might suffer humiliation for not having a tangible gift to “lay before our King.” But as it turns out, he gave the most valuable gift of all…something inside himself; a part of his soul. And the rest is history and I wish we could all be like that!” ]
John Paul Cassil
“Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” is a beautiful Christmas song. Originally composed as a dance tune for nobility in the 14th century, the music was set to new lyrics, transforming it into a French Christmas carol in 1553, nearly five centuries ago. The song has been translated into English, and there have been many popular instrumental versions over the centuries.
Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella
Bring a torch, come swiftly and run.
Christ is born, tell the folk of the village,
Jesus is sleeping in His cradle,
Ah, ah, beautiful is the Mother,
Ah, ah, beautiful is her Son.
This carol reminds us that the news of Christ’s birth was given first to the meek and lowly in society. Our best guess at the composer’s notion of Jeanette and Isabella tells us they might have been working as milk-maidens. When they came to milk the cattle in the stable on the first Christmas morning, they encountered a most unexpected event. They then ran to tell the village of Bethlehem the good news, bringing their torches along with them to light their way in those early morning hours.
Downhere’s album “How Many Kings” is one of the most beautifully composed Christmas albums I’ve heard. It contains not only reimagined versions of older carols, (like the unique French interlude in “What Child is This?”). It also includes new songs completely (like the album title song “How Many Kings.”) This version of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” is beautiful as it incorporates a melodious chorus into that famous old tune from the Middle Ages.
Unfortunately, the album John P cited here was pulled from YouTube for whatever reason. But we found this delightful, low key version of this gossamer Christmas song in the original French. The video is just a single Christmas candle throughout, but the vocal gives you the almost childlike spirit that originally made this tune so enchanting, first in France and then everywhere else.]
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal
Since July 15, 1929, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed a weekly radio broadcast called “Music and the Spoken Word.” It remains the longest-running continuous network broadcast in the world.
The show started being televised in the early 1960s. Today it is broadcast worldwide through 1,500 radio, television and cable stations.
One of my first jobs in broadcasting was producing this show for my local San Diego radio station. Since I was alone early on Sunday morning, I would turn up our powerful monitor speakers to full blast and let the beautiful music surround me. I was awestruck by the devotion and teamwork required to make the resulting musical magic happen.
At Christmastime in particular, the choir conveys the exultation and joy of the traditional music celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to be a Christian to feel it.
Ronald Reagan called the Mormon Tabernacle Choir “America’s Choir.” For me, the choir represents the meaning of the Christmas season. Particularly as it performs the glorious “Hallelujah Chorus” from George Friederich Handel’s immortal “Messiah.”
One hot mid-July California afternoon back in the day, popular (now late) singer Mel Tormé stopped by the home of his friend Bob Wells. Noticing four sentences scribbled in a notebook, he asked, “What’s this?”
“It’s been so sweltering lately,” Wells explained. “I jotted down some things that would remind me of winters back East.”
“You know,” Tormé said, “this could be a song.” Then he added, “Maybe even a song about Christmas.”
As Tormé sat down at the piano, Wells started penning additional words. And just 40 minutes later, the two completed a song not merely about Christmas. They had composed a song that the world would come to know as “The Christmas Song.”
Rushing the song to Capitol recording artist Nat “King” Cole, Mel Tormé performed the song for him. Mr. Cole reserved a studio and recorded the song in time for release for the current 1946 Christmas. He would, seven years later, re-record it to include full orchestral accompaniment. To date, that second version has sold more than seven million copies.
In our family, we’ve always said that Christmas has officially begun when first we hear the opening pair of descending chords signaling the beginning of Nat King Cole’s mellow, never-to-be-equaled rendition of “The Christmas Song.”
(New, B&W video below replaces earlier video pulled by YouTube.)
Growing up as I did in a musical family meant many nights gathered around the piano, creating Christmas memories that could be plopped right into a Judy Garland movie without skipping a beat.
The only Three Tenors of any importance in my young world back then were my dad and his brothers. Performances by my exclusive Three Tenors were rare, though. Uncle Bob was in the Air Force. Flying his family in from places like Guam for Christmas wasn’t generally an option.
As the years passed, life rolled on, grandparents passed away, cousins moved and families were split asunder by divorce. Christmas still brought crazy, warm family gatherings. But every year, it seemed, there was someone missing. Soon, even my own parents divorced.
It was around this time that the Carpenters released their album “Christmas Portrait,” which included the song “Merry Christmas, Darling.”
The Carpenters’ song celebrates the joy of Christmas: lights on the tree, logs on the fire and greeting cards on the mantel. But it also celebrates intangible love. That category includes the people we can’t pass the potatoes to or kiss under the mistletoe anymore. But they are still part of our lives, and they’re still part of our holidays.
This Christmas, families everywhere will be missing someone. At some point during the gift giving or the cookie decorating, each of us will stop for a moment, lost in memory. My dad passed away in 1993, silencing my Three Tenors forever. But tonight as I sit at the piano playing “Merry Christmas, Darling,” his beautiful voice will sing to me loud and strong. “I’ve just one wish on this Christmas Eve. I wish I were with you.”
The version below replaces a better looking video that YouTube seems to have taken down. Others exist, but the video portion is fuzzy and terrible. This one, from a live performance by the late Karen Carpenter, replaces it, although this video, too, is a bit worn. The only drawback to this version: it’s not only sad but easy to see that Karen, long unable to overcome her anorexia nervosa, is painfully thin. Complications resulting from her battle with this condition eventually led to her tragic and premature death at 32 in 1983. She was one of the finest vocalists of her generation.]
When people ask me what my favorite color is, my answer is that I don’t have a favorite because there are too many to like. Christmas songs are pretty much the same for me. Religious or secular – I love them all. My kids and I love the chickens and dogs that cluck and bark “Jingle Bells,” and even that lame parody from when we were kids, “Jingle bells! Batman smells! Robin laid an egg!……”
My love of Christmas music developed while I was growing up in the Chicago suburb of Dolton, Illinois. As soon as the holiday season began, my mother would simmer water, cinnamon and nutmeg on the stove and put her favorite holiday records in the console stereo (remember them?) to play. Her favorite 33 was the one by the Robert Shaw Chorale. The album by the Harry Simeone Choir, best known even today for its definitive rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy,” was also one of her favorites.
More about “O, Holy Night”
Although it’s too hard for me to pick an absolute favorite, the carol that first comes to mind for me is “O, Holy Night.” It is the fruit of a nominal Christian, French poet Placide Cappeau of Roquemaure, France. He asked his Jewish friend Adolphe Charles Adams to put it to music. It was translated into English by Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight, who resided in the well-known Transcendentalist community of Brook Farm, Massachusetts. A devout abolitionist, he was particularly fond of the third verse, which deals forthrightly with slavery, and did what he could to popularize the song—and its message—throughout the country.
I find it intriguing that individuals not “of the establishment” gave birth to this beautiful Christmas carol. General society merely tolerated these men. Yet all three of them understood what the Christmas message is all about. That really speaks to me.
Who did Jesus hang out with? Certainly not the established religious leaders of the time. He preferred people who were honest about who they were and what they were all about. And I believe He still does.
[Editor’s note: The earlier Josh Groban video of this hymn we’d posted a few years back has been disappeared. So we’ve substituted this one. The video is static, but the music is clear as a bell, and lyrics are provided in case you want to sing along with Josh.]
I love Christmas carols. Yes, Jewish people love carols too. Some of the most beautiful music ever composed has been written for Christmas. I sang Christmas music in college choirs and, earlier, in my high school choir as a girl growing up in Philadelphia. I can still sing them all today and know more of the lyrics than most of my Christian friends! One of my favorites to perform and to hear is “Carol of the Bells.” Here is a beautiful version by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
(Editor’s note: YouTube removed the version we first posted in 2012 some time in 2014. We replaced it with the following brilliantly elaborate Mormon Tabernacle Choir arrangement, complete with magnificent, five-octave bell choir. Based on the original, this version unexpectedly re-imagines this famously minor-key carol as a triumphant, mostly major-key chorale.)
Kristi Overton Johnson
One of my favorite things about Christmas is the music. I love music, all music. But there’s something magical about Christmas music.
Whether in the car, at home or in a store, as soon as a Christmas song begins to play, Christmas cheer spreads from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Without fail, my mouth starts singing and my toes start tapping! Although I’ve never lived any place truly cold, “Baby it’s Cold Outside” has always been one of my favorites. Guess you could call it wishful thinking on my part.
Many artists have performed this beautiful song. But in my opinion, few versions can compare to the infamous bathroom duet of Jovi (Zooey Deschanel) and Buddy (Will Ferrell) in the movie “Elf.” Just the thought of Buddy curled up on the bathroom counter singing his heart out can still bring a smile to any face.
The world needs more Buddys. His innocent heart, his love for people and his unwillingness to let the world change him is a great inspiration for us all as we head into this Christmas season.
Buddy’s words of wisdom: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is to sing loud for all to hear!”
[Editor’s note: We’re continuing to post the humorously truncated edition of the popular holiday song that appears in one of our few modern classic Christmas films: “Elf.” It appears that at some point fairly recently, a few eternally-vigilant militant snowflakes seem to have consigned this old, beloved song to the PC trash heap. But we don’t have any issues with it.]
No holiday is more or better represented in song than Christmas. During the holiday season, which begins disturbingly as early as September in many stores and on many radio stations, you can find Christmas music sung in every form and format somewhere either in public, on TV and cable. Or even on your trusty radio dial 24 hours a day.
My favorites? It would be easy to go with Bruce Springsteen gritting out “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (hey, I’m a northeast guy born of the early ‘70s, whaddya want?!); a strong voice like Johnny Mathis or Sarah Brightman hitting all the low to high notes in “O Holy Night” (I feel this is a requisite for being a bona fide Christmas song performer); or with quirky favorites from the Waitresses (the catchy and boppy pace of “Christmas Wrapping”) or Lou Monte (how does “Dominick the Donkey” not bring a smile to anyone’s face?)
But, sticking with stereotypes, and since I was, after all, “The Beer Guy” in my old column After Hours at The Brew Lounge, I put my hand up for Bob and Doug McKenzie’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
What? You don’t understand? I mean, c’mon, a beer. In a tree. What could be more festive? They are the Strange Brew guys, too, you know… right? Maybe you don’t understand. Perhaps you’re a hoser. Now go get your toque and a two-four and run along.
Oh, and have a Merry Christmas along the way. To all, including those not celebrating Christmas, I raise my glass and wish you a season of good health, good eats and drinks, and time well spent with family and friends. If we can put aside all of our socio-political differences, I believe that on this, we can all agree.
Oh, yeah. The animated version of this one is pretty funny.
If you grew up in Chicago during the 1960s, “Hardrock, Coco and Joe” was the heralds’ first call that Christmas was on the way. That stop-motion animated cartoon was based on a song originally penned by Stuart Hamblen. We would all laugh when the song arrived at the very baritone line, “and I’m Joe…”
The fact that I married a Joe might also have something to do with my memory of that.
The story of the Three Little Dwargs was an annual classic shown on Chicago’s WGN television children’s program, “The Garfield Goose Show with Captain Kangaroo.” This short tune, along with another, “Suzy Snowflake,” brought smiles and joy to children already eager and anxious to get outside and play in the deep Chicago snow.
I searched for, found and re-played videos of those already long-ago Christmas memories. In so doing, my rediscoveries even brought a smile to my then-teenaged, video game-playing son. He found the same delight in the black and white stop-animation work and Jurassic-era special effects we Boomers grew up with in a time already so long ago.
Donner and Blitzen, away, away
I’m Hardrock, I’m Coco, I’m Joe!
Me again. Why not conclude this musical retrospective with Mannheim Steamroller’s wondrously elegantand surprisingly spiritual arrangement of “Silent Night.”
“Silent Night” still conjures up the reverential silence hovering over the shepherds and others visiting that crude manger on the first Christmas. Read once again the biblical accounts of Christ’s birth each Christmas season. We can readily imagine the bitter, winter winds gusting around that crudely built stable as the Christmas Miracle was born.
Fast forward 2,000 years later to our own times. Contemporary biblical and scientific research show it’s not only a challenge to assert that Christ’s birth definitively occurred on Dec. 25 or its ancient equivalent. It’s also likely a myth that bitter wind and snow swirled about Bethlehem at the Savior’s birth like they do today during ski season in Vail, Colorado.
Electronic music can also use a subtle approach
Yet even today, the ancient and likely embellished myths surrounding the Nativity remain touching, beautiful. And yes, perhaps a bit sentimental but in a good way. That remains true at least for those still open to the possibilities of miracles and salvation in today’s cynical age.
Close your eyes and listen to Mannheim Steamroller’s arrangement of this beloved Christmas hymn. Travel back to that old, traditional, though perhaps mythical Christmas Night. Like the shepherds, you soon find yourselves staring in wonder and hope at the newly born Redeemer. And also the possibility of a better future for all, even as those cold, wintry gusts howl outside. Just like the bitter gale you hear intruding at the end of this clip. It bears the joyful music and its vision of hope up and away from Bethlehem. Aloft, the winds carry it further aloft and on to the rest of a troubled world.
The YouTube video clip below is excerpted from Mannheim Steamroller’s live Christmas Concert. Ironically the concert takes place in sunny Orlando, Florida in 2012.
(This story is reprised annually with revisions and updates to help us all celebrate the season.)
— Headline image: One of 72 images from a Swedish Christmas clip art CD, now released to the public domain
by the artist AlphaZeta. Via Wikimedia search on Christmas Art.