It’s surely a personal quirk, but I must confess that the relatively modern Christmas songs, like All I Want for Christmas Is You and Fairytale of New York leave me cold. Yes, I know they’re critically acclaimed and immensely popular, not to mention enormous money-spinners. However, they don’t tickle my fancy at all.
Perhaps it’s a function of the nostalgic nature of the season, the way it slyly tugs at isolated memories and images from childhood. While I’ve absolutely no desire to relive Christmases from 60-plus years ago, it’s the music I first heard back then that still evokes something special.
Carols, of course, are especially potent, and none more so than Silent Night. Originally written by Father Josef Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber as the German Stille Nacht, it had its first public performance at midnight mass in the Austrian village of Oberndorf on Christmas Eve 1818. Subsequently, its appeal has become universal, so much so that it was sung by both sides during the famous Christmas truce of 1914.
As for the secular Christmas songs, I’ve a particular soft spot for Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and White Christmas. And it’s no coincidence that all three pre-date 1950.
Jingle Bells is the oldest, being first published as The One-Horse Open Sleigh back in 1857. The guy who wrote it, James Lord Pierpont, churned out a lot of stuff, including an array of Confederate civil war marching songs, but only Jingle Bells ever clicked.
Mind you, in the pre-recording age it didn’t do him much good financially. Describing the composer’s penniless 1893 demise, Mark Steyn, as he often does, captures the essence: Pierpont was a man who “came from a wealthy family, and worked his way down to impoverishment.”
Rudolph, in contrast, was a 20th century creation, first appearing in the form of Robert L. May’s 1939 promotional poem for the Montgomery Ward department store. But it was May’s brother-in-law, a decorated Second World War veteran named Johnny Marks, who subsequently turned the tale into the song we know today.
Success, however, didn’t come instantly. Like many songs that went on to become classic hits, Rudolph was initially rejected by a number of big names, none of whom could detect any commercial potential in its inspirational, albeit hokey, narrative. Indeed, legend has it that even Gene Autry, the singing cowboy who initially popularised it in 1949, had to be talked into it.
Still, unlike Jingle Bells, Rudolph proceeded to make its creator rich. After Autry’s recording became a huge hit, the floodgates opened in terms of cover versions and an endless flow of royalties. And Marks, who was nobody’s fool, neatly positioned himself to reap the rewards, setting-up his own music publishing company in order to own all of the rights.
Then there’s Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the one that’s often described as having virtually invented the seasonal pop song genre. If so, it wasn’t Berlin’s first attempt; that distinction belonging to his 1912 effort entitled Christmas Time Seems Years and Years Away.
White Christmas, though, struck it lucky. Quite apart from its intrinsic merit, the timing was splendid. Featured by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, its sense of melancholic aspiration struck a powerful chord in a world at war, particularly for the many American servicemen who, courtesy of the post-Pearl Harbour mobilization, were facing their first Christmas overseas.
And White Christmas has continued to resonate over the ensuing decades. Although record sales from the mid-20th century elude precise reckoning, the Crosby version is broadly recognized as the best-selling single record ever.
Crosby, in fact, has a unique ubiquity on the matter of Christmas songs. In addition to the aforementioned all-time status of White Christmas, his recording of Silent Night is reputedly the third best-selling single in history.
Finally, a skill-testing trivia question. Do you have any idea of how many recorded versions there are of the four songs highlighted here?
According to Spotify, Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Rudolph, and White Christmas collectively account for over 75,000 individual tracks – defined as appearances on different albums by different artists. Try that one out on your Christmas Day dinner companions!
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.