You know it is “that time of year” when Christmas music begins playing on the radio and in stores. With the Christmas season creeping slightly earlier and earlier each year, or so it seems, the merry tunes can lose their novelty by the time the big day rolls around! To put some jingly spirit back into the classic tunes that underscore the holiday season, enjoy some lesser-known stories behind the songs.
It is commonly accepted that Jingle Bells was probably not even written as a Christmas song; it does not mention the holiday once! Likely played first in a church service honoring Thanksgiving, odds are the song was a shock to many churchgoers; the behaviors described in the song certainly bucked societal norms at the time and would have been considered a little risqué.
The rebellious carol was written by notorious wild child James Lord Pierpoint. He ran away from boarding school as a teen, sought adventures on the high sea as a whaler, and eventually chased the California Gold Rush.
While not much of a family man, Pierpont’s credit for writing one of the most iconic Christmas songs in history was almost lost. The song, originally titled One Horse Open Sleigh, was only mildly popular during his day. Despite earning little financially from any royalties, his son fought to renew the tune’s copyright in the 1880s, or else Jingle Bells would today include the attribution of simply “traditional.”
When it comes to out-of-this-world music, Jingle Bells went where no song had gone before when it became the first song transmitted from space back to Earth! In December 1965, the astronauts board Gemini 6 relaxed for the journey back to Earth after a successful rendezvous with Gemini 7. The two pilots radioed back to Houston that they spotted a suspicious spacecraft flying in an unusual manner. “I see a command module,” United States astronaut Thomas P. Stafford said. He continued, “And eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.” Houston then heard Stafford and Walter M. “Wally” Schirra, Jr. playing the first instruments in space: a harmonica and some bells, now on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
The television holiday special How the Grinch Stole Christmas first aired in 1966, and featured the mean-spirited-yet-humorous song, You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. The children’s author Dr. Seuss, formerly known as Theodor Seuss Geisel, who wrote the book, also wrote the lyrics. Songwriter Albert Hague put them to music, and award-winning Warner Brothers’ animator Chuck Jones completed the animation. Boris Karloff, an actor known for his work in the horror genre, voiced the Grinch.
While reasonable to assume Karloff also sang You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch, the voice belonged to Thurl Ravenscroft. The name may sound unfamiliar, but if you listen closely this Christmas season, his voice may ring more than just a Christmas bell. If you think Ravenscroft sounds like the famous Frosted Flakes® cereal mascot, Tony the Tiger®, you would be correct! The same man who gave life to the phrase, “They’re grrreat!” did the same for iconic lines like “You’re a bad banana with a . . . greasy black peel!”
Do You Hear What I Hear?
In October 1962, Gloria Shayne Baker composed the music for Do You Hear What I Hear? A record producer approached her husband, Noel Regney, to create a Christmas song in the fall of 1962. Regney wrote the lyrics, even though Shayne had arranged for composing greats like Sondheim and Berlin, which was opposite of the roles the couple typically took when creating music together. The song was first recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale (also known for their rendition of The Little Drummer Boy) and hit the airwaves shortly after Thanksgiving that same year, selling over 250,000 records. In 1963, Bing Crosby, who needs no introduction when it comes to Christmas crooning, recorded it and the song became a worldwide hit.
Regney was raised in the Catholic faith, but eventually found his religious home as a Unitarian Universalist, while Shayne was born into a Jewish family from Massachusetts (the family next door were the Kennedys, who had a son whose name you may recognize: John F. Kennedy). While their song is loosely based on the nativity story found in Matthew’s Gospel, the lyrics stand in stark contrast to the actual reaction of King Herod, who did not consider Jesus as bringing “goodness and light,” but rather tried to have him killed.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
In 1821, William B. Gilley published a book that included a poem written anonymously entitled Old Santeclaus with Much Delight. The children’s rhyme, along with the book’s illustrations, provides several firsts when it comes to how Santa Clause operates: the illustrations are the first depictions of the gift bringer wearing a red suit, the gifts being delivered on Christmas Eve night, and of the sleigh being pulled by a reindeer. And yes, you read that correctly, Gilley’s book depicted a single reindeer leading the way. Two years later, A Visit from St. Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas) was published anonymously; Clement C. Moore, a professor, did not want credit for such a childish rhyme but later claimed his authorship in 1837 at the insistence of his own children. Moore may have been inspired from the illustrations published earlier depicting a reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh because Moore’s poem has eight! Not only did Moore increase Santa’s flying animal crew, he named them; Donner and Blitzen, which mean thunder and lightning in Dutch. Yet, there was still one more reindeer missing.
Rudolph did not arrive on the scene for over a century. Robert L. May created Rudolph in 1939 while working in advertising for Montgomery Ward, a Chicago-based department store chain. It was customary at Christmastime for the store to give away coloring books as a gesture of goodwill. May, who thought the Rudolph character would be a great character in the books, read his daughter his words, giving him the confidence that children would enjoy the story.
The story was a success: Over 2.4 million copies were distributed that Christmas season in 1939. In 1946, the poem was as popular as ever, and Montgomery Ward gifted over 3.6 million copies to their customers. Eventually, the company gave the copyright to May, and a small New York publishing house took a chance on the book; many larger firms had passed, thinking that so many people had free copies that not enough would sell. The book was still a hit and as popular as ever!
May’s sister was married to the songwriter Johnny Marks, who turned May’s story into a Christmas song. Though Bing Crosby turned it down, Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” recorded and released the song in 1939 and it was a hit, only losing to White Christmas for most records sold! Due to Rudolph’s success, May left Montgomery Ward to manage “the most famous reindeer of all’s” career. May continued his career writing two sequels: Rudolph to the Rescue and Rudolph Shines Again.
This holiday season, relish in these origin stories as you listen to these famous songs.