The Magic Of Christmas Music

Bing Crosby headshot, singer, B&W photo on black
This column was written by Doug Gamble.
While Grinches continue their campaign to eliminate the word "Christmas" from the national vocabulary and drive the holiday and its symbols underground, they have yet to have any appreciable effect on Christmas music on the airwaves.

At least for now, Yule-song lyrics have not been changed to "I'm dreaming of a white holiday," "It's beginning to look a lot like winter solstice," or "I'll be home for the seasonal celebration." And not only does Christmas music continue to pour forth from radio stations; some around the country have embraced an "all Christmas music all the time" format lasting from the day after Thanksgiving until midnight on December 25.

Earlier this month, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers released results of a survey to identify the most-performed Christmas songs in the first five years of the 21st Century. Not only is the list comprised of the expected old chestnuts, but the number-one song is literally that, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," officially titled "The Christmas Song."

Others making up the top ten are: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas," "Let it Snow," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bell Rock," "I'll be Home for Christmas" and "Little Drummer Boy."

"The Christmas Song" was written in 1945 by a 19-year-old Mel Torme and collaborator Bob Wells during a sweltering summer day in Palm Springs. They decided a way to cool down was to write a Yuletide tune, which they dashed off in a mere 40 minutes.

Singing cowboy Gene Autry is associated with three big Christmas hits, including one he almost passed up. When writer Johnny Marks presented him with "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" in 1940, Autry called it the silliest song he ever heard. He had to be talked into recording it, doing it in one take and then washing his hands of it. He apparently changed his opinion of it soon thereafter, though, when it sold two million records in its first year.

In 1947, Autry recorded a song he had co-written, "Here Comes Santa Claus," inspired by the anticipatory shouts of children lining Hollywood Blvd. as he rode ahead of the Santa float in the Hollywood Christmas Parade. It no doubt drives the ACLU crazy that the song contains both the words "God" and "Lord," the only Christmas song, as opposed to a carol, to do so. Autry followed it with "Frosty the Snowman," penned by Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins in 1949.

When Bob Hope decided he wanted a Christmas song included in his 1951 movie The Lemon Drop Kid, he turned to the song-writing team of Jay Livingstone and Ray Evans, who balked at first, protesting that it was an almost impossible task because all the great Christmas songs had already been written. What they eventually came up with wasn't too shabby, the now-classic "Silver Bells."
Some Christmas songs made their debut during wartime, including a longing for home in 1943's "I'll Be Home for Christmas," by Kim Gannon, Walter Kent, and Buck Ram. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, was introduced in the1943 Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" was first sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn.

As originally written, the Garland song began grimly with, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last." She so hated those five words, the lyrics were changed to, "Let your heart be light." But taken as a whole, it is still one of the most poignant Christmas songs ever written, with an undercurrent of melancholy that captures the way many people feel about this time of year.