In 1957, crooner Frank Sinatra directed songwriter Hugh Martin to rework a line in the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for his coming holiday album. “The name of my album is ‘A Jolly Christmas.’ Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” he asked, noting that the original line, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” was too depressing. Martin complied with the improved version, “Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”
While we shake our heads at some of the modern treatments of favorite carols like Cyndi Lauper’s “Christmas Conga” with the lyric “Bonga, bonga, bonga, do the Christmas conga!” or New Kids on the Block’s “Funky, Funky Xmas” with “It’s snowing outside, but we ho-ho-hoing,” we forget that the originals often didn’t come easily either.
One of the most beloved Christmas carols probably was not intended for Christmas at all. While the history of “Jingle Bells” is still debated, it likely was written in 1857 by James Pierpont for his Boston Sunday school for Thanksgiving. It’s a good thing we no longer sing the final verse, which describes drinking and picking up girls:
“Now the ground is white
“Go it while you’re young,
“Take the girls tonight
“And sing this sleighing song”
We all know that Bing Crosby’s ”White Christmas“ is the best-selling Christmas single of all time. The second-most-popular recorded Christmas song also might have belonged to Crosby, had he not turned it down, calling it “immature.”
This song began as a public-relations assignment from department store owner Montgomery Ward in 1939, was turned down by Crosby, and was assigned to another singer who similarly detested the song. After his wife forced him to go to the studio, Gene Autry recorded the number in 10 minutes but relegated it to the B side of his record “If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas.”
That song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” sold 2 million copies in 1949 and was recorded again the next year by Crosby.
Astonishingly, the original carols, centuries ago, were not songs at all. They were circle dances with chanting. Carol dances or any birthday celebrations were forbidden from church services during the first three centuries after Christ, but St. Francis of Assisi opened the door to the modern form of sung caroling by including it in a church service in 1223.
A broken church organ prompted the creation of one of the most adored carols of all time: “Silent Night.” On Christmas Eve in 1818, in the tiny Austrian village of Oberndorf, priest Joseph Mohr, forced to either cancel the service or pen music on the spot, wrote a short poem that he sent to musician Franz Gruber, who promptly created the tune for guitar and vocals. The music was completed just in time for midnight Mass.
So when we shake our heads at the modern corniness of Celine Dion singing Christmas carols or, worse, Kenny G’s syrupy saxophone renditions, we put our faith in time to soften the edges. After all, we always get it right eventually. Right?
Perhaps not. According to Billboard magazine, “These Are Special Times” by Celine Dion ranks No. 3 in all-time sales of Christmas albums.
What’s No. 1? Kenny G’s “Miracles: The Holiday Album” reached 7.23 million sales.