Holiday Hits Decoded

Amanda/December 02, 2012

They’re everywhere you go these days. They’re in the grocery store, the laundromat, on every station you can pick up on your car radio. Holiday tunes will be inescapable for the next month or so and their omnipresence, while sometimes annoying, is also intriguing. What do we really know about all these songs we’ve been hearing every December since we can remember? We decided it was high time we learned a bit more about this music we’ve all grown up with. So settle in with a cup of hot cocoa and let us teach you about the truths, the myths, and the stories behind your favorite holiday hits.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – Originally recorded in 1952, the song was commissioned by Saks Fifth Avenue as a promotional tool for their seasonal ad campaign. The tune was immediately condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in Boston. Jimmy Boyd, the song’s original crooner, was photographed later that year meeting with the Archdiocese to explain the song. After their meeting, the ban was lifted.

All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth – Written in 1944 by a unassuming second grade teacher, Donald Yetter Gardner asked his students at a public elementary school in Smithtown, New York what they wanted for Christmas. Supposedly, he noticed that almost all his students had a least one front tooth missing and answered the question with a lisp. He subsequently wrote his only hit song in 30 minutes.

Feliz Navidad – This Jose Faliciano seasonal staple was covered by Dora the Explorer…that’s all we got.

The Chipmunk Song – This song won three Grammys and is also the last holiday song to reach number 1 on the BIllboards. Those are really the only facts you need on this one because they are completely and utterly shocking.

Mele Kalikimaka – The native Polynesians of Hawaii did not celebrate Christmas prior to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778. It was, however, the protestant missionaries from New England that arrived in 1820 who first introduced Christmas to the Hawaiian people. The missionaries put the Hawaiian language into written form, enabling the Hawaiian people to read and write in their own language. Many words for which there were no clear Hawaiian language equivalents were translated phonetically. The words “Mele Kalikimaka” are an example of such phonetic translations. When the missionaries and other Westerners first brought the custom of Christmas to the islands, the Hawaiians had difficulty pronouncing “Merry Christmas” and the missionaries turned it into a phrase that rolled more easily off their tongues – in other words, it’s made up.

Christmastime– Though this was made popular by Aimee Mann, it was written by Michael Penn, Sean Penn’s brother.

Do You Hear What I Hear– This holiday hit was actually a protest song of sorts. Written in 1962, the lyrics encouraged peace in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Chanukah Song – We all know that comedian Adam Sandler wrote this one, but what you may not know is that he just jotted it down for Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update skit in 1994. After receiving so much positive feedback for it, he updated the lyrics and took it to the road as part of his stand-up act. This song was also was parodied/covered in 2009, by of all people, Neil Diamond.

Mannheim Steamroller – This jazzy new age take on traditional holiday music has sold a total of 3,480,000 copies (one of which was to my dad).

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – Rudolph came to life in 1939 when the Chicago-based retail store Montgomery Ward asked one of the copywriters, Robert L. May, to come up with a holiday story they could give away in booklet form to shoppers. They saw it as  both a promotional gimmick and a cost-cutting method. The store had been buying and giving out coloring books to children for years, and thought if they could create their own, they could save a few bucks. May based the character of Rudolph loosely (obviously) on himself as he had been taunted and teased as a child. A few more fun facts on this one: Rudolph was almost Reginald or Rolo, and his famous red nose was also almost nixed. May’s boss needed some convincing on Rudolph’s most famous attribute as he imagined a reddened nose being associated with drunkards.

Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John Lennon and Yoko Ono may have written the lyrics for this one but the melody was taken from an old folk song about a racehorse called “Stewball”.

Let it Snow – While the title might suggest otherwise, this one was written in 1945 by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn on a July day in southern California, a day that later would prove to be on one of the hottest days of that year.

Silver Bells–  Originally called Tinkle Bells, co-composer Jay Livingston’s wife pointed out to him that “tinkle” is commonly used as slang for “pee” and it was quickly changed to “Silver”. Another interesting tidbit: Livingston and his writing partner, Ray Evans, were also responsible for Que Sera Sera and the theme songs to Bonanza and Mr. Ed.

White Christmas– When the famed composer, Irving Berlin, wrote this one in his head, he said to his secretary, “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”. Bold words, Mr. Berlin.

Blue Christmas  Original copies of this Elvis Presley holiday album were issued with a red booklet-like album cover featuring promotional photos from Elvis’ third movie Jailhouse Rock. Even rarer than the cover and the record itself, is a gold foil attached to the shrink wrap, reading “TO _______, FROM ________, ELVIS SINGS”, followed by a list of the tracks. Original copies with the gold sticker intact on the shrink wrap have proven to be among the most valuable of Elvis’s albums. Adding to its already high value are limited red vinyl albums and album covers with gold print down the spine. If you’ve got one of these lying around, it could be worth a couple thousand dollars. Things to think about as the gift-giving season gets rolling.

Santa Baby– This saucy song was co-written by Joan Javits, the niece of Jacob Javits, a Republican Senator from New York.

You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch – We all grew up watching this movie, but if you watch til the end, the closing credits don’t give credit to the songster, Thurl Ravenscroft, and thusly, it is often mistakenly attributed to Boris Karloff, who served as narrator and the voice of the Grinch. After becoming aware of the oversight, Dr. Seuss himself called Ravenscroft and apologized profusely, and later wrote letters to columnists nationwide telling them that it was, in fact, Ravenscroft who provided the voice for the song. Another Grinch-related fact, the 2000 remake features the song, Christmas Why Can’t I Find You, sung by Taylor Momsen of Gossip Girl fame.

Baby It’s Cold Outside – Accomplished composer of many a Broadway musical, Frank Lesser wrote this duet in 1944 and premiered the song with his wife, Lynn Garland, at their Navarro Hotel housewarming party. It wasn’t originally intended to be a holiday song, but was performed instead by the twosome toward the end of the evening as a polite attempt to signifying to guests that it was time to leave. Lynn considered it “their song,” and was furious when Loesser sold the rights to MGM.

Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer – If you’ve noticed, this song doesn’t get a lot of airplay and after a little research we found out why. Edison Media Research and Pinnacle Media Worldwide independently surveyed radio listeners on which seasonal songs they liked and disliked. In both surveys, results of which were reported in 2007, the only song that reached the top of both “most-disliked lists” was Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, conversely, it also was relatively high on the “ loved” ratings. Like many other stations, Washington, D.C. radio station, WASH (97.1 FM), dropped the song from its playlist years back with program director, Bill Hess, offering the simple explanation, “It was too polarizing”. So, if you happen to hear this one on the radio, turn it way up, you might not catch it again till next year.

Things to think about next time you decide to get seasonal with your music. Let us know if you have songs you think we should research, or if you have any fun facts of your own about your favorite holiday hits.

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