I’ll Be Home For Christmas – Perry Como 1946
I’ll Be Home For Christmas was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943, it was his follow up hit to White Christmas from the previous year, and the world was still at war. Families of overseas soldiers were caught in a world of uncertainty and fear, letters home were treasured or dreaded depending from whom they came, these feelings of dispossession, alienation, and separation were only intensified at Christmas time. Lyricist Kim Gannon knew the emotional toll of fighting global wars, he lived in Brooklyn (NYC) and saw the absence of bonhomie and seasonal joy in the faces of his neighbours, it was hard to think about presents, and peace on earth, when death seemed so real, and a victory was not yet in sight.
It was not surprising then that this song sounded more like a letter home, than a typical Christmas carol: “I’ll be home for Christmas/ You can plan on me / Please have snow and mistletoe/ And presents by the tree…Christmas eve will find me/ Where the lovelight gleams/ I’ll be home for Christmas/ If only in my dreams”. There was a fine balance between optimism, sadness, and hopefulness, in the lyrics, which imbued the song with a prayer-like reverence, and it resonated with families, becoming one of Crosby’s biggest hits. Despite the complete absence of a reference to Jesus or Christmas, it has been used many times in cantatas and church programs. Crosby did have the original hit but Perry Como’s version was also heartfelt, he had a similar easy-listening style to Bing, and this song featured on his 1946 album Perry Como Sings Merry Christmas Music.
Hark The Herald Angels Sing – Mahalia Jackson 1962
The Methodist Church was founded in the 18th century by John Wesley, an Anglican pastor who had tried to reform the Church of England from within, but ultimately established a breakaway evangelical movement that became known as Methodism. Wesley’s Christian beliefs were founded on principles of piety, charity, and modesty, and he was aided by his younger brother Charles, who was a prolific writer of hymns and songs, who penned the lyrics “Hark! how all the elkin rings, glory to the King of Kings” in 1737. Charles completed the song soon after, the word “welkin” meant literally “the vault of heaven makes a long noise”, and when the song was debuted in a church service it was entitled Hark! How all the Welkin Rings”. Left to right below John and Charles Wesley.
George Whitfield was a contemporary of the Wesley brothers and similarly imbued with a reformist zeal, his interpretation of the scriptures was more liberal than Charles Wesley, so when he published this song he changed the title to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, without Wesley’s permission, who was enraged. Wesley knew that angels had not sung about the birth of Christ, but the more user-friendly title stuck. Yet this song’s re-invention had only just begun, in 1855 William Cummings, a musician and songwriter, decided to combine a Mendelssohn cantata in tribute to Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the first printing press, with Whitefield’s rewrite of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, to produce something very different, and much more dramatic, that became the version of the song we know today.
Mahalia Jackson included this song on her album release A Most Excellent Mahalia Jackson Christmas, and as someone who grew up singing gospel hymns in her Baptist church, her interpretation of this song benefits from her powerful phrasing and unrestrained enthusiasm. Her difficult upbringing enabled her to infuse such songs with a majestic sweep and great empathy, and her power and passion shone through.
O Come All Ye Faithful – Mahalia Jackson 1962
Written over 200 hundred years ago, and translated into more than 150 languages, this song has become one of the few traditional carols to rise up the charts several times, and it is generally regarded as the best carol ever written, so it is amazing that the song’s author remained unknown until the 1940’s. John Wade was a priest, calligrapher, and musician, who became caught up in the middle of a holy war, between the Church of England and the Catholic Church, and in 1745 he fled to France to escape religious persecution. While there he was tasked with collecting historical church songs and distributing them to Catholic churches across Europe. Around this time Wade published what would become his most famous tune, Adeste Fideles, adding lyrics to it a decade later. In 1841 the carol was translated into English by Frederick Oatley, and as it spread throughout the English-speaking world the song was variously credited to Saint Bonaventura, and John Redding, who claimed he was the author, but he wasn’t. By the time Bing Crosby had included the song, now known as O Come All Ye Faithful, on his White Christmas album in 1942, musicologist Maurice Frost, had confirmed the provenance of the song, and John Francis Wade got the credit he deserved.
In 1962 Mahalia Jackson released her album Silent Night: Songs For Christmas, and the Queen of Gospel recorded what can only be described as the definitive versions of many traditional carols including Joy To The World, Silent Night, Hark The Herald Angels Sing and O Come All Ye Faithful, her powerful, and soulful contralto inevitably took these songs to another level.
Do You Hear What Hear – Bing Crosby 1963
Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne (below) met in the dining room of New York’s Beverley Hotel in the late 1950’s she was playing popular music on the piano, he was more classically-inclined, but enthralled by the beautiful young pianist. They would marry a month later, and by 1962 Gloria had written Goodbye Cruel World, a hit for teen idol James Darren, and although Noel remained more classically-focused, he collaborated with Gloria on songs recorded by Bobby Vinton, Jo Stafford, Andy Williams and others, but he longed for his wife to collaborate with him on something less ephemeral than pop hits. He was inspired by his wartime experiences fighting in the French resistance, as well concerns about Cold War tensions, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam conflict, and his earnest wish for peace on earth. He wrote inspired lyrics, and Gloria wrote the music, bringing a more commercial sensibility to the melody and the arrangement, of a song they called Do You Hear What I Hear. The song felt like a classic Christmas standard, with a call and response verse and a triumphant rise in the chorus, that imparted a regal quality to the song, even though it had a more urgent and foreboding sub-text, war and its grim reality.
When Noel pitched the song to bandleader Harry Simeone, whose last hit had been Little Drummer Boy, Gloria could not accompany him and he thought he had botched the demo as he couldn’t really play the piano and sing at the same time. There didn’t seem to be anyone looking for a spiritual seasonal song at the time either, David Seville’s comical Chipmunks had recently scored with a gimmicky novelty Christmas song so they felt that Do You Hear What I Hear, was not destined for success. But Simeone loved the song, and duly recorded it and it became a huge hit, in1963 Bing Crosby also recorded the song and it became a Christmas standard, and a choral favourite in churches, and on television spectaculars, other notable versions were by Robert Goulet and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
When A Child Is Born – Johnny Mathis 1976
Johnny Mathis was a successful MOR singer throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and into the 70’s with numerous chart hits in the USA including six top ten songs – Chances Are, It’s Not Easy for Me, The Twelfth of Never, Gina, What Will Mary Say, and Too Much, Too Little Too Late. He has also released six Christmas albums and his biggest seasonal single hit was When A Child Is Born, which became his first and only #1 hit in the UK in 1976. Only three years before an Italian singer, Ciro Dammico, had a hit in his home country with his composition Soleado, which was translated into English by Fred Jay, an American living in Germany, where it was an international success for Michael Holm. That Mathis could re-invent this song so soon after it had originally been a hit was testament to the rich velvet tones he brought to his recordings, as well as the superb production talents of Jack Gold at CBS, When A Child Is Born sat atop the UK charts for three weeks, and was another million-seller for Johnny Mathis.
On first hearing this song, it does not mention Christmas nor does it seem overtly religious, it could be a celebration of any baby being born, but the narration refers to a child who will end misery and suffering forever, so it could only be Jesus: “And all of this happens because the world is waiting/
Waiting for one child/ Black, white, yellow, no-one knows/ But a child that will grow up and turn tears to laughter/ Hate to love, war to peace, and everyone to everyone’s neighbour/
And misery and suffering will be words to be forgotten, forever.”
O Holy Night – Lou Christie 2009
In 1847 a simple request by a village priest of one of his neighbours to write a poem for the Christmas mass that year, inspired Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure to create a poem based on scripture, with a particular focus on Christmas, that he called Cantique de Noel. Pleased with his verse, Placide decided to arrange for one of his friends, a classically-trained musician named Adolphe Charles Adams, to write a melody to accompany his poem. Adams could see the overtly spiritual nature of the lyrics, which embraced the birth of the son of god, but as Adams was a Jew, he did not celebrate Christmas nor embrace the Christian orthodoxy of the birth of a saviour, however he diligently completed the composition, which was performed soon after, and became one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France. Adams would later compose the music for the ballet Giselle.
But the song was ultimately denounced by the church in France after Placide Cappeau renounced his religion and joined the Socialist movement, and church leaders soon discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, which further reinforced their misgivings about the provenance of this song. Despite the best efforts of the French church to discredit the song, it was destined for greater success when an American Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight happened upon Cantique de Noel. He was greatly moved by its words and music, which used the gospel of Luke to place a witness at the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. He also saw something in the lyrics which he could not ignore, being a committed abolitionist, the following words resonated with the New Englander “Truly he taught us to love one another; His law is love and His Gospel is peace. Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease”.
Dwight translated the song into English and re-titled it O Holy Night, it became popular in the north during the American civil war, meanwhile back in France the populace still sang the song within their communities, and defied the dictates of the Catholic church. The most famous rendering of this song was on Christmas eve 1871, when in the midst of trench warfare between French and German troops during the Franco-Prussian war, an unarmed French soldier jumped out of his muddy trench, lifted his eyes heavenward, and sang Cantique de Noel. He was soon joined by a German soldier who responded with Luther’s robust hymn From Heaven Above to Earth I Come, which precipitated a 24- hour ceasefire, as both sides observed Christmas Day. O Holy Night would also be the first song transmitted via air radio waves when it was performed on violin by Reginald Fassenden on Christmas eve 1906, as Placide Cappeau’s words and Adolphe Adams music was written into history, to become one of the most played and recorded spiritual songs in the world. Many versions abound by such artists as Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Labelle, Jerry Butler and others, but Lou Christie recorded his version in 2009 and it was included on a compilation album titled Christmas Cheer. More famous for his falsetto hits of The Gypsy Cried, Two Faces Have I, Lightning Strikes, and Rhapsody In The Rain in the 1960’s, his tenor rendition of this song was as sensitive and powerful as it was surprising.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Annie Lennox 2010
This was one of the most profound and misunderstood carols of Christmas, its provenance is still unknown, but it was thought to have been written by a layman in the 15th century, partly in protest at the dark, sombre melodies written in Latin by the church, that did little to inspire the faithful, who began to worship outside the walls of cathedrals and chapels, and sang more uplifting, lively songs written in common language. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was one such song, its upbeat tempo and joyful celebration of the nativity, ensured that it became the most popular carol of its time. First published in the nineteenth century and much favored by Queen Victoria, it became an Anglican church standard, and cover versions abound – Harry Belafonte, Mariah Carey, Bing Crosby and others.
Annie Lennox breathed new life into this song on her 2010 album A Christmas Cornucopia, with her edgy, pagan, tribal, quasi-Celtic take on this very old carol, a brilliant video and superb vocals, she seems to walk through the pages of a Dickens novel, or inhabit a medieval snow globe, at once angelic, and then eerie and imposing.
Jingle Bells – Michael Buble and The Puppini Sisters 2012
Written in approx.1840 by James Pierpont (below) of Medford, Massachusetts, the son of a Unitarian pastor, it was originally inspired by people racing sleds down a hill outside Pierpont’s father’s home, at 87 Mystic Ave Medford, and its original title was One Horse Open Sleigh. James completed a fully harmonised arrangement of the song and presented it to the church choir, to perform at their thanksgiving service, and it was so popular that they repeated the performance on Christmas Day. For a song that does not mention Christmas, is preoccupied with racing, gambling, and courting, and is essentially a sleighing song, as its four verses reveal, it was surprising that it should become so synonymous with Christmas. In 1857 Pierpont relocated to Savannah, Georgia and it was here that the song was first published, so giving rise to the annual battle between Medford and Savannah to claim the birthplace of what became one of the most famous carols. Most people only recognise the first verse and the chorus; and there was that line about “bells on bob-tails ring” which was a reference to the shortening or “bobbing” of the tails of sleigh horses to prevent them getting caught in the reins, and the sound that those bells made as the horses galloped along. The song has been covered many times, including versions by Glenn Miller, Les Paul, Benny Goodman and famously by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
Michael Buble’s cover is a modern-day reboot of Crosby’s track, the Puppini Sisters are almost an exact replica of the Andrews Sisters harmony vocals, and when released in 2012, it was a nostalgic and yet contemporary rendition of a favourite Christmas carol.
Jingle Bells was the first song played in space! Nine days before Christmas during NASA’s Gemini 6A voyage, the astronauts gave this report to mission control: “We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit.” The report sounded pretty serious but was then broken by the sound of Jingle Bells with astronaut Wally Schirra playing a tiny harmonica accompanied by Tom Stafford shaking a handful of small sleigh bells they had brought along for the space mission.
O Tannenbaum – Aretha Franklin 2015
O Tannenbaum is a German Christmas song written by Ernst Anschutz and based on a 16th century Silesian folk song by Melchior Franck, first published in 1824, with no particular link to Christmas. Tannenbaum literally translates from the German to mean “fir tree”, not Christmas Tree, and the lyrical intent was originally to link the fir tree’s evergreen quality with the human traits of fidelity, constancy, and faith. Over time the lyrics were changed to more closely align with the sentiment of a Christmas carol, and several definitive versions exist, Nat King Cole, Celtic Woman, Andrea Bocelli and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, when she guested on Jazz at the Lincoln Centre with Wynton Marsalis’s famed Big Band Holiday Concert, and accompanied herself on piano, to deliver a moving performance.