Unlike many of my thinking brothers and sisters, I never tire of Christmas music, even though I understand that much of what pours out of the radio these wintery days is syrupy pap and treacle. My imperviousness can mainly be chalked up to the fact that I approach the Christmas songbook as a historian. Every song you hear—the secular ones I mean, coined in the 20th century—not the religious standards—had a debut year and an original interpreter. In many cases, the tune was penned by one or two of America's finest songwriters and first warbled by a master vocalist. "White Christmas," to name one great instance, has perhaps been wrung of all meaning and dignity over the years by thousands of hack cover versions, but nothing can take away from the fact that it was written by Irving Berlin and crooned into this world by Bing Crosby. That initial version still gives me a chill when I hear it for the first time every yuletide.
It's occurred to me that, in this world, where we are aurally pummeled by the likes of Josh Groban and Mariah Carey every day, many folks may not know the origins of some of our best holiday melodies. So I wrote up this brief guide to the most prevalent Christmas favorites, listing their year of creation, author, and original singer—just to give a general idea of why these songs were once thought to be good enough to be covered by so many lesser artists year in and year out. If you haven't heard the original artists sing these numbers, do yourself a favor and seek out these cuts.
"White Christmas"—Written by Irving Berlin, first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942. It is the best-selling single of all time, and for a reason. Love that he actually whistles in the middle of it.
"I'll Be Home for Christmas"—Written by Walter Kent, Kim Gannon and Buck Ram, first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943. Like "White Christmas," a WWII favorite that brought much solace to soldiers fighting overseas.
"The Christmas Song"—Written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme, first sung by Nat King Cole in 1946, better known by its immortal first line, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." Perhaps the ultimate expression of secular Christmas joy.
"Silver Bells"—Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (authors of "Mona Lisa" among others), it was first performed by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the motion picture "The Lemon Drop Kid" in 1951, but first recorded by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards, who had a 1950 hit with it before the film even came out. It's a rare song that celebrates the urban Christmas experience.
"A Holly Jolly Christmas"—Written by Johnny Marks, a prolific genius of Christmas music (he also penned "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Run Rudolph Run," "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "Silver and Gold" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"). It was first sung by Burl Ives in the guise of the talking Sam the Snowman in the 1964 animated special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Ives, as was his way, has a nice mellow way with the catchy lyrics. He released the song as a single in 1965.
"Silver and Gold"—Also written by Johnny Marks for the 1964 television special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and sung by Burl Ives.
"Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"—Johnny Marks again, first recorded in 1949 by Gene Autry. Autry initially wanted nothing to do with the song, which became the biggest hit of his career.
"Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"—Written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, this was a very early example of a popular Christmas hit. First sung on Eddie Cantor's radio show in November 1934; the earliest recorded version was by banjoist Harry Reser featuring Tom Stacks on vocals. Indelible lyrics about Santa's modus operandi, which have been endlessly parodied of the years.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"—Credited to Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, but actually written only by Blane, for the 1944 movie musical "Meet Me in St. Louis," and first sung in that film by Judy Garland. Garland originally thought the song too depressing; its melancholy bent is actually what makes it great.
"We Need a Little Christmas"—Written by Jerry Herman for his 1966 musical "Mame" and sung by Angela Lansbury in that show.
"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"—Written by the tireless Johnny Marks, and recorded by Brenda Lee in 1958, this early rock take on holiday music has been covered by countless rock artists. The secret to Lee's wonderfully snappy, swinging version: the ringing guitar of legendary session man Hank Garland.
"Jingle Bell Rock"—Supposedly written by Joe Beal and Jim Boothe and recording in 1957 by Bobby Helms (his sole claim to fame). It, along with Brenda Lee's "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree," set the standard for rock-tinged yuletide songs. Strangely, Hank Garland is connected to this hit as well. Bobby Helms, before his death in 1997, claimed that he and Garland wrote the song but never got credit or royalties. (Garland's story is one of the most heartbreaking in the history of the music business.)
"There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays"—Written by Robert Allen and Al Stillman, first recorded by Perry Como in 1954. Como recorded many Christmas songs over his career, but this is a classic that he launched, and his rendition remains the most popular.
"It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas"—Written by Meredith Willson, the author of the musical "The Music Man," and first recorded in 1951 by Perry Como. Bing Crosby recorded his better-known version a month after Como. A wonderfully homey, atmospheric lyric.
"Santa Baby"—Written by Joan Ellen Javits, Philip Springer, and Fred Ebb (of "Cabaret" and "Chicago" fame), and recorded in 1953 by Eartha Kitt, then at the peak of her fame. Few artists can claim a Christmas tune to be among their signature songs, but "Santa Baby" is the one Kitt song most people know. For reasons unfathomable, the vastly inferior 1987 Madonna version of the song is played much more often these days.
"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"—Written by songwriting greats Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, it was first recorded in 1945 by Vaughn Moore, though his version is rarely heard these days. The rare Christmas song in which Christmas is never mentioned.
"Baby It's Cold Outside"—Written by Frank Loesser, the composer of "Guys and Dolls" (every great musical theatre composer, except perhaps Sondheim, has written at least one Christmas classic) in 1944. Strangely, Loesser and his wife performed the song for many years at parties. The Mrs. was apparently made when Frank sold the song to MGM. It was first performed commercially in the 1949 Esther Williams film "Neptune's Daughter." But nobody remembers that version. In this case, it's a latter rendition that became the definitive one—that of Dean Martin, who was made for the song, which is essentially about a conniving wolf and his female prey.
"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"—Written by Eddie Pola and George Wyle, this was Andy Williams' big Christmas hit. He recorded it in 1963.
"Here Comes Santa Claus"—Written by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman, it was recorded by Autry in 1947, and is one of the few Christmas classics with a genuinely folksy, country music feel. It is also remarkable for knitting together the ideas of Santa Claus and Jesus in a (in my opinion) creepy way. ("Santa knows we're all God's children/That makes everything right"). Most Christmas songs fall on either the secular or religious side of the fence.
"This Christmas"—Written by and recorded in 1970 by the late, great, undersung soul genius Donny Hathaway, and since embraced by many artists as possible the most soulful Christmas song every written.
Readers will notice that almost all of these songs were written and recorded between the 1930 and 1960. Have the last 40 years given us any new Christmas standards. I'm afraid not. The art of crafting a good X-mas song—hitting those right notes of casual sentimentality, innate warmth and natural melody—died along with the old practitioners of Tin Pan Alley. That said, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" claims a trenchant hold on the ear (Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" is utter dross by comparison); "Last Christmas" by Wham (really, George Michael) has a tuneful, romantic, happy ease about it; I have a very hard time getting the punkish proto-rap "Christmas Wrapping" by the Waitresses out of my head whenever I hear it; and "Do They Know It's Christmas" by Live Aid is an endlessly interesting social artifact featuring a grand vocal parade of 1980s British pop sensations.