For a quirky lesson in U.S. history, consider the origins of the secular Christmas songs played on the radio and broadcast into the ears of harried shoppers every December. From war to racism to the tuberculosis epidemic, our national past crops up in startling ways through the stories of songwriters and performers.
“Jingle Bells” was apparently inspired by the annual sleigh races held around Thanksgiving in Medford, Massachusetts. Medford native James Lord Pierpont, the uncle of J. P. Morgan, composed the song in the 1850s, although it’s not clear whether he wrote it in Medford or in Savannah, Georgia. Both cities have posted plaques claiming to be the site of the composition, not surprising since the footloose Pierpont was hard to pin down.
The son of a minister, he ran away from boarding school at 14, found a job on a whaling ship, and spent a decade at sea. He returned to marry and have children, then abandoned his family to join the California Gold Rush. Failing to strike it rich, he wound up in Savannah, playing the organ in his abolitionist brother’s Unitarian church. During the Civil War, Pierpont enlisted as clerk for a Southern cavalry company and wrote Confederate battle songs, while his brother fled north, and their father served as chaplain for the Union army.
Back in 1857, Pierpont’s jolly winter song was published as “One-Horse Open Sleigh,” but it soon became known by the words of the famous refrain. Just over a century later, in December 1965, “Jingle Bells” became the first song broadcast from space. After the two astronauts aboard Gemini 6 had completed their rendezvous with Gemini 7, the crew reported to Mission Control that they had spotted an unidentified flying object “up in a polar orbit.” In the midst of the transmission, pranksters Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford broke into a rendition of “Jingle Bells,” accompanied by a tiny harmonica and miniature bells they had smuggled onto the spaceship.
“Winter Wonderland” started as a poem written by Richard Smith in the winter of 1934, when he was a tuberculosis patient at a sanitarium in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. TB was the single greatest cause of death in the nation during the late 1800s and early 1900s. To occupy himself while under treatment, Smith entered competitions to write jingles and ads for national companies. The poem is said to represent his longing to be healthy, a vision of happy times cavorting on the blanket of snow he could see from his window. His musician friend Felix Bernard was moved by the poem and composed a cheerful melody to fit the words.
Smith died the following year, at the age of 34. Bernard went on to achieve success in the music business.
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was the creation of Bob May, an ad writer for the Montgomery Ward mail-order and department-store business. He lived in Chicago with his four-year-old daughter Barbara and his wife Evelyn, who was dying of cancer. Barbara asked her father why her mother was so different from other mothers, and he responded by making up a story about a reindeer whose difference turned out to be an indispensable virtue.
The little girl loved the story so much that she made him tell it every night before she went to sleep. Bob was deep in debt and couldn’t afford to buy his daughter a Christmas present, so he made the story into a hand-drawn picture book.
Evelyn died in early December 1938. Just before Christmas, Montgomery Ward held a company party, where Bob’s co-workers asked him to read the Rudolph story, which drew a standing ovation. To help Bob pay off his debts, Montgomery Ward bought the rights to the book and gave six million copies away to shoppers over the next six years.
Publishing houses across the country were clamoring to acquire the book. It’s to Montgomery Ward’s credit that the company restored the rights to its author, who soon became a millionaire.
Bob’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, wrote a tune for the Rudolph story and offered it to Bing Crosby and other singers. They all turned it down. Although Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” had been a hit, the cowboy singer was unimpressed by “Rudolph.” But his wife Ina was so touched by the lines, “They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph / play in any reindeer games,” that she urged her husband to record the song. “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became the nation’s second-best-selling Christmas song.
“White Christmas,” the top-selling Christmas song, was written in 1938 by Jewish composer Irving Berlin, who grew up on New York City’s Lower East Side. His three-week-old son had died on Christmas Day in 1928, so it’s possible that the wistful yearning of the song relates to mourning for the child. The composition was put to use when Berlin was hired by Paramount to write for a musical that became the film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby.
“White Christmas” was first broadcast to the public on Christmas Eve, 1941, during Crosby’s radio show, a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. During the war, when he performed at USO shows, Crosby was reluctant to include the song because he didn’t want to make the soldiers homesick. When he tried to cut it from his setlist, the men requested it anyway.
“The Christmas Song,” popularly known by its first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” was written in Los Angeles on a sultry summer day in 1945. Crooner and composer Mel Tormé met with lyricist Bob Wells to write a couple of songs for a musical. Hoping to cool himself off in the heat, Wells dashed off a few lines of poetry recalling his childhood winters in Boston, where vendors roasted chestnuts over handcarts on the streets.
When Tormé read the four lines, he immediately came up with a tune, and they completed the song together. A year later, Tormé offered it to his friend Nat King Cole, who recognized the song’s commercial potential. However, Cole was not yet a household name, and all Christmas music was then recorded by white singers. His label, Capitol Records, initially turned down the song because they didn’t think they could sell it to white buyers. Then Cole’s “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” became a smash hit, and six weeks later, he was able to record “The Christmas Song.”
“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” was recorded in 1953 by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd. The novelty record was banned in Boston and other places because of the possibility that the mother in the song was having an affair, although the lyrics imply that she’s actually kissing her husband. Columbia Records asked the Council of Churches for assistance, and they sent Boyd around to convince the radio stations that the song was squeaky clean. It then became a solid Christmas hit, selling over three million copies.