So another Christmas is at hand, and you’re hearing Christmas songs everywhere you go — in the mall, on the radio, on TV specials … maybe even in your dreams. But what do we know about these songs that now fill two to three months of our lives? As it turns out, some of these songs have been around much longer than you might imagine, and have far different origins than the cheery “holiday spirit” image you might have in mind. Here’s a brief look at the history of some of the most popular Christmas songs, along with a few alternate versions you may not have heard before.
10. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Despite the “Merry Christmas” refrain, this song has strictly secular roots in rural 16th century England. Which explains why lyrics such as, “For we all like figgy pudding so bring some out here” makes people today wonder, “Figgy pudding? What?”
9. Carol of the Bells
This song with the dramatic instrumentation traces its roots to an old Ukrainian pagan folk chant. A young Ukrainian composer named Mykola Leontovych gave the song a name, Shchedryk — which means “Bountiful Evening” in Ukrainian — and its distinctive four-note repeating motif. It debuted in Russia in 1916 and premiered five years later in the U.S. at Carnegie Hall. A Ukrainian-American, Peter Wilhousky, added the now-familiar English lyrics and copyrighted the song in 1936. Leontovych didn’t fare so well — Russian agents assassinated him a few years after he composed the song.
8. Silent Night
This song is nearing its 200th anniversary, having been first performed in public on Christmas Eve in 1818 in a small Austrian church. A young priest named Joseph Mohr penned the lyrics to Stille Nacht, while Franz Gruber, an organist by trade, provided the original melody and accompaniment on a guitar. Dozens of entertainers have recorded versions of this song, including classic and current stars such as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Justin Bieber, and Brad Paisley. Some of these have led to some rather different interpretations, as in the accompanying Taylor Swift cover version. But the best-selling version of the song is Bing Crosby’s 1935 recording, which has sold an estimated 30 million singles (not including digital downloads). That puts Crosby’s take of Silent Night third on the list of best-selling singles of all time, just behind Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana, Candle in the Wind 1997.
7. Deck the Halls
Deck the Halls first appeared in its present form in the mid-19th century in the UK, although the song is derived from a Welsh melody from the 16th century. Some modern versions feature a variant of the second verse, which begins with the once-innocent line “Don we now our gay apparel.”
6. Frosty the Snowman
A couple of country music songwriters, Steve Nelson and Walter “Jack” Rollins, wrote this song for the “singing cowboy,” Gene Autry, who recorded it in 1950. (By the way, Nelson and Rollins struck holiday gold twice in 1950, also writing the Easter classic Here Comes Peter Cottontail.) The most distinctive version of Frosty remains the one performed by comedian Jimmy Durante for the 1968 children’s special Frosty the Snowman. Here’s an interesting 1990 version of Frosty by blues artists Leon Redbone and Dr. John.
5. Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Younger generations probably hear the ringing bells and smooth youth chorus refrain and think of Christmas shopping or some other happy holiday images. Those older than say, age 40, may recall the story behind this John Lennon and Yoko Ono anti-war song, and remember the disturbing video that accompanied it. Lennon and Ono wrote the song in 1971 to protest the Vietnam War. The video that accompanied it featured graphic images of war, including injured and dead children. If you watch the official video, you’ll forever have those images in your head when listening to this song. Which may have been the intent.
4. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
The 1833 British publication Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, by William B. Sandys, included the first published version of this song, although the song itself may be almost a century older. Sandys is also credited with the first publication of another modern traditional Christmas classic, The First Noel.
3. Winter Wonderland
This song has been covered by scores of artists through the years, from Donnie and Mary Osmond to Ozzy Osbourne, Randy Travis to Travis Tritt. It debuted in 1934, the same year that saw the debut of the Christmas classic Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Songwriter Richard B. Smith penned the lyrics to Winter Wonderland while being treated for tuberculosis in a sanitarium. He died a few months later.
2. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Gene Autry found great success with this song in 1949, taking it to No. 1 on the U.S. charts. Autry was so pleased with the song’s success, it inspired him to release another holiday classic, Frosty the Snowman, the following year. As for Rudolph, the version of the song most familiar to modern audiences made its first appearance in the 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. That show’s narrator, Burl Ives, also sang two other songs in that special, Silver and Gold, and A Holly Jolly Christmas, which remain Christmas favorites. Ives re-recorded all three songs, which were originally written by a songwriter named Johnny Marks, in 1965 to give them a more upbeat sound.
1. White Christmas
Bing Crosby performed this Irving Berlin song for the first time on his radio show on Christmas Day in 1941. It might have faded into obscurity, if not for its appearance in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. After that, the song reached No. 1 on the charts for several months, and earned an Academy Award for Best Original Song. White Christmas is the best-selling single of all time, with more than 50 million copies sold. Like almost every other song on this list, it’s been covered by many other artists, including a memorable version by The Drifters that became popularized in the 1990 movie Home Alone.