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The Holidays Desk

Liner Notes for Christmas

Christmas is a time for family and friends and very weird songs that only get played once a year. Eleven holiday songs researched and fact-checked to explain their appeal, including the mystery behind endorphins solely released by Mariah Carey.

What makes Christmas so special? It’s not the presents that make it unique­—there’s gift giving on birthdays. And it’s not the food, because as far as feasts go, Thanksgiving is king. So what is it? The weather? Santa? Eggnog? Tinsel? Maybe.

Or perhaps it’s the music. Maybe Christmas magic comes from those catchy once-a-year wonders that stick in your head, feel good in your ears and, upon closer inspection, turn out to be a lot weirder than you’d ever imagined. (See also our Spotify playlist for this article.)

“The Twelve Days of Christmas”
 


 

Though almost everyone knows the words to “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” no one is sure why those particular gifts are given and what they mean. Some suggest the gifts have a relationship to each month of the year, others believe that they’re a sort of catechism, and still others claim they’re nothing more than the remnants of a nonsensical memory game played by children that has become frozen in time. Regardless, this year the annual Christmas Price Index compiled by PNC Wealth Management set the price of the 364 items mentioned in the song (12 drummers plus 11 pipers, etc.) at $107,300, which is what really matters, right?
 

“Linus and Lucy”
 


 

The best Christmas song is the sound of loved ones. The second best is the sound of whiskey being poured into a punchbowl of homemade eggnog. The third best is Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” which isn’t actually a Christmas song at all. It was recorded in 1964 for the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s album Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown, the soundtrack to a documentary about Charles Schulz, but it gained popularity—and a long-lasting connection with Christmas—when it was used during the wildly popular A Charlie Brown Christmas TV special a year later. Since then, the song has introduced most of the Peanuts specials, served as background music for the Weather Channel’s local forecasts and even been played as a wake-up song for astronauts.
 

“Good King Wenceslaus”
 


 

Saint Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia, aka “Good King Wenceslaus,” was born around 900 AD and wrested power from his mother in 925. He ruled piously—often delivering alms to widows, orphans, and prisoners—until his younger brother Boleslaus and three friends murdered him on his way to church in 935. In addition to his well-known and often-sung deeds on the feast of St. Stephen, legend has it that the statue of King Wenceslas on horseback that stands in Prague’s Wenceslas Square will come to life and raise an army if ever the Czech people are under serious threat.
 

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”
 


 

John Lennon and Yoko Ono released their Christmas/protest song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” in 1971. It was part of a larger anti-war effort that began in 1969 with the installation of billboard advertisements and posters in 11 world cities that read, “War is Over (If You Want It) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.” In the song, produced by Phil Spector and recorded with the Harlem Community Choir, the line “War is over, if you want it, war is over, now!” is a nod to the billboard campaign. It was first pressed as a single in a festive, green vinyl. The first full-length album to feature the song, Shaved Fish, has a drawing of an airplane dropping a Christmas ornament, instead of a bomb, on its cover.
 

“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”
 


 

Ross Bagdasarian (aka David Seville) was down to his last $200 when he bought a V-M tape recorder that allowed him to alter a track’s playback speed and generate a squeaky, high-pitched voice. Up until that moment, he’d eked out a living in Hollywood as a film composer and actor (most notably as the piano-playing neighbor in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) but after it, he became a hotshot novelty songwriter and the voice of the world’s most famous chipmunks: Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. His 1958 Christmas release, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” topped the Billboard Pop chart, won two Grammy Awards, and catapulted Bagdasarian to a very strange sort of international stardom.
 

“White Christmas”
 


 

Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” which was likely written in sunny La Quinta, Calif., is the most recorded holiday song of all time, with more than 500 versions in circulation. When the lyrics came to Berlin, he is rumored to have told 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!”

Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas,” which was recorded in just 18 minutes, has sold more than 50 million copies, making it the best-selling single of all time. When Berlin first showed the song to Crosby, Crosby was unimpressed saying only, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”
 

“Wonderful Christmastime”
 


 

Though Paul McCartney’s 1979 Christmas offering was the third from an ex-Beatles player (Ringo Starr didn’t release his holiday album until 1999), it’s widely considered the best of the lot. “Wonderful Christmastime” has earned itself a coveted place in the holiday canon, as well as a lot of money for McCartney. Estimated royalties from the single top $400,000 per year or $16.5 million total since it was recorded. Despite that, and a hell of a synth line, it’s rumored McCartney is now embarrassed by the song.
 

“Christmas in Hollis”
 


 

Rappers have rhymed about Christmas since Kurtis Blow, but it wasn’t until Run-D.M.C. released “Christmas in Hollis” in 1987 that hip hop had a real holiday anthem. The song, built on a sample of Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” became an instant cultural touchstone with broad appeal, appearing in the action blockbuster Die Hard as well as the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero.
 

“All I Want for Christmas Is You”
 


 

I don’t have much to say about Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” because I don’t like listening to it, but there’s a telling Amazon review by a guy named Jim Hogan:

Surely one of the most catchy Christmas songs of our time. I had to downsize my venti peppermint latte in order to afford to buy this song. While I relish the delicious rush of coffee, chocolate, and peppermint, Mariah delivers the endorphins to compensate.
 

“O Holy Night”
 


 

Adolphe Adam’s classic carol, composed in 1847, is a favorite of distinguished vocalists. Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Al Green, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Luciano Pavarotti, Aretha Franklin, and many, many others have done notable versions. The song’s real high-water mark, however, came on Christmas Eve in 1906 when Reginald Fessenden, a pioneer of radio technology, performed it live during the first-ever radio broadcast.
 

“We Wish You a Merry Christmas”
 


 

Traditionally the last song performed by carolers, this tune is one of the few songs that hints at the Christmas holiday’s rambunctious, booze-fueled, carnivalesque history. Up until the early 19th century, gangs of farmhands would gather on Christmas Eve, drink a bit, and then proceed to a local nobleman’s house where they’d scream and shout for food and more drink (figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer) until their demands were met.

At The Morning News, this is still the case, and we won’t go until we get some. Merry Christmas.


 

TMN Contributing Writer Graham T. Beck has written for the New York Times, the Believer, the Daily Beast, and the Awl. He is a regular contributor to frieze and hard at work on a very funny book about the end of the world. More by Graham T. Beck