Whether you view the upcoming holidays as a secular event, religious or a bit of both there’s one thing that’s synonymous with this time of year- Christmas songs! You don’t have to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday to enjoy a good song. Maybe you celebrate “Festivus” on December 23 which is a fictional/parody holiday created by Daniel O’Keefe of Readers Digest fame, it was of course made popular by Seinfeld as an alternative to Christmas. The topic of many songs is based on love, family and fellowship. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing I say! I have issued a post each year at this time and because of that I’m getting lazy this year and including much of that material with updated stats and links in today’s post.
From the source of many of our traditional songs and carols, these songs are perennially Popular in the UK where it seems they like their variety.
The Lewisham and Greenwich – NHS choir
“Stay Another Day” – East 17
“Mistletoe and Wine” – Cliff Richard
“Do They Know It’s Christmas” – Band Aid
“Last Christmas” – Wham! (released in 1984 and written by George Michael.)
A mix of the old and new
“It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” was written by Meredith Willson, known for “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Till There Was You” from the Broadway Musical The Music Man. Originally a hit for Perry Como in 1951, the song got a new life when recorded by Michael Bublé in 2011 though it’s been recorded over 160 times.
Here are some more old and new Christmas hits you may recognize:
“Jingle Bell Rock” – Bobby Helms
“Santa Tell Me” – Ariana Grande
“Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” – David Bowie and Bing Crosby
“Jingle Bells” – some speed singing by Barbra Streisand
“I Believe in Father Christmas” – Emerson Lake & Palmer
“The Spirit of Christmas” – The Moody Blues
“Christmas Boogie” – Canned Heat
“Aspenglow” – John Denver
“I Believe in You” – Sinead O’Connor, written by Bob Dylan
“Winter Song” – Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles
There is a wonderful collaboration between Yo-Yo Ma and Diana Krall called, “You Couldn’t Be Cuter” with lyrics by the amazing Dorothy Fields (“Big Spender“, “I’m in the Mood for Love“, “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and dozens more). It was first recorded in 1938 by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra – Vocal Refrain by Elmer Feldkamp and was made popular by this recording by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra – Vocal Refrain by Edythe Wright, released just a month later.
This song is very popular in my mother’s native Newfoundland, “The Seven Joys of Mary” and this rendition is by Great Big Sea. The song is from a compilation by Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer in a series of works titled Christmas Carols New and Old published in 1871. The books helped revive and popularize many songs such as “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” “The First Nowell/The First Noel“, “The Holly and the Ivy” and “What Child Is This?”.
Songs I would classify as Alt-Christmas songs
“Christmas Tree” by Lady Gaga (ft. Space Cowboy) from 2008 is certainly not the only ‘racy’ Christmas song, just listen to Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” from 1968; it is definitely an adults only song!
“Just Another Christmas Song” by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.
“The Christmas Song” by Weezer, not such a happy tune…
“Xmas Time of Year” by Green Day…bitter much?
“The Season’s Upon Us” by Dropkick Murphys. You can’t pick your family!
Here is a link to more alt Christmas on Youtube.
The most covered Christmas Carols and Holiday Songs
Most people love them, some loathe them and the rest perhaps are somewhat indifferent. Wherever you sit on the spectrum, this music is unavoidable at this time of year. From the traditional carol to the old favorites and the new there is never a shortage of choice and escaping it takes a lot of effort. So if you want to continue to read a story about Christmas and Holiday Songs, I’ve got you covered. 😉
Just the numbers, for the most covered songs of all time according to Secondhandsongs.com we see 8 out of the top 10 are Christmas carols or songs. Numbers represent the versions from 2019/2021
- Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht (Silent Night), 2758/3353
- Summertime, 1898/2169
- White Christmas, 1555/1879
- Minuit, chrétiens (French)/Oh, Holy Night, 1442/1796
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, 1414/1754
- Silent Night, Holy Night (adapted from Stille Nacht) 1454/1732
- The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You), 1320/1630
- A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves, 1299/1571
- Jingle Bells, 1076/1403
- Winter Wonderland, 1092/1375
So you can see when it comes to cover songs there is no question, Christmas leads the way. I’ve blogged about “Summertime” being the most covered song and there is good evidence to support it, but the Secondhandsongs.com database puts it at #2 and “Silent Night” or Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht at #1. The music composed by Franz Gruber, a school teacher and church organist and Lyrics written by a newly ordained Priest, Father Joseph Mohr in their native German language. It was first performed in 1818 in the small hamlet where it was written at St Nicholas parish, Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria.
The English translation was written by Father John Freeman Young (Trinity Church, New York City). I believe the highest charted version was from Bing Crosby which hit #54 in 1960. Chances are one or more of your favorite artists have recorded this song, which has been sung in more than a dozen different languages.
And speaking of Bing Crosby, this legend is also the undisputed champion of the Christmas song as he was the first to sing the next most covered Christmas song “White Christmas” currently at 1871 versions and growing by about one hundred new recordings per year. First performed in the movie “Holiday Inn” Bing Crosby (also the first record in 1942) with Martha Mears voice dubbed in for actor Marjorie Reynolds. Written by one greatest composers of all time, Irving Berlin. He arrived in New York at the age of 5 from what is now Belarus, after his family fled persecution and a pogrom that resulted in their house being burned to the ground. His name was Israel Isidore Beilin, and the family changed their last names to ‘Baline’ as was the custom, once settled after landing on Ellis Island. Leaving school at age 13 he made money by singing in local bars and when his first song was published earning him 36 cents, his name was printed in error as ‘I. Berlin’. His other seasonal songs include “Happy Holiday” and “Snow” also from ‘Holiday Inn’. More on him when I blog on the most covered composers of all time. Here are some great covers of “White Christmas”; Frank Sinatra (1944), Michael Bublé with Shania Twain (2015), an instrumental by Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy (2016), The Drifters (1954), Kelly Clarkson (2013).
Oh, Holy Night at 1783 versions is the next most covered song. Originally it was “Minuit, chrétiens“, written in French as you may have guessed, the music written by Adolphe Charles Adam, and lyrics by Placide Cappeau in 1847. The English version, “Oh, Holy Night” (circa 1908) is by John Sullivan Dwight a minister and noted hymnal translator. The first recorded version to really gain attention was from the great Mario Lanza in 1950. Johnny Mathis (1958), Nat King Cole (1960), “O Holy Night / Ave Maria” by Idina Menzel (2019).
Following down the list we then have “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” at 1754 versions, it was written by Hugh Martin with Ralph Blane. It’s a wonderful song from the 1944 movie ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ and sung by the incomparable Judy Garland. Covers by Ella Fitzgerald (1960), Glen Campbell (1968), Carpenters (1978) and Sam Smith (2014).
“The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)”, recognized by many as the “chestnuts roasting on a an open fire” song. Written by Robert Wells and primarily Mel Tormé in 1945 on a blistering hot summer day. Covered 1630 times and moved up one spot in the top ten. First recorded by ‘The King Cole Trio with String Choir‘, that being the great Nat King Cole. Michael Bublé (2003), Aga Zaryan & Freddy Cole (2018) and the man himself, the Velvet Fog, Mel Tormé with Judy Garland .
To divert from the list I’d need to talk about the most popular Christmas song this last year and for many years now, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” performed by Mariah Carey and written with the Grammy Award winning Walter Afanasieff, released Nov. 1, 1994. It was at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2020, and it’s just the second ‘Holiday’ song to do that, The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late), written and performed by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. (known by his stage name David Seville) hit #1 in 1959. Carey’s song has sold over 15 million copies and may well be the top streamed song once again during this Holiday season. At 213 versions in 2019 it’s up to over 300 now, it will be a while before it hits the top 10 for holiday cover songs but it’s a rival for “White Christmas” and the “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” in the long term in both sales and enduring popularity.
So, this year Hanukkah starts at Sunset, November 28 through to nightfall on December 6. In 2024 it will start on December 25, which I understand is pretty unusual for the two calendars to coincide. Why when talking about Christmas songs would I mention Hanukkah? I don’t happen to be Jewish myself, but the people who wrote many of the most well known Christmas songs were: Irving Berlin and Mel Tormé, I’ve already mentioned but there is also; “I’ll be Home For Christmas” Composed by Walter Kent, “Winter Wonderland” written by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith, “Let It Snow” written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, “Silver Bells” written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. And then there is Johnny Marks, the undisputed King of Christmas songs who wrote the words and music for; “Most Wonderful Day of the Year“, “Silver and Gold“, “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer“, “Run Rudolph Run“, “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” among others. I read an article once from a Jewish writer on this topic, though I can’t seem to track it down now, as I recall she was lamenting the fact that these writers gave the Gentiles all these wonderful Holiday songs and all the Jewish people got was “I Have A Little Dreidel“. Well thank you for the songs and Happy Hanukkah!, and a Happy Holiday season no matter how, if or what you celebrate.
And for the New Year, I ran across this great song that has gone under the radar but is perhaps a nice replacement for “Auld Lang Syne“:
“My Dear Acquaintance (Happy New Year)” by Peggy Lee who wrote the lyrics (music by Paul Horner) for her unfortunate flop of a play called Peg. This song was cut from the original 1983 version but was released in 2006. The first cover is a lovely interpretation by Regina Spektor and the only other (released) cover I could find is a version from Emilie-Claire Barlow.
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