On the beat

Origins of Christmas songs

By Jim Bucher

I assume (when you do that though, you make an ASS out of U and ME.) you’ve all heard a Christmas carol – or three – by this time of year.

On local radio stations, satellite radio or maybe even on your own playlist … But have you ever thought about their origins?

I haven’t really until now.

So let’s learn together.

(What am I, Mr. Rogers?)

For instance, “Silver Bells” was composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, it was first performed by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the motion picture “The Lemon Drop Kid,” released in March 1951.

And how about this little tid-bit: “Silver Bells” started out as the questionable “Tinkle Bells.” Luckily, Livingston’s wife said, “Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word tinkle is?”

The word, of course, is slang for urination. It has been said the songs inspiration came from bells used by Santa Clauses and Salvation Army people on New York City street corners.

The granddaddy of them all, “White Christmas,” was penned by legend Irving Berlin.

It’s a song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting, and was very popular during World War II for troops overseas and families back here at home.

According to the Guinness World Records, the version sung by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide.

This is the funny part: accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song, but one story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta, California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel, in or near the swimming pool.

He phoned his secretary saying, “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!”

I may have to agree with that.

“Silent Night” is another gem at Christmastime and dates back hundreds of years.

It was originally written in German as “Stille Nacht” by Josef Mohr (1792-1848), an Austrian priest.

The tune was composed by Franz X. Gruber (1787-1863), an organist and schoolteacher, and was first performed at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria on Christmas Day, 1818.

In 1995, a manuscript written by hand by Josef Mohr was discovered, and is believed to date back to 1820, revealing the lyrics were written in 1816 by Mohr but the music was composed two years later by Gruber.

Everyone’s favorite, “Jingle Bells,” (well that’s my favorite at least) was originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh.”

The author, James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893), wrote the song in 1857. It was meant for a Thanksgiving program at a church in Savannah, Georgia where Pierpont was organist.

The song was so well accepted that it was again sung on Christmas Day and since then has become one of the most popular Christmas carols.

Here’s a fun fact: On Dec. 16, 1965, astronauts aboard Gemini 6, Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford, played a prank on Mission Control. They said they saw some kind of UFO stating that the pilot was “wearing a red suit.” They then played “Jingle Bells” on a harmonica (Hohner’s Little Lady model) backed by sleigh bells. Yes you guessed it, “Jingle Bells” is, ahem, outta this world.

Another one of my all-time favorites is “The Christmas Song” (also known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), written in 1944 by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé.

The song was written during a blistering hot summer and in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.” In the process, one of the most-performed Christmas song was born.

It was said to be written in 40 minutes.

Next, “A Holly Jolly Christmas” is a Christmas song written by Johnny Marks and most famously performed by Burl Ives and included in the stop-motion holiday classic movie “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

The song has since become one of the Top 25 most-performed “holiday” songs ever written.

Finally, and rounding out what is certainly not a complete list, is “Christmas Time Is Here,” a wonderful Christmas song written by Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi for the 1965 TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” one of the very first animated Christmas specials produced for network TV in the United States.

Rumor has it, the song was written in as few as 30 minutes. And I’ll end on some of the lyrics.

“Christmas time is here

We’ll be drawing near

Oh that we could always see

Such spirit through the year.”

With that Cheers and Merry Christmas my friends,



A regionally known and loved local television icon for over 25 years, “Buch’s” followers describe him as trust-worthy, fun, the guy next door, a friend and role model. You can promote your business with Buch and grab your customer’s attention! Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Bucher at JimBucher@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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For over 25 years, Jim Bucher has been a regionally known and loved local television icon. “Buch’s” followers describe him as trustworthy, fun, the guy next door, a friend and role model. You can promote your business with Buch and grab your customer’s attention! Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Bucher at JimBucher@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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