There’s nothing like a good Christmas song to put us in the festive spirit. But did you know that there’s a lot more to some of your favourite seasonal tunes than meets the ear? Here are some of the strangest and most interesting facts about our most popular Christmas songs:
- ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is a bizarre mash-up which makes no historical sense. The ‘Wenceslas’ of the carol did exist…but he bears very little resemblance to the Good King we sing about these days. To cut a long story short, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was a Bohemian saint named Vaclav who was murdered by his brother. So far, so un-festive. But it gets stranger.
- The original ‘Good King Wenceslas’ tune was composed for a cheery Finnish ditty about the joys of spring. Not much could be further from the bleak, snowy winter of the carol. So what happened?
- A Victorian songwriter, that’s what happened. In 1853 a man named John Neale dug up the Finnish tune, thought that it was good (it is a good tune, let’s be honest), and stuck some heavily innacurate lyrics about an obscure Bohemian saint over the top of it. Why did he do such a bewildering thing? Nobody has a clue. Nobody has even tried to hazard a guess, because why even attempt to get in the head of a man who’d make a creative decision like that? But hey, it’s an awesome tune!
- ‘Jingle Bells’ is about Thanksgiving, not Christmas. Could there be a more Christmassy song than ‘Jingle Bells’? The tinkly tune, the merry lyrics, the one-horse open sleigh…Wait, one-horse? Isn’t Santa’s sleigh pulled by reindeer? Why is the sleigh in the song pulled by a horse?
- Simple. Because it’s not Santa’s sleigh. ‘Jingle Bells’ was written in the mid-nineteenth century by a man named James Pierpont. He intended it as an ode to the icy winters of his Massachusetts childhood, during which horse-drawn sleighs were a common method of getting (‘driving’) through the snow. And he wrote it to be sung by the children of his father’s Sunday school…at Thanksgiving. (Which is in November, FYI).
- The original ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ lyrics are very depressing. ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ was originally sung in 1944 by Judy Garland. Now, if you know anything about Judy you’ll know that her life was not quite the glorious technicolour delight that Hollywood liked to pretend. Famous for her bright and colourful role as Dorothy Gale in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Garland’s life behind the scenes was actually pretty dark. Throughout her life she struggled with severe mental health issues and substance abuse.
- So, it’s perhaps appropriate that the original lyrics to ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ are simultaneously uplifting and depressing. Originally, the song was about the juxtaposition of joy and despair in life (how festive). Listeners are advised to have themselves a merry little Christmas while they can, because they might not see another one. It’s very much in the ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die’ vein of things. For example, here’s the original chorus:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Ultimately, executives thought that this was a bit deep and dark for a Christmas jingle, and changed the lyrics.
- The first verse to ‘White Christmas’ is about summer in Beverly Hills. The film ‘White Christmas’ is a Christmas classic, but the Bing Crosby song from the film is even more famous.
- Most people associate the song with cosy fires and Christmas trees while snowflakes fall outside. But, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that the plot is about a lack of snow (I could explain the plot but it would take a long time. Watch it! It’s a good’un). That’s why Bing is ‘dreaming’ of a white Christmas. He wouldn’t be dreaming of – i.e. yearning for – snow if he were actually experiencing it, would he?
- So, appropriately enough for a man who’s not got enough snow in his life, the first verse is about as un-Christmassy as you can get. Here’s how it goes:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA
But it’s December the 24th
And I’m longing to be up north
It makes total sense within the context of the original film, but it’s confusing when played context-free on the radio. So most commercial edits of the song leave the first verse out and start in with the famous ‘I’m dreaming…’ chorus.
- ‘Silent Night’ was written to be played on guitar. Think ‘Silent Night’ and you probably think of a hauntingly tender melody sung by choristers, accompanied by an organ (or possibly a harp). But, in fact, ‘Silent Night’ was written specifically for the guitar.
- It happened like this: One December in the Austrian village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, a flood damaged the church organ. This dismayed the villagers, who had been looking forward to some tunes to raise their spirits through the wretchedly wet winter of 1818.
- As luck would have it, the village’s young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, had composed a rhythmic poem called ‘Stille Nacht’ (‘Silent Night’) some years before. So, he teamed up with local schoolmaster (and organist) Franz Xaver Gruber to create a tune around these lyrics which could be sung without the aid of an organ. And so, on Christmas Eve in 1818, the small village of Oberndorf sang ‘Silent Night’ for the first time – accompanied by Gruber on guitar.
- The best part of this story is that the tale of ‘Silent Night’s ad-hoc composition was lost for nearly 200 years. The carol has been popular all over the world since the mid nineteenth century, but nobody knew its origin beyond that it was an ‘Austrian folk song’. However, a manuscript was discovered in 1995 which detailed the whole story of the little village of Obendorf, their poet priest, their composer schoolmaster, and their flooded church.