Origins of 12 of America's favorite Christmas songs

Origins of Christmas Songs
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Origins of 12 of America's favorite Christmas songs

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

This cheeky song was commissioned by Sax Fifth Avenue to go along with a postcard designed for a holiday giveaway. Everyone loved the song when it was released in 1952, except the Roman Catholic Church. They banned it in Boston because it mixed kissing with a religious holiday. The song’s 13-year-old singer Jimmy Boyd had to meet with the Archdiocese to explain the song, and only then was the ban lifted. 

It's the most wonderful time of the year 

Andy Williams’ 1963 song became an instant classic that has prevailed through time, but one line of his lyrics has been lost to history. Telling “ghost stories” around a hearth is a lost Victorian Christmas eve tradition. Now it only exists in songs and one of our most beloved Christmas novels. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is the best example of ghosts being associated with the joyful holiday. So, if  “Paranormal Activity” is more your style than “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” tell your friends you are trying to keep the spirit of old tradition alive.

Santa Baby

One catchy lyric inspired all of ‘Santa Baby.' Eartha Kitt wanted a song to play up her sexy nightclub performer persona. Songwriter Joan Javits came up with "Santa baby, just slip a sable under the tree, for me," and Kitts’ composer quickly wrote the rest music.

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

Believe it or not, Brenda Lee, the powerful voice in ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, was only thirteen years old when she recorded this song. She was already a country-singing star at this point. It only sold 5,000 copies the first year in 1958, but has since then become a hit. The song was written by Christmas songwriter all-star Johnny Marks. 

Let it Snow

‘Let It Snow’ is encouraging the snow to keep dumping, but in reality the writers of the snow were wishing for a Christmas miracle. Lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne wrote it while hit with a heat wave … in July … in Hollywood. Doesn’t really scream Christmas, but its seasonal theme has made it one of the best-selling songs of all-time. 

Little Saint Nick 

If ‘Little Saint Nick’ sounds familiar, then maybe you have heard the Beach Boys’ 1963 song "Little Deuce Coupe.” Brian Wilson and Mike Love repurposed the song’s rhythm and structure to make the classic. What makes this song’s origin really interesting is not the recycling, but rather that it became a classic at all. It was released December 9th, 1963, just over two weeks after President Kennedy was assassinated in Texas. Despite the US’s mournful atmosphere, the song soared on the charts. Maybe it was just America needed at the time. 

White Christmas 

White Christmas was bound to be an instant hit, at least according to its composer, Irving Berlin. He called the Christmas tune "The best song I ever wrote...the best song anybody ever wrote." That is a bold statement, especially considering the fact that Berlin wrote ‘God Bless America’ three years earlier. Sure enough, two years after Berlin wrote the song, Bing Crosby picked it up and it became a smash hit.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

If you have ever heard a song and thought ‘I could definitely do that,’ then maybe ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ will be your muse. James "Haven" Gillespie was tasked with writing a Christmas song for a radio show, but was struck with grief over his brother’s death.

Suddenly inspiration struck him while thinking about his childhood with his brother and the lyrics were written in 10-15 minutes … on a subway! It became a hit an instant hit after being performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Think about that next time your train is delayed.  

The Christmas Shoes

Remember that unbearably sad song about the little poor boy trying to buy shoes for his terminally ill mother? Apparently, it is based on chain mail that was circulating the web in the mid 1990s. 'The Golden Slippers' told the tale of two children who try to buy shoes that Jesus would love when their mother joins him in heaven on Christmas. 

Jingle Bells

Next Thursday you can drop this fun fact on your family. “Jingle Bells” isn’t actually a Christmas song. It was written for Thanksgiving. It also one of the oldest holiday songs that is purely American in origin. In 1850, James Lord Pierpont was hanging out in a tavern in Medford, Massachusetts, when he was inspired by Medford’s famous sleigh races to write a little ditty called ‘One Horse Open Sleigh” for a children’s Thanksgiving play. Everyone loved it so much that it became incorporated into Christmas. 

Do You Hear What I Hear

Songwriter Noel Regney wrote this song a call for peace in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He told the New York Times in 1985 that he was amazed people didn’t realize the original context.

'But we are so bombarded by sound and our attention spans are so short that we now listen only to catchy beginnings.' He went on to tell them.

Regney wrote the lyrics based on his vision of a newborn lamb, and he and his then-wife were so moved by their own song they couldn’t sing it at first.

Silver Bells

"Silver Bells" was originally written for the Bob Hope movie "The Lemon Drop Kid," and going to be called "Tinkle Bell." When songwriter Jay Livingston told his wife about the lyrics she said "Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word 'tinkle' means to most people?" It wasn't until she left that Livingston realized tinkle had a double meaning.


The second Americans finish their Thanksgiving dinners, the football flooding the airways is immediately replaced by a million Christmas tunes. Entire radio stations are devoted to the jingly jangly tunes we grew up loving for a solid 25 days each year. They become inescapable as malls, gas stations, grocery stores and bars blare "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Let It Snow."

Christmas songs are undeniably important to the holidays -- in fact, is running an entire tournament to determine Americans' favorite songs. But have you ever considered how certain songs came to represent the most wonderful time of the year?

Certain songs like "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" have roots in medieval France, and "O Come Ye All Faithful" is thought to be a coded rallying cry from the 1700s Jacobite rebellion.

The origins of ditties made in America during the 20th century are also varied, but many songwriters were driven by the fruits of commercialism. A few of the biggest Christmas hits of the last 100 years were commissioned by department stores for holiday hand outs. "Frosty the Snowman" was created after being inspired by the lucrative story-song pairing of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." One man, Johnny Marks, made a living by writing four of the best-known holiday tunes of our time.

Take a look at the slideshow and let us know if you were surprised by your favorite songs' backstories.

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