Where does your favourite Christmas song come from?

We sing them every Yuletide, but what are their origins? Here’s some context for five of the nation’s most popular Christmas ditties.

They’re already playing in every supermarket and the radio stations have them on a loop, but how did some of our favourite Christmas songs come about? Let’s explore the origins of five familiar festive tunes.

  1. “Jingle Bells”. Originally written by James Lord Pierpont to celebrate Thanksgiving under the title “The One Horse Open Sleigh”, this popular song was renamed when it launched in 1957. Not an instant hit, “Jingle Bells” rocketed to fame when it became the first ever song to be played in space. Following reports of a Santa sighting, Gemini 6’s crew gave a rousing rendition of the song accompanied by a harmonica and bells they had smuggled onboard, reportedly earning the response of “You’re too much, 6” from Mission Control.
  2. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. Written by prolific hymnwriter Charles Wesley in 1739, this poem first appeared in Wesley’s Hymns and Sacred Poems collection. The original opening line was “Hark how all the welkin rings”, but this was amended by Anglican evangelist George Whitefield. Sung to various tunes, it was eventually paired with Mendelssohn’s “Festgesang”, which would most likely have upset Wesley, who was partial to a slower tune, and Mendelssohn, who wrote his cantata as a strictly secular melody.
  3. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”. Penned by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in 1944 for a scene in blockbuster musical Meet Me In St. Louis, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was first sung by Judy Garland’s character in a bid to comfort her sister before the onscreen family moved to a new area. However, the original lyrics were so depressing that director Vincente Minnelli, Garland and co-star Tom Drake complained, urging Martin to cheer them up a bit. Martin eventually relented after receiving a talking-to from actor Drake, and made further alterations when Frank Sinatra later entreated him to do so. The song has become a major hit for several singers since Sinatra, including Michael Bublé.
  4. “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”. This carol was written in 1865 by American preacher Phillip Brooks, who had a doctorate in Divinity from Oxford and taught at Yale. Telling the tale of Jesus’ birth, it reportedly came about after Brooks attended a five-hour Christmas Eve celebration in Bethlehem. He was so moved by the experience, which included a number of hymns, that he was inspired to write the festive hymn. It was first performed by his church’s children’s choir in 1868 and is still sung by children and adults alike in churches across the land.
  5. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. Written by actor James “Haven” Gillespie, this cheery tune was first performed on American musician Eddie Cantor’s radio show in 1934. Gillespie was struggling, both financially and on a personal level, when he received the request from Cantor to write the song, as his acting career was slowing down and his brother had just died. He initially turned it down, consumed by grief, but eventually felt inspired to put pen to paper by memories of family Christmases as a child and repeated warnings from his mother that Santa Claus was watching his every move! He reportedly wrote the lyrics in just fifteen minutes, and the song shot to fame within 24 hours of its first airing.

They’re already playing in every supermarket and the radio stations have them on a loop, but how did some of our favourite Christmas songs come about? Let’s explore the origins of five familiar festive tunes.

 

1.       “Jingle Bells”. Originally written by James Lord Pierpont to celebrate Thanksgiving under the title “The One Horse Open Sleigh”, this popular song was renamed when it launched in 1957. Not an instant hit, “Jingle Bells” rocketed to fame when it became the first ever song to be played in space. Following reports of a Santa sighting, Gemini 6’s crew gave a rousing rendition of the song accompanied by a harmonica and bells they had smuggled onboard, reportedly earning the response of “You’re too much, 6” from Mission Control.

2.       “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. Written by prolific hymnwriter Charles Wesley in 1739, this poem first appeared in Wesley’s Hymns and Sacred Poems collection. The original opening line was “Hark how all the welkin rings”, but this was amended by Anglican evangelist George Whitefield. Sung to various tunes, it was eventually paired with Mendelssohn’s “Festgesang”, which would most likely have upset Wesley, who was partial to a slower tune, and Mendelssohn, who wrote his cantata as a strictly secular melody.

3.       “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”. Penned by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in 1944 for a scene in blockbuster musical Meet Me In St. Louis, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was first sung by Judy Garland’s character in a bid to comfort her sister before the onscreen family moved to a new area. However, the original lyrics were so depressing that director Vincente Minnelli, Garland and co-star Tom Drake complained, urging Martin to cheer them up a bit. Martin eventually relented after receiving a talking-to from actor Drake, and made further alterations when Frank Sinatra later entreated him to do so. The song has become a major hit for several singers since Sinatra, including Michael Bublé.

4.       “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”. This carol was written in 1865 by American preacher Phillip Brooks, who had a doctorate in Divinity from Oxford and taught at Yale. Telling the tale of Jesus’ birth, it reportedly came about after Brooks attended a five-hour Christmas Eve celebration in Bethlehem. He was so moved by the experience, which included a number of hymns, that he was inspired to write the festive hymn. It was first performed by his church’s children’s choir in 1868 and is still sung by children and adults alike in churches across the land.

5.       “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. Written by actor James “Haven” Gillespie, this cheery tune was first performed on American musician Eddie Cantor’s radio show in 1934. Gillespie was struggling, both financially and on a personal level, when he received the request from Cantor to write the song, as his acting career was slowing down and his brother had just died. He initially turned it down, consumed by grief, but eventually felt inspired to put pen to paper by memories of family Christmases as a child and repeated warnings from his mother that Santa Claus was watching his every move! He reportedly wrote the lyrics in just fifteen minutes, and the song shot to fame within 24 hours of its first airing.