Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people. A time to give. A time to get. A time to cultivate closeness. It’s also a time to reflect on the fortune of family, and the misfortune of those who are struggling, less blessed.
Whatever the holidays mean for you, Christmas songs are a noble tradition. Everyone knows them, but each of us has a special history with them. They are deeply tied to our oldest and most powerful memories.
And there’s no better way to spread cheer than clustering around a piano and lifting our voices together in the warmth of our friends and family. It’s how we best express all the emotion that presents, and tinsel, and traditions are meant to get across.
So don’t skimp on the nog when you bust out these classic Christmas tunes on the old tinkle-box! Because, no matter how you feel about them, these songs hold powerful feelings. And with a little practice, anyone can learn them, and bring on the true joy of the season!
1. Let It Snow
A classic American portrait of Christmas at its wintry best, “Let It Snow” was actually composed during a Hollywood heatwave in 1945. Written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, both children of Jewish-American immigrants, “Let It Snow” became an instant success upon its first recording.
2. Silent Night
Nobody can deny the refined beauty of this hymn-like Christmas masterpiece. Composed by the young priest, Joseph Mohr, and church organist Franz Xavier Gruber in 1818, it is a paragon of pious adoration. While many Christmas classics focus on the fanfare of the season, “Silent Night” is a moving meditation on the intimate early moments between mother and child.
Composed in the humble Austrian town of Oberndorf, “Silent Night” has been celebrated by artists as diverse as Josh Groban, Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, Klaus Nomi, and virtually every Christian choir the world over.
3. Winter Wonderland
Jaunty as all get out, Richard Smith had the idea for this holiday standard after seeing Central Park blissfully carpeted in snow. He wrote the lyrics in a sanitarium, suffering from tuberculosis, and then Jewish-American musician Felix Bernard was enlisted to compose the music.
4. Jingle Bells
You may know it as the most classic of Christmas songs. You may also know it as the song people love to point out isn’t really a Christmas song. That may be true, but tradition has made “Jingle Bells” synonymous with Christmas.
The story goes like this: James Lord Pierpont wrote this song about the sleepy Massachusettes hamlet of Medford in 1857. Any good Medfordian will tell you the song was composed in a little tavern there.
But, it’s clear the song was written during a snowless winter in Savannah, GA. For starters, Pierpont was newly married to the mayor of Savannah’s daughter. Also he was living there. Also, the song was first performed in Savannah. And it was published there too.
Regardless of the controversy, one thing is certain: “Jingle Bells” was not a hit. Not until many, many years later when Bing Crosby joined forces with the heavenly Andrews Sisters in 1945, elevating “Jingle Bells” to a central place in the American holiday songbook.
*BONUS: Pierpont’s father was an outspoken abolitionist, and it seems the heralded composer rebelled by becoming a noted bigot, adopting an anti-black stance through writing minstrel songs. Really, really gross.
5. Baby, It’s Cold Outside
A sensual meeting. A crackling dialogue. A sizzling fire. While it may at first hit modern ears as uncomfortably insistent, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is one of the most deeply romantic, socially progressive Christmas songs around.
Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, the child of Jewish immigrants, the song is a scintillating back-and-forth between a couple caught in a wintry tryst. It’s widely regarded as the greatest yuletide duet of all time.
*BONUS: In response to the outmoded sexual politics of the original, this year Minneapolis based singer-songwriters Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski have cleverly updated the lyrics for a more progressive era.
6. Frosty The Snowman
A truly eccentric addition to the holiday rotation, “Frosty The Snowman” was originally recorded by Gene Autry after his mammoth holiday hit from the previous year “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Like many entries on this list, it is a staple of the Christmas canon, despite never referring to any holiday. However, the animated television special based on the song solidified its place as a Christmas classic.
7. Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Another beloved, bizarro masterpiece from the era of high advertising, “Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer” reins supreme in the Christmas pantheon. He was created by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward in 1939. The son of an affluent Jewish family, it was Robert’s Jewish brother-in-law Johnny Marks who immortalized the corporate caricature in song.
With a lengthy, eclectic list of celebrity enthusiasts (most unusually, Jackson 5, Merle Haggard, Destiny’s Child, and Rupaul), nobody explored the song’s endless lyrical possibilities like The Simpsons.
8. White Christmas
Nothing represents the commingling of nostalgia, cautious hope, impassioned longing and aesthetic sensitivity as “White Christmas.” The song was written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish refugee from Tsarist Russia, in 1942 while he was living in Hollywood.
Bing Crosby was attached to the song from the beginning, although it was initially a flop. It wasn’t until the next year that the song caught fire, and it kind of never stopped. To this date, it is widely believed to be the best-selling single of all time. Ever. So, what more can you say? “White Christmas” is solid gold, and it made Bing Crosby the undisputed king of Christmas.
9. The 12 Days of Christmas
By far the oldest entry on the list, “The 12 Days of Christmas” is infamous – among other things – for its length. The song was first published in England in 1780, but it is likely based on an older French hymn. There are numerous regional variations on the lyrics, and scholarly disputes about meaning of the symbols represented in the song’s Medieval structure.
With all that in mind, it’s important to remember that the rituals of Christmas bring meaning from long past ages. Before TV reruns and radio marathons, people had only one another, and the stories they shared for entertainment. “The 12 Days of Christmas” is a cultural relic that enriches us through its very medium, lengthy as it may be.
10. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Let’s round out the list with one of the most tender Christmas songs of all time. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane composed a timeless work of art that perfectly encapsulates every conflicting yuletide emotion. With a plaintive, lilting melody that blends with gently ironic lyrics, the canny chord progression protects the whole affair from melodrama. “Have Yourself” walks a delicate tightrope between nostalgia and knowingness that encapsulates our own complicated histories with the holiday.
It’s no wonder then, that it was flawlessly introduced to the world by Judy Garland, the perfect image of youthful world-weariness. Her delivery in the film “Meet Me In St. Louis” is paradoxically tear-jerking, and restrained.
A perfect blend of all the season promises and demands. Simply gorgeous.
No matter how you celebrate the season, these songs are a history of America’s valiant struggle to establish it’s own traditions through judicious borrowing, and visionary invention. And that history is undeniably defined by the creative contributions of the immigrant experience.
This is just a small sample of the splendor of holiday and ritual music. If you don’t see your favorite in this humble list, please let us know what holiday songs move you in the comments.
BONUS: Please Come to My Christmas Party
An ecstatic, contemporary extra, you can play our friends Koo Koo Kanga Roo’s newest single. It may be a little more complex, but it’s also freaky fun, and destined to become of holiday classic.
Learn to play “Please Come to My Christmas Party”