As the holidays became known as family time for celebration, American composers cranked out tons of secular songs. Oddly enough, the heyday was in the 1930s through the 1950s -- few holiday standards have been written since, although many songwriters have tried to put their stamp on the season.
The best-selling American Christmas song of all time was, ironically enough, written by a Jew, Irving Berlin, for the 1942 film Holiday Inn. Around here, the song has special significance, because it was Spokane native Bing Crosby's biggest hit. Released in the darkest moment of World War II, this song became an anthem of hope for families with loved ones deployed around the world. The song also stands as a reminder that many Americans rarely, if ever, get snow for Christmas -- Berlin, a New Yorker, was living in Los Angeles when he wrote it, and so was Crosby.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
Sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, the song was taken to heart, again, because of its resonance among families split up by war. It's on the melancholy side, but its message that the holidays are a safe harbor in a stormy world continues to keep it among the most recorded holiday songs. The best modern versions are by Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall and Lou Rawls.
"The Christmas Song"
Nat King Cole owns this song (although Mel Torme wrote it), and he recorded it three different times from the 1940s to the '60s. When you hear Cole's smooth voice intone over those lush strings "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," you know Santa's coming to town.
The Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington
How do you improve on perfection? That's the question jazz composers Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn must have asked themselves when they decided to rearrange Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite for a jazz orchestra. Jazz critic Steve Schwartz calls the result "one of the great American scores, and you'll probably never hear it at your local symphony." But in Spokane, you can hear it performed by your local Jazz Orchestra on Dec. 4 at the Met.
Ever since Christmas carols were introduced to church services by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century, these songs have reminded people of the reason for the season, as they say. These four were chosen for their simplicity, their chills-down-the-spine grandeur and just for being fun to sing along with.
This truly is the world's Christmas carol, as it has been translated into some 300 languages. The profound elegance of "Stille Nacht" was put to paper in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, a humble Austrian parish priest. Two years later, on a Christmas Eve visit, his friend Franz Gruber wrote the tune for accompaniment by guitar.
When inspiration strikes, it can happen fast. The German-born Georg Friedrich Handel was never particularly known for religious compositions, but when he took a commission to write an oratorio about the birth of Jesus, he completed it in just 24 days. Now it's the composer's best-known piece -- and it ranks among the most beloved of all religious-inspired works of art. When given voice by the likes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it can be a spectacular experience. Known most for its stirring conclusion, the best movement is really "For Unto Us a Child Is Born."
"O Come All Ye Faithful"
This song is so old, it was originally written in Latin as "Adeste Fidelis." Dating back to the 1700s, it was put in English in 1841. The words "joyful and triumphant" were particularly well chosen by the translator, the Rev. Frederick Oakley. This one's really fun to sing.
"What Child Is This?"
If this tune always seems familiar, it's because it was borrowed from the ancient ballad "Greensleeves," which was first published in 1580 and concerned courtly affairs in jolly old England. William Dix added the Christmas lyrics in 1865.
A Case for Censorship
Here are three of the songs that remind you of how happy you are when Christmas is over and the Muzak in all the stores reverts to its previously scheduled diet of Carpenters tunes. In short, these three should be banned for at least one holiday season.
"Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"
This song was recorded by something called Elmo & amp; Patsy, and it's offensive in just about every way. Sorry, but the image of grandma bloodied under cloven hooves just ain't Christmasy -- no matter how "hilarious" the lyrics may be.
This song is plenty annoying in small doses, but it gets even more unbearable in heavy rotation -- and you will hear this song perhaps more than any other in the coming weeks. It will lodge in your brain, and the only way to release the pressure is to hum it under your breath in every spare moment. This therapy offers the added bonus of helping to lodge the song in the brains of your family members and co-workers.
"Simply having a wonderful Christmastime." For this kind of crap Paul McCartney gets knighted?
One More to Consider:
"Do They Know It's Christmas?"
Remember back in 1984, when "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was the No. 1 song in, like, the whole world? It was the song by the British half of Band Aid -- those musicians who raised money for Africa. Well, Africa's still a mess, so now, 20 years later, we've got Band Aid 20, with some of the same characters (Bono, Bob Geldof, Paul McCartney) joined by some of today's "hot, young stars" (Dido, Robbie Williams, Coldplay's Chris Martin). And on Nov. 29, they're releasing a new version of the song, with all funds going to African relief, especially in the civil war-torn Sudan. At any other time of year, a bunch of rich, self-righteous rock stars hamming it up would prompt some choice zingers. But it's the holiday season and we're feeling charitable -- after all, Band Aid has raised nearly $150 million since 1984 and this new record will at least highlight the plight of millions of suffering Africans. If you're not planning to give this year (and you should), at least you can pitch in by picking up this record.