The genealogy of the Christmas song / by John Batt Part 2

Continued from Part 1  

Once in Royal David’s City
Believed to have first been published in 1848 in Hymns for Little Children, this carol paints a vivid picture of the nativity.  The words were first written by children’s poet, Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, and the carol was set to music a year later by organist, H J Gauntlett.  Mrs Alexander is remembered for her hymn, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.  There is a stained glass window in her memory installed in the north vestibule of St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry, Northern Ireland, financed by public subscription.  The three lights of the windows refer to three of her hymns and show corresponding scenes: ‘Once in Royal David’s City‘, ‘There Is a Green Hill Far Away‘, and ‘The Golden Gates Are Lifted Up‘.

The Holly and the Ivy
This gentle carol is inspired by the hope that singers would survive the difficult winter months like the holly and the ivy.  Now, they are brought inside for good luck.  An early mention of the carol’s title occurs in William Hone’s 1823 work, ‘Ancient Mysteries Described‘, which includes ‘The holly and the ivy, now are both well grown‘ among an alphabetical list of ‘Christmas Carols, now annually printed‘ that were in the author’s possession.  Greenery in Christmas decorations was inherited from Pagan celebrations, and, for Christmas, the evergreens came to symbolize the eternal life offered by Jesus Christ.

Deck the halls
One of the most festive holiday songs, the melody for ‘Deck the Halls‘ dates back to 16th century Wales, while the lyrics were written by Scotsman, Thomas Oliphant, in 1862.  There are a few variants of the lyrics, and the one known is quite different from the original, which describes the merry drinking that goes on during the holiday as decorations are hung.

Away in a Manger
This late 19th-century carol is hugely popular with children.  The melody was originally composed in 1837 by Jonathan E. Spilman, but was later adapted in 1895 by William J Kirkpatrick.

O Little Town of Bethlehem
Following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Rector Phillips Brooks wrote the text to this hymn, after he was inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine.  Three years later in 1871, his church organist, Lewis Redner, wrote the melody for the local Sunday school children’s choir.

In the Bleak Midwinter
This is a Christmas carol based on a poem by the English poet, Christina Rossetti.  The poem was published, under the title ‘A Christmas Carol‘ in the January 1872.  The poem first appeared set to music in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst.  Harold Darke’s anthem setting of 1911 is more complex, and was named the best Christmas carol in a poll of some of the world’s leading choirmasters and choral experts in 2008.

20th Century

Very few religious carols appear from modern composers and probably do not find their way into the traditional church service hymn books.  ‘The Zither Carol‘ written, in 1958 by Sir Malcolm Sargent, the ‘Carol of the Drum‘ written in 1957 by Katherine Davies and the ‘Calypso Carol‘ written in 1969 found their way into school assemblies and community based carol services.

The story of the Christmas song now takes a dramatic turn.  The traditional carols existed orally, but, through the printed hymn books and collections, they became universal.  The books were distributed mainly through churches and community groups and so remained very much at the heart of organised singing.  There had been gramophones around since the 1890’s but their sound was poor and recorded acoustically.  In the 1920’s electronic recording improved the sound, but it was not until the introduction of the material Vinyl over shellac that records became central to Christmas music.  At the same time, the explosion of radio in the 1920’s meant that music and songs filled the air.  The first programme solely playing records was broadcast in 1927.  However, not until 1939 can I find statistics that give details of the popularity of songs, and thus the Christmas number 1.  Often these songs appear in these charts over a number of years.

The following is from the Sheet Music charts compiled between 1939 and 1964.  Songs were performed by a number of artists and are accredited accordingly. 

In 1939, 1940 and 1941 ‘I’m sending a letter to Santa Claus’ by Gracie Fields was the best seller. 
I shall return to 1942 to 1945 later. No Christmas record then appeared until 1950.
Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, written in 1949 by Johnny Marks, was based on a character in a story written in 1939 by Robert May (Marks’ brother in law).  No 1 in the USA in 1949 (the UK no 1 was Snowy White Snow); 1950 it was top in the UK by Donald Peers, Gene Autrey the USA recording, and Mel Blanc; in 1951, it was no 19; 1952 no 21; and 1953 no 24.
1953 at Nos 2 ‘I saw mummy kissing Santa Claus‘ Billy Cotton, The Beverley Sisters, and Jimmy Boyd.  At no 19 that year was ‘When Santa got stuck up the chimney‘ Billy Cotton
1954 ‘Nos Santa Natale (Merry Christmas)’ David Whitfield
1955 ‘The Christmas Alphabet‘ Dickie Valentine
1956 no 2 ‘Davey Crockett is helping Santa Claus‘ Joe Lynch
1957 ‘Mary’s Boy Child‘ Harry Belafonte – it was Nos 2 in 1958 and there were three other Christmas songs, further down the charts. (It was no 5 in 1959, and no 6 in 1960)
1959 ‘Little Donkey‘ Gracie Fields, The Beverley Sisters, Vera Lynn
1960 ‘Little Donkey‘ Nina and Frederic
1961 None in the top 10
1962 at no 4 ‘Rocking around the Christmas Tree‘ Brenda Lee
1963 at no 6 ‘All I want for Christmas is a Beatle‘ Dora Bryan
1964 No Christmas songs in the top 20.

Before leaving the Sheet music charts I need to return to 1942
White Christmas – this topped the chart for 4 weeks (Bing Crosby, Vera Lyn, Joe Loss, Victor Sylvester).  Crosby’s ‘White Christmas‘ single has been credited with selling 50 million copies, the most by any release and, therefore, it is the biggest selling single, worldwide, of all time.  The first public performance of the song was by Bing Crosby, on his NBC radio show, The Kraft Music Hall, on Christmas Day, 1941.  It then appeared in the film Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946) and finally the musical and film White Christmas in (1954).  The Guinness Book of World Records 2009 Edition lists the song as a 100-million seller, encompassing all versions of the song, including albums.  Crosby’s holiday collection Merry Christmas was first released as an LP in 1949, and has never been out of print since. There have been 1694 versions since.

Sales of Christmas Songs on Singles, 1964 onwards.

Since 1964, only twelve Official Christmas Number 1s have acknowledged the festive season; the rest are just the tunes people happened to love the most as the year came to an end.  There is more to Christmas than ‘Jingle bells‘, but here, in order, the biggest selling chart-topping hits which are in line with this project:

1 ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’  Band Aid 1984, 1989, 2004 (Band Aid 20) 2014 (Band Aid 30)  3.82 Million sales.
4 ‘Mary’s Boy Child‘ Boney M 1.89 million sales; Harry Belafonte (1957) 1.19 million sales
10 ‘Hallelujah‘ written by Leonard Cohen  2 versions: 1.32 million sales.
11 ‘Merry Christmas Everyone‘  Shakin’ Stevens 1973 to 2017 (10 times in the charts)  1.32 million sales

All I want for Christmas is You‘   Mariah Carey:  1 million plus

Downloads and plays on the radio from a 2019 chart.

1 ‘Fairy Tale of New York‘ The Pogues 1987

This has proved to be the enduringly modern popular with both music critics and the public: to date the song has reached the UK Top 20 on fifteen separate occasions since its original release in 1987, including every year since 2005, and was certified triple platinum in the UK in 2019.  As of September 2017 the song has sold 1,217,112 copies in the UK, with an additional 249,626 streaming equivalent sales, for a total of 1,466,737 combined sales.

2 ‘Last Christmas‘  Wham 1984
3 ‘Merry Christmas Everyone‘  Slade 1973
4 ‘White Christmas‘  Bing Crosby 1947
5 ‘I wish it could be Christmas‘  Wizard 1973
6 ‘All I want for Christmas is you‘  Maria Carey 1994
7 ‘Driving Home for Christmas‘  Chris Rea 1988
8 ‘Do they know it’s Christmas‘  Band Aid 1984
9 ‘I believe in Father Christmas‘  Greg Lake 1975
10 ‘When a Child is Born‘ Johnny Mathis 1976.

All I Want for Christmas Is You‘. In 2019, the Guinness World Records honoured Mariah Carey with three records for her 1994 hit holiday track.  The trio of certificates includes highest-charting holiday (Christmas/New Year) song on the US Hot 100 chart by a solo artist, most-streamed track on Spotify in 24 hours (female), and most weeks in the UK singles top 10 chart for a Christmas song.  In 2010, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You‘ was named the No. 1 holiday song of the decade in the United Kingdom.  The song peaked at number 2 in the United Kingdom for a second time in December 2017 and reached number 2 again in 2018 and 2019.  At the time of writing it is tipped to reach number 1 in 2020.

In summary the songs of Christmas have reflected the changes and moods of society over the centuries from celebrations of religious and pagan festivals to light-hearted songs to entertain over the airwaves.

The popularity of ‘A Fairy tale of New York‘ is maybe a sad reflection on where we are today, if its popularity as explained in this article by Helen Brown of The Daily Telegraph: In careening wildly through a gamut of moods from maudlin to euphoric, sentimental to profane, mud-slinging to sincerely devoted in the space of four glorious minutes – it’s seemed perfectly suited to Christmas – a time which highlights the disparity between the haves and have-nots around the world.  Those of us lucky enough to spend the day with friends and families by a cosy fire with a full stomach think of the lonely, the homeless and the hungry.  As MacColl and MacGowan’s dialogue descends from the ecstasy of their first kiss into an increasingly vitriolic argument, their words put the average family’s seasonal bickering into perspective.  “You’re a bum you’re a punk/ You’re an old slut on junk…” The song’s row ends with an expression of love and hope (against all the odds) as MacGowan’s character promises MacColl’s that, far from wrecking her dreams he has kept them with his own “Can’t make it all alone,” he pleads, “I’ve built my dreams around you.”

Buoyed by streaming numbers, as the UK attempts to conjure the magic of Christmas earlier than ever, following a miserable year, 22 further Christmas songs are in this week’s Top 40.  The Top 10 alone features the Pogues’ ‘Fairy tale of New York‘ (No 4), Shakin’ Stevens’ ‘Merry Christmas Everyone‘ (No 6), Michael Bublé’s ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas‘ (No 7), Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?‘ (No 8), and Elton John’s ‘Step Into Christmas‘ (No 10). The Guardian 11th December

Will any of these songs be around in 200 years or even 60 years?

Overall though the 4 top enduring songs and carols are ‘White Christmas‘, a song of hope and romance emerging during World War II.  ‘Silent Night‘ has been translated into 140 languages and celebrates the story of Christmas Day in a calm and peaceful melody.  Finally, there is ‘Jingle Bells‘, a winter song with a catchy tune and words changed to reflect the countries, and ‘All I want for Christmas is you‘. In an interview in 1994, Carey described the song as ‘fun’, and continued: ‘It’s very traditional, old-fashioned Christmas. It’s very retro, kind of ’60s.’

Personally, my favourite Christmas song is ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘, a wintry haunting melody with words covering seasons, celebration and festival:

John Batt,  December 2020.
With much help from Wikipedia, and Google searches.