10 Winter Wonderland / Jingle Bells
Ok, so The Top 10 is going to have slightly more than 10 songs. Hey, if the Big 10 conference can get away with having 11 football teams then why should I be forced to stay within arbitrary boundaries?? Anyway, as we move into the upper echelon you will find that the ubiquitous quotient increases exponentially. In other words, now we’re getting to the songs that you sing while caroling and hear on the radio several times per day this time of year. That kind of repetitiveness would serve to drive many of us nuts most of the time, but personally my love for Christmas carols is such that I not only can endure hearing the same song a half dozen times a day for a few weeks, but I actually embrace it.
Jingle Bells is yet another “winter carol”, meaning it’s not actually a Christmas song. Seriously…listen to the lyrics. It never references Jesus, Santa, trees, decorations, gifts, or anything else even remotely associated with Christmas. What it does do is make schlepping around outside in bitter cold and snow sound like fun, which I suppose it would be in a horse drawn sled as opposed to a two ton motor vehicle with hundreds of bad drivers surrounding you and endangering your life. All of us, from the smallest child to the greyest head have probably sung Jingle Bells thousands of times. It’s a happy, upbeat song and that’s a good thing.
Winter Wonderland was written in a sanitarium. I bet you didn’t know that. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. In the 1930’s, when the song was written, sanitariums weren’t places for mental patients…they were simply long term care hospitals, commonly used for folks with tuberculosis. Anyway, another example of a winter song that was not specifically written in reference to Christmas, Winter Wonderland also makes looking outside and realizing that it’s cold and there’s a ton of snow on the ground seem like a positive thing. It describes snow as “glistening” and “a beautiful sight”. The words conspire, frolic, and Eskimo are utilized as well, and that’s impressive and unique. FYI, because I am here not only to entertain but to educate, Parson Brown would have been a preacher. I kind of like that term. Maybe I’ll start calling my minister Parson Rod.
I realize I am in my late 30’s heading downhill toward 40. But darn it, I am fully in touch with my inner child and proud of it. Evidence that these two songs are the top two children’s’ Christmas songs can be found on your television, where two animated specials featuring Frosty and Rudolph have been annual traditions for over 40 years. Rudolph may be the second example in history where commerce and holiday wonder converged successfully not only on the balance sheet but in the hearts of the American public (leave me a comment on what you think was the first and we’ll see if we’re on the same wavelength). “The most famous reindeer of all” was created by an ad executive for Montgomery Ward department store in 1939. The character grew from that man’s story into the song written by Johnny Marks and recorded by Gene Autry in 1949 into the famous Rankin/Bass animated special first shown on television in 1964. Frosty was likely created in an effort to ride the wave of success brought on by Rudolph, but that’s okay. If one thinks of it as a sequel atleast it’s a good sequel and not something awful like Jaws: The Revenge or Staying Alive. It’s also another game effort to make cold, snowy weather seem pleasant. The Autry version of Rudolph is still the best, but a very close second is a swingin’ cover by Dean Martin, in which he refers to the titular character as Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer. How cool is that?? I personally still like the Jimmy Durante version of Frosty used for the television special better than any cover I’ve ever heard.
Deck the Halls continues the tradition of taking a tune (in this case a Welsh song written in the 16th century) and then creating appropriate lyrics for it a few hundred years later. A few random notes must be made about the song. “Gay apparel” meant a whole different thing when the words were written and has nothing to do with cross dressing or anything else in relation to sexual preferences. Jolly and merry are both used in the song, another example of painting a picture and telling us exactly how we, ideally, should feel during the Christmas season. And finally, as anyone who has watched the perennial holiday classic A Christmas Story can verify, Deck the Halls is the opening theme music as played by an unknown (atleast to me) but quite lovely brass ensemble. I love to hear this song sung by a choir or a group of carolers, and if it’s going to be played orchestrally it should be played in an old fashioned way, not too jazzed up with modern instruments and stylizations. One should be able to hear the trumpet, the trombone, and the saxophone.
Sleigh Ride is the Christmas carol equivalent of Boise State or TCU…one doesn’t really expect to see it highly ranked but that lack of respect doesn’t make it any less worthy. Sleigh Ride is a winter carol not especially written for Christmas and has a lot of similarities both in structure and lyrical content with Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderland. The inaugural version was recorded by The Boston Pops in 1949, and they probably still do it best, though I am torn between their purely instrumental adaptation and those with words, such as Mel Torme and Harry Connick Jr. My best advice is to learn the words…which speak of friends, wintry fairy lands, a wonderland of snow, being nice & rosy and comfy cozy, a fireplace, watching chestnuts pop, coffee & pumpkin pie, and Currier & Ives…then sing along to the Boston Pops rendition.
6 Jingle Bell Rock / Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
The connection here is obvious…rock. Rock n’ roll swept the nation into a frenzy in the 1950’s, and these carols came along during the latter part of that decade. Both tunes are more what we would today call rockabilly or southern rock, which is probably why I like them so much. I’m a huge fan of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stray Cats, and ZZ Top, all of whom fall into that genre to some degree. Even Elvis Presley was really a rockabilly artist. Anyway, both of these songs are just a swingin’ good time. As Dick Clark might say, “they have a good beat, and they’re easy to dance to…I give them both a 10”. The original Bobby Helms version of Jingle Bell Rock is still the best, although The Brian Setzer Orchestra did a nice cover. The song is the opening theme for the original Lethal Weapon (one of the best action and Christmas movies of all time) played just before a girl jumps off the top of a high rise apartment building into the roof of a parked car. Brenda Lee did the best and most well known version of Rockin’, and no other cover really stands out as particularly notable. When I hear it I always think of the scene in Home Alone when the bumbling crooks come by what they think is an empty house only to see a happenin’ party going down, a party that is really only MacCaulay Culkin’s Kevin manipulating a bunch of inanimate objects (including a cardboard Michael Jordan).
5 Silent Night
Earlier I made reference to sitting in a candlelit church at midnight on Christmas Eve singing softly. This is the second tune which fits that motif. Silent Night is a German carol written in the early 19th century by two Austrians. Supposedly the church organ was broken so the two men wrote the song specifically to be played on the guitar. That seems appropriate. Minimalism is the key when it comes to Silent Night. It doesn’t need to be loud, boisterous, or modern in any way. It needs to be simple, almost meditative. I find it perfectly acceptable to sing acapella, but also with just a single instrument, be it guitar, piano, saxophone, or trumpet. The words are quite possibly the most beautiful and eloquent description of the night Jesus was born ever written. I don’t think it is humanly possible for anyone with even an ounce of faith to not have something stir within them when they hear this song. Give me 24 hours with an atheist and an endless loop of Silent Night and I just might be able to accomplish something wonderful.
4 White Christmas
Here we go again with trying to make snow sound positive!! The question I have as a person who hates snow is…why do I get sucked in EVERY time?? Written in 1940 by famed composer Irving Berlin (who also wrote God Bless America, Steppin’ Out with My Baby, There’s No Business Like Show usiness and hundreds of other songs), White Christmas was made famous by Bing Crosby, who sang it in the movie Holiday Inn. The song itself inspired another movie (though not a sequel) starring Crosby…you can guess the title. The lyrics provide a perfect mix of wistful nostalgia and old fashioned romantic charm. It’s actually a pretty simple tune, with only two different stanzas that are just repeated. It is the most popular Christmas carol in the world and some say it is the most popular song in history, Christmas or otherwise. Because money grubbing bean counters didn’t really start tracking such things until a decade or so after the song was released no one really knows for sure, but it’s a nice thought. It is certainly influential. Ask yourself this…have you ever hoped, even slightly, for a white Christmas?? Yes, you have…everybody has. The question, again, is why?? Why are we so hell bent on trekking around to various relatives’ houses on Christmas Day in bitter cold and on icy roads?? It makes no logical sense. Christmas would be much easier and more convenient if it were 60 degrees and sunny. But…it just wouldn’t be…right. I blame this song on that kind of insanity being ingrained in to us…this wonderful, beautiful, powerfully expressive song. Because of its popularity dozens…probably hundreds…of artists have covered it. Almost any singer, band, orchestra, or other assorted musical performer who has ever produced a Christmas album puts White Christmas on the playlist. But really, there is only one rendition that is worthy, and that is Crosby’s. That man could sing. Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without White Christmas, and we’re all the better for it.
3 The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire)
Let me get this off my chest right off the bat: I don’t really care for chestnuts. But look over the list so far…how many songs do I love that glorify snowy , cold, wintry weather all while I detest such conditions?? So who cares if I’d rather have a big ol’ hunk of chocolate cake than a bag of toasty chestnuts?? I have to admit though, Nat King Cole makes those chestnuts sound tasty. Written in 1944 during a heat wave by Mel Torme, the song began as a simple effort to “think cool”. I dig irony, and I dig descriptive. Several songs mentioned in this list paint a wonderful, cozy, fun, or nostalgic picture of the Christmas season, but none do it with the elegance and class of The Christmas Song. It talks about “yuletide carols being sung by a choir”, turkey, mistletoe, “tiny tots with their eyes all aglow”, Santa with his sleigh full of toys, and reindeer. It’s not a religious song, and it’s not a fun kids’ song…it’s sentimental without being sappy, lighthearted without being frivolous. The aforementioned Cole did the definitive version, and I tend not to stray far from it, though I do like Torme’s rendition alot. And as much as I hate to admit it, Kenny G does an exquisite instrumental on his saxophone. A piano and/or sax is essential for The Christmas Song, it’s just that kind of tune.
2 Blue Christmas
While White Christmas seems to get all the good PR, I give the nod to another color…blue. Country artist Ernest Tubb originally recorded the song in 1948, but a few years later The King (this time I mean Elvis, not Jesus) came along and the rest is history. I suppose Freud-types would love analyzing a single guy’s bromance with a Christmas carol about unrequited love, and that’s okay with me. It’s completely logical that a man in my situation would appreciate the subject matter, although there’s really no one that I am currently pining away for. Musically it’s a simple song, accompanied best on guitar. Elvis, despite his rockin’ reputation, was an exquisite singer with a sublime voice. I suppose that’s why no other cover quite lives up to his. There is one other version that I really like and it’s a bit off the beaten path. Some years ago a person calling themselves Seymour Swine did Blue Christmas as sung by Porky Pig. Folks, do yourself a favor…if you have not heard Blue Christmas by Porky Pig/Seymour Swine stop whatever you are doing and Google it right now. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard in my life. I have never been able to find out the story behind Seymour Swine and have never heard any other songs by that artist. I think Blue Christmas may have been recorded live in a radio station or something, as one of the funniest things about it is the guys laughing in the background…it makes the song that much funnier. I don’t know of another Christmas carol that evokes such opposite emotions depending upon who is doing the singing. It’s quite the odd dichotomy.
1 O Holy Night
As bumbling burglar Marv says to his partner Harry in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York…”I’ve reached the top!”. O Holy Night completes the triumvirate of songs best enjoyed in a candlelit church on Christmas Eve. Written in the mid-19th century in France, it is an emotional account of the night Jesus was born. It refers to the “thrill of hope” as “the weary world rejoices”, a “world in sin and error pining”. It uses words like glorious, divine, beaming, and gleaming to describe that hope, the hope we have in our Savior, Jesus Christ. The song tells us exactly what Jesus is all about, that “He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger”, that “He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace”, and that “chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease”. If you can’t get on fire for The Lord after reading those words there is something missing and you better get on your knees and search your soul! But…reading the words isn’t even a good substitute for hearing the song. When done right it is soft and tender before building into a powerful crescendo that fills the heart with emotion. Nat King Cole did a great cover in the 60’s, but he doesn’t have quite enough gas in the tank to pull off the climax as well as it should be done. For my money the best cover I’ve heard is probably Josh Groban’s from a few years ago. That dude has some pipes!! I am sure there are other good versions that I am not thinking of at the moment. At any rate, it’s a beautiful song that should be sung acapella or with very minimal instrumentation by a legitimately great singer, not someone who is good looking and can sing just enough to justify making a record (a description that unfortunately describes probably 75% of what you hear on the radio).
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. And God bless us everyone.
- 7 Christmas Songs That Have Absolutely Nothing to do With Christmas (creativeminorityreport.com)
- Spice up Your Holiday with Christmas Music Albums from around the World (thecontrapuntist.com)
- The Five Most Remade Christmas Songs (socyberty.com)
- History of The Christmas Carols (socyberty.com)