SPONSORED: It's the most wonderful time of the year — for holiday music lovers, at least! Whether you sneak those Christmas playlists into rotation starting in November or you're a strict adherent to a no-carols-before-Thanksgiving policy, this time of year is made especially festive by the special songs we save for the season.
But there's more to your holiday music than meets the eye — er, ear. Take a minute to learn a bit more about these beloved melodies and you'll uncover a wealth of fun facts, fascinating stories and surprising connections.
"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year": What's with those ghost stories?
Did you know that there's a line in Andy Williams' classic tune "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" that hearkens back to a time in England when Christmas had waned in popularity? Williams sings about "scary ghost stories," a tradition tied to Christmas's connections to Winter Solstice and the Germanic festival of Yule. Today we think of ghost stories as a topic for Halloween — but in Europe, tales of the spooky and supernatural were part of Christmas celebrations dating back to Medieval times. In 1843, the most famous Christmas ghost story of them all, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," was part of a series of events that helped repopularize Christmas in England, where the holiday had declined since the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century.
The Victorians embraced the ghostly aspects of Christmas — and although ghost stories might not be the first things that come to mind when you think of Christmas, other Victorian traditions (like decorating trees, exchanging gifts, and sending cards) are deeply ingrained in the way we celebrate the holiday today.
"Winter Wonderland": A Highlight for football fans
The third most played holiday song of the last 50 years according to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (it comes in just behind "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), "Winter Wonderland" was born in the same town as your favorite childhood waiting room diversion. Its lyrics were inspired by a snowy stroll through a park in the small Poconos town of Honesdale, Pa. — just a few blocks from the building where the children's magazine Highlights would be launched a dozen years later!
In the 83 years since its publication, "Winter Wonderland" has been recorded by more than 70 artists. Its chorus has also been co-opted by the chant-loving supporters of English soccer; here it is as "Walking in a Shearer Wonderland," sung by Newcastle United fans in celebration of striker Alan Shearer.
"Carol of the Bells" and "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen": A mash made in heaven
The song we know today as "Carol of the Bells" is an early 20th century composition based on a Ukrainian folk chant celebrating the coming spring. (Bells didn't come into the picture — nor did Christmas, for that matter — until an American choir director heard the song and published it with his own lyrics in the 1930s.)
"Carol of the Bells" doesn't have much in common with "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," an English carol that dates back at least to the mid-1700s, except that both songs are written in minor keys and in a triple meter — but musicians love to mash these tunes up. Even if you've never heard of the heavy metal band Savatage, you're almost certainly familiar with their bombastic "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," a medley popularized by another group started by Savatage members — Trans-Siberian Orchestra. More recently, pop-classical YouTube superstars The Piano Guys released a mashup of the two songs on their 2013 Christmas album. Locally, Anchorage Concert Chorus will include a mashup of the two songs in their 2017 Family Holiday Pops concert.
"Happy Christmas (War is Over)": Hope for miracles
As the 1960s came to an end, the Beatles broke up and his solo career took off, activism became just as much a part of John Lennon's life as music. After the success of his peace-seeking single "Imagine" in 1971, Lennon told one biographer he'd learned that "a little honey" helped the political message go down easily. That Christmas season, he took the same approach to spreading peace — through another catchy, hummable song.
Taking the optimistic message of the "War is Over" advertising campaign they had sponsored two years earlier, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono wrote and recorded "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" with the Harlem Community Choir. (If you've ever noticed a similarity between the "Happy Christmas" melody and the Peter, Paul and Mary song about Stewball the racehorse, there's a good reason: Both are based on the English ballad about a horse named "Skewball.")
Perhaps Lennon and Ono had good reason to think the slogan could work miracles. In December 1969, in the middle of the Beatles' acrimonious dissolution, Lennon played a "Peace for Christmas" concert in London to launch the "War is Over" campaign. Lennon had asked Eric Clapton and Beatles bandmate George Harrison, who had been touring together, to join them. "Right up to the last minute we didn't know if (Harrison) would come," former Lennon assistant Antony Fawcett recalled in his memoir "John Lennon: One Day at a Time." Just in time, Harrison and Clapton appeared, along with a crowd of musicians that included Billy Preston and The Who's Keith Moon. It would be the last time Harrison and Lennon ever performed onstage together.
"Twelve Days of Christmas": Scotland gets an extra day
The classic song about golden rings, pipers piping and fruit-bearing trees full of various kinds of birds has its origins in England and France, but if you think the gift-giver in this song is overly generous, wait until you meet their Scottish counterpart! A version of the counting rhyme called "The Yule Days" published in Robert Chambers' "Popular Rhymes of Scotland" in 1847 is all kinds of extra, with triple the partridges, an Arabian baboon, and a 13th day.
You may not be aware that the 12 days referenced in the song refer to the days beginning on or following Christmas Day, not the 12 days leading up to it. In a number of Christian religions, Christmas is celebrated from Dec. 24, 25 or 26 until Jan. 6, Epiphany — the arrival of the Magi — or Feb. 2, Candlemas — the feast commemorating Jesus' presentation at the temple.
Also known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany is celebrated in a variety of ways depending on local or cultural custom — but almost always with food, drink, and festivities! In Elizabethan England, the holiday often involved gender-bending or role-reversing costume play — the inspiration behind the name of William Shakespeare's disguise-heavy comedy "Twelfth Night, or What You Will."
"'Twas the Night Before Christmas"
OK, this one's not technically a song — originally. But it has been set to music by groups like Peter, Paul and Mary, and recitations set against orchestral music have been recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong and Perry Como to the Chipmunks, the Muppets, and orchestras all over the country. Officially titled "A Visit From St. Nicholas," the 1823 poem is largely responsible for the image of Santa Claus as we know him today. Although the poet, Clement C. Moore, wasn't the first to posit that Santa's sleigh was pulled by reindeer, he is credited with naming the eight original members of the team. (Donner and Blitzen's names, in case you were wondering, come from Dutch words meaning "thunder" and "lightning.") Rudolph, of course, came along later with a song and story of his own.
Now get ready to really indulge your love of Christmas music! Anchorage Concert Chorus celebrates the season at its annual Family Holiday Pops concert, presented by BP, where you'll enjoy all these songs and more, including a rare Simon & Garfunkel selection, "The Star Carol." Join us Sunday, Dec. 17 at 4 p.m. for holiday music from the Chorus and ACC Orchestra, a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus, and some yuletide surprises — it's an Anchorage tradition! Tickets at CenterTix.com.
This article was produced by the creative services department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Anchorage Concert Chorus. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.