Why are Christmas songs so heart-warming?
The authors of the songs knew how to tug at the heartstrings. Many, like “White Christmas” songwriter Irving Berlin, are notably included in the Great American Songbook. As such, they knew their craft, conveying the sweet, and sometimes melancholy, tidings of the season.
It’s worth noting that many of the best, and most heart-warming, Christmas songs have been recorded and released around the time of conflict in the 20th century. Specifically, World War II and the Vietnam War. The holiday season is the call of home, the call of family and friends to embrace. When battles in far-off lands take you away, or take loved ones away, the importance of Christmas becomes even clearer.
Perhaps now in 2022, the shared empathy of these songs can show listeners that we have much more in common than we have things that drive us apart.
12. 'Christmas Time Is Here' by the Vince Guaraldi Trio
“Christmas Time Is Here” is basically a piano solo that begs your own personal accompaniment. Think of the sounds of a crackling fire, snowflakes falling, or the embracing of loved ones.
The track is part of the soundtrack of 1965’s TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Written by Lee Mendelson (who died on Christmas Day in 2019) and Guaraldi.
11. 'Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy' by Bing Crosby and David Bowie
This generational holiday meeting has become a classic. Rock star David Bowie appeared on Bing Crosby's final Christmas special in 1977, and they performed this specially written version of “Little Drummer Boy” with a new counterpoint refrain of “Peace on Earth” added by the show producers.
Think of it as a holiday mash-up. It’s warm, a little wacky, and a now it’s one for the ages.
10. '2000 Miles' by the Pretenders
Who has gone 2,000 miles in the Pretenders’ seasonal classic, “2000 Miles”? It’s not Santa Claus. The song strikes a personal note for writer Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, who was evasive when asked about the “2000 Miles” roots on the Dutch music show “Countdown” in 1983, the year it was released.
“I wish you hadn’t asked me that,” said Hynde on Countdown. “It’s about someone who’s gone, really, and let’s just say it's Father Christmas.”
The song, according to fans, is really about band guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who had passed away the previous year due to a drug overdose. Honeyman-Scott was a pivotal member of the Pretenders in the band’s early days and “2000 Miles” serves as a sweet wintry eulogy, and a Christmastime remembrance of those not present.
9. 'Someday at Christmas' by Stevie Wonder
This is an aspirational song that that looks forward to a time when “men won’t be boys, playing with bombs like kids play with toys.”
Heady stuff for a teenage Wonder, who first released the song as a single in 1966, and as part of the album, “Someday at Christmas,” in 1967. The Vietnam War was active, but the widespread protests against it had not begun. Written by Ron Miller and Bryan Wells.
8. ‘O Holy Night’ by Jerry Butler
The hymn “O Holy Night” is a seasonal show stopper that stirs the soul whenever it’s played on the radio — and it moves attendees to tears at Midnight Masses, too.
The birth of Jesus is the redemption of man and woman, rejoice on this “O Holy Night.” The classic has an interesting background as it was composed by Placide Cappeau, an atheist, and Adolphe Adams, a Jew in 1840s France. (Adams predated the American Jewish songwriters of the 20th century who would compose many of Christmas classics we love today.)
John Sullivan Dwight translated “O Holy Night” into English and gave it a progressive tone for its times with the line, “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother.” It became popular in abolitionist circles of the times.
“O Holy Night” has been recorded by artists of all stripes, from Mariah Carey to Celine Dion. We recommend the stellar version by Chicago soul singer Jerry Butler, who released it in 1960.
7. 'It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year' by Andy Williams
Several generations of Americans know Andy Williams as “Mr. Christmas,” thanks to his ubiquitous seasonal TV specials. 1962's “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is his most famous Christmas song, with a warm, upbeat tempo and arresting time signature.
And yes, Williams cites “scary ghost stories” as one of the charms of the season. Ghost stories on Christmas Eve was a Victorian thing — think Dickens' “A Christmas Carol.”
6. 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Plastic Ono Band and Harlem Community Choir
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was originally released as a protest song against the Vietnam War in December of 1971. It’s since become a call for worldwide solidarity.
The track, a staple of seasonal playlists, rose again on the charts in December 1980 in the weeks after Lennon was shot to death outside his home in New York City. In that context, this song is more heart-breaking than heart-warming.
5. 'I’ll Be Home for Christmas' by Elvis Presley
This moving ballad tugs at the heart strings when the protagonist sings “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.” That's partly because in the original version, originally sung by Bing Crosby in 1943, Americans were overseas fighting in World War II.
Elvis Presley included a stellar version of the track on his 1957 album “Elvis’ Christmas Album.” The irony is that Presley spent Christmas of’ ’58 and ’59 away from home in Germany as he had been drafted by the Army.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent.
4. 'Silent Night' by Bing Crosby
“Silent Night” is a Christmas carol written in Austria in the early 1800s. Bing Crosby recorded it in 1935.
“They said that neither my voice nor my styling was suited to such spiritual songs,” Crosby told Good Housekeeping in 1956, via Wikipedia, also referring to a recording of “Adeste Fideles.”
“I told the simple truth — that I had intended no sacrilege by singing in my usual ballad manner. I added that the record’s sale must have brought those two beautiful songs closer to many people who had not known them too well before.”
3. 'The Christmas Song' by Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole recorded four versions of “The Christmas Song.” The one we hear most often is his 1961 recording. If you didn’t know, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is actually titled “The Christmas Song.”
Whatever you call it, it’s a classic from the great jazz pop vocalist Nat King Cole. It was written by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé in 1945.
2. 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' by Judy Garland
This classic track was first sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Garland was initially put off by the dark lyrics of the song, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. “About a week before we were to shoot the scene where Judy sings it to me, she looked at the lyrics and said, ‘Don’t you think these are awfully dark? I’m going to go to Hugh Martin and see if he can lighten it up a little,’ ” Garland’s co-star Margaret O’Brien told Entertainment Weekly in 2006.
Hence, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past” became “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
A few years later Frank Sinatra requested yet another re-write for his version to brighten it up even more. Still, the warmth, and the sweet melancholy, remained in this Christmas classic.
1. 'White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
“White Christmas,” the Irving Berlin song originally sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn,” is a seasonal touchstone that illuminates the best of who we are during the holiday season. When it was originally released, it served as a balm to U.S. troops serving overseas.
“Wrenched from their normal lives and the places they had known, separated from their sweethearts, their husbands, their wives, their parents, their children, Americans naturally found themselves responding to the wistful sentiments in Berlin’s Christmas home song,” writes Jody Rosen in his book “White Christmas: The Story of an American Song.”
Crosby’s version has sold more than 50 million copies, and it's more than 500 covers have sold more than 100 million copies. It’s indeed a uniquely American treasure, written in Southern California by a Jewish immigrant from Russia while pining about a wintry New England Christmas setting.
Editor's note: Portions of this story have previously published.
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Chris Jordan, a Jersey Shore native, covers entertainment and features for the USA Today Network New Jersey. Contact him at @chrisfhjordan; firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Best Christmas songs are heart-warming holiday classics