Peggy Keener: The secret lives of carols

Published 6:03 pm Friday, December 9, 2022

Christmas carols. We all know them and love them, but do we know the story behind them? Take “Jingle Bells” for example. With Santa and presents and snow all over it, plus grandma (for Pete’s sake), what could be more Christmas than that song?

Well, the truth is that it was written in 1857 (that’s 175 years ago!) for a Thanksgiving celebration by a church music director, James Lord Pierpont. He called his song, “One Horse Open Sleigh.”

Down through the ages word has had it that Pierpont’s creative juices were revved up after watching some sleigh races. Later while tipping a few mugs at Simpson’s Tavern on High Street—the grog making him feel extra relaxed and fanciful—he penned the song.

So, there you have it. One of our most beloved Christmas songs was composed by a tipsy choir director who wasn’t thinking about Christmas at all. Who knew?

But, there’s a fun anecdote to this story. On December 16, 1965, astronauts Wally Schirra, Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford were orbiting the earth in Gemini 6. Their plan was to create a historic space rendezvous with Gemini 7, piloted by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell. The hope was for it to be the closest that two spacecrafts could be in orbit, only a few feet apart. It was a success.

Then suddenly just before Gemini 6 began its return to earth, the two pilots reported seeing a UFO. “We have an object,” they shouted excitedly, “looks like a satellite going from north to south in a polar orbit.”

“Maybe we can pick up on it. Let’s see, we can see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot is wearing a red suit!”

And with that, Schirra and Stafford produced a harmonica and bells and proceed to play “Jingle Bells.” It was the first song ever performed in space. Mission control was gobsmacked … in the very best of holiday ways.

Another beloved Christmas song is “White Christmas.” It was written, not by a Christian musician, but rather by the Jewish composer Irving Berlin. And he wrote it for a Broadway musical that was never produced. All was not lost, however, as the song was later picked up by a group of Hollywood producers who featured it in “Holiday Inn,” a 1942 film starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.

Later in 1957, a cocky young upstart bombarded his way into the holiday music scene with a daring Christmas album. Who was it? Why, Elvis Presley, of course. Religious folks the world over who cherished their sacred carols were incensed. Who did this hip-swiveling-degenerate-twit think he was, anyway? Just imagine their outrage when Presley described his album as ranging from “traditional Christmas carols to sexy rock ‘n’ roll.” Nice going, Elvis!

The holiday album included “Peace in the Valley,” “I Believe,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and “It Is No Secret.” It was also no secret that the album included Elvis’s version of “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night,” a denigration the likes of which folks had never heard.

From there it got worse. When the public learned that Elvis had also grouped “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” along with their holiest of sacred carols, it was too much. Even Elvis’s strongest fans were vexed.

But, what really imploded the patience of the Christmas music lovers was that Elvis had the nerve to put in this album his own sexy rock-it-up renditions of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” “Blue Christmas” and “White Christmas.” A blue Christmas coupled with a white Christmas! Impossible! Tempers flared.

Irving Berlin was so hysterically upset that he tried his best to get Presley’s version of “White Christmas” banned from the radio. Unfortunately he wasn’t successful. Elvis’s Christmas music, ultimately, would go on to copiously outlive both of them.

Another titillating “White Christmas” story happened during the Vietnam War. The American Armed Forces Radio played the song in April of 1975 as a covert signal for our soldiers to implement the evacuation of Saigon. Irving Berlin was still alive then. If it wasn’t Elvis, it was a war! One has to guess how he felt over the bizarre performances of his lovely musical creation?

Nonetheless, well before that, Decca Records recorded Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” in 1942 when the film “White Christmas” was made. It went on to be the biggest selling single of all time. Even Elvis didn’t possess the old fashioned charm of Bing, America’s beloved crooner.

The song, “Do You Hear What I Hear” was written in 1962. The composers were the husband and wife team of Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne. It was not Christmas that inspired them, however. No, no. It was the existential dread they felt over the Cold War … in particular the Cuban Missile Crisis. Their song was a prayer for peace.

One has to ask if their collaborative plea wasn’t destined for them. With names like Noel and Gloria, was it meant to be?

When they wrote about the star “with a tail as big as a kite,” they did not refer to the Star of Bethlehem, but rather the tail of a missile! Imagine, if you can, the night wind saying to the little lamb who in turn asks the shepherd boy if he saw a … a … missile? We must feel a sense of relief and gratitude that those words morphed into a star.

Noel Regney admitted that he was inspired to write, “… said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see,” and “pray for peace, people everywhere,” after watching babies being pushed in strollers on the sidewalks of New York City.

Many years later he confessed that neither he nor Gloria could personally perform the song because of the emotions it stirred up in them. “Our little song broke us up,” they explained, “as you must realize there was a real threat of nuclear war at the time.”

And now you know the rest of the stories.