Each year we hear them, we sing them, we love them: The holiday songs of our lives. But how much do we really know about the great music of the holidays? Probably not as much as we think. And thus, to celebrate the holiday season, I am delighted to present to you 8 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Holiday Music. I assure you each of these nuggets of knowledge is just as true as the one before it.
“Let it Snow”
While it is well known that the song was written in 1945 by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn in July, in southern California, on one of the hottest days of that year, what is not commonly known is that Styne and Cahn both penned the song while sitting in a large tub filled to the brim with ice cubes. “We just couldn’t get it right and we realized that on that day, in that place, we were just too far from inspiration,” lyricist Cahn would write in his 1975 autobiography, I Should Care. “A couple hundred pounds of ice fixed that right up.”
While the inspiration worked, yielding a number one tune and an enduring holiday classic, composer Styne unfortunately suffered a severe case of frostbite and narrowly missed having to amputate three toes on his left foot. He vowed never to work that way again. Cahn, however, used this “immersive songwriting” technique for several other songs, most memorably writing “Three Coins in the Fountain” in an inflatable pool while an assistant trained a garden hose at his head.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
Frank Loesser penned this classic in 1944 and performed it as a duet with his wife at a party, signifying to guests that it was getting close to the time they should depart. However Loesser, whose successes with Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying were still years in the future, repurposed the song for an aborted 1946 musical called That Damned Winter, in which the fictional town of Penobscroggin, Maine was confronted with the worst blizzard in 150 years, leading the formerly placid citizens of the picturesque New England hamlet to engage in violence, murder and ritual cannibalism.
In the play, the song was performed in a plaintive, minor key, with the lead begging his love not to leave, lest she freeze to death in the howling wind outside or alternately be absconded with by the nefarious Tucker family next door, the only Penobscroggin family not to appear to suffer from the icy famine, although several of their neighbors had gone missing. She leaves anyway and disappears, with only a shoe to mark her passing, but in the emotional finale returns alive in the spring, having been sheltered during the winter by adorable woodland animals, which then viciously and hungrily attack the corpulent, slow-moving Tuckers.
Despite an impressive book by playwright Thorton Wilder, That Damned Winter lasted only one performance in an out-of-town tryout in Sacramento, at which several descendants of the Donner Party began a riot during intermission. After the debacle, Loesser, disheartened, burned the score to the play, saving only “Baby,” the rights to which he sold to film studio MGM.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
The story of Rudolph is most famously known as a song, memorably performed by Gene Autry in 1949. However, the song is an adaptation of a 1939 poem by Robert L. May, initially written at the behest of the Montgomery Ward department store, which originally published the poem in a coloring book, distributing 2.4 million copies during the holidays. Despite the light tone of the poem, “Rudolph” is known to be a vicious satire of one Rudy Padgett, a contemporary of May’s with whom the writer shared a bitter, lifelong rivalry. The reindeer’s famous red nose is actually a metaphor for Padgett’s alcoholism, with the other “reindeer” (Padgett and May’s companions) laughing, calling him names and refusing to play with him not because of bigotry but because they were mocking his lack of control around booze.
The original ending of “Rudolph” had a soft-hearted Santa letting Rudolph take part in the sleigh team over the objections of the other reindeer, leading to the sleigh being wrapped around a tree, six of the eight traditional reindeer killed and Christmas cancelled, much to the dismay of children everywhere. The executives at Montgomery Ward, however, said that this version was “too dark for a coloring book” and ordered a rewrite, which May grudgingly provided. Ironically and coincidentally, after the publication of “Rudolph,” Rudy Padgett sobered up and became a beloved member of his community, which only seemed to enrage May all the more. “My father would often ask Uncle Bob what the deal was between him and Rudy,” economist Steven Levitt, May’s grand-nephew, once wrote in Slate. “Uncle Bob would only mutter one word, darkly: ‘Pencils.’ We never learned what it meant. It’s become our family’s ‘Rosebud.’”
This immortal Irving Berlin tune first became a hit for singer Bing Crosby in 1942 and then in many subsequent years afterward — which became a problem for Crosby, who had initially doubted the potential popularity of the song and said so to songwriter Irving Berlin. Berlin responded by making Crosby solemnly promise at the end of each year to take a shot of whiskey, one after another, for each week the song was on the charts. This required Crosby to down 11 sequential shots of whiskey in early 1943, with subsequent and dangerous whiskey sessions after the ’45 and ’46 holiday seasons, during which time the song returned to #1 on the charts. The song would go on to sell more than 50 million copies.
Realizing the dimensions of the true, cirrhotic danger in which he had placed both Crosby and his liver, Berlin released the crooner from his vow, allowing him to substitute whiskey shots with tokes from a marijuana cigarette instead. This pleased Crosby, who in the 60s and 70s would advocate for marijuana legalization.
“Little Drummer Boy”
This 1941 tune by Katherine Kennicott Davis has charmed generations with its tale of a young drummer playing his instrument to the delight of the newborn messiah. But this simple tune had a difficult birth, as Davis changed the profession of the little protagonist a number of times before settling on the role of drummer. Davis’ archives at Wellesley College feature early drafts entitled “Little Trumpet Boy,” “Little Ocarina Boy,” “Little Didgeridoo Boy,” “Little Mime Boy,” “Little Short Order Cook Boy,” “Little Public Relations Intern Boy,” “Little Gastroenterologist Boy” and “Little Kid Who Just Wandered By and Was Confusingly Pushed Into a Barn Boy.”
Most of these drafts were only fragments, although Davis completed “Little Didgeridoo Boy” and had it performed for Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies during a 1964 trip to the United States. Menzies was reported to ask Davis how a didgeridoo happened to be anywhere near Bethlehem in biblical times. Davis would later write disparagingly of Menzies’ “Philistine musical nature” and shoved that version of the song into a box. In 2001, musical artist Madonna was reported to have considered recording the didgeridoo version with herself playing the instrument, but the idea was shelved to avoid offending Australian aboriginal sensibilities. Madonna went on to make the film Swept Away instead.
During the 1990 invasion of Panama by the United States, US military forces surrounded the Vatican embassy, where dictator Manuel Noriega had fled, and engaged in psychological warfare with the fugitive leader by blasting rock music, which he loathed. But it wasn’t until US played “Feliz Navidad” on a repeating loop that Noriega finally surrendered on January 3, 1991. In 2004, journalist Guillermo Hernandez, who was part of the US forces who captured Noriega, wrote in Rolling Stone, “His first words as he left the embassy were ‘That f**king song. That f**king song. Why couldn’t you just keep playing Led Zeppelin?’”
Prior to Noriega’s 1992 trial, the former dictators’ lawyers attempted to derail the trial by filing a motion suggesting that repeated playing of “Feliz Navidad” constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The judge, while stating his sympathy for the argument, denied the petition.
In a 1994 interview with Q magazine on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the release of the Wings album Back to the Egg, producer Chris Thomas recalled that, after consuming a particularly large vegetarian burrito, Paul McCartney had bet Thomas one thousand pounds that he could write a hit song in the same amount of time it took him to unload his bowels. “I said, ‘you’re on,’ and he went to the loo,” said Thomas. “Five minutes later he came out, went over to the Prophet-5 I had in the studio, and there was ‘Wonderful Christmastime.’ When it hit number six on the British charts, he sent me a note that said ‘Right then, a thousand quid.’ I sent him an invoice for damages to the studio loo caused by his vegetarian burrito, which came to a thousand quid.” Thomas would later recant the interview, under mysterious circumstances.
In 1999, In an NME poll entitled “Explain ‘Wonderful Christmastime,’” 46% of that magazine’s respondents chose the poll option that said that the existence of the song proved there was no God, but that there might be a devil. Another 39% chose the response that said that yes, the song sucked, but at least it didn’t have Yoko on it, a clear reference to fellow Beatle John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (the War is Over).”
Rumors that George Michael wrote the hit holiday tune “Last Christmas” under similar circumstances are to date unsubstantiated.
In the late 1800s, this classic carol, first composed in 1816 by German priest Joseph Mohr, almost fell out of the Christmas canon when an anti-Austrian remnant of the Huguenot church suggested that the lyrics of the carol were not about adoring the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, but consuming them hungrily — thus the descriptions of both mother and child as “round” (i.e., deliciously plump) and infant Jesus himself as “tender and mild,” like a good veal. This culminated in 1871 with the scholarly debate at the University of Heidelberg in which it was suggested that any hint of messiah consumption could be explained away as an allegorical reference to transubstantiation. This led to outraged Catholic students burning down the lecture hall.
Eventually the controversy waned, but to this day kinderwurst, a tender, mild veal sausage served en flambe, is a popular seasonal dish in southern Germany.