The Case of Christmas Movie Carols

Happy Anniversary, Cassettes! Two years ago today, we released our first episode about the various versions of “A Christmas Carol.” Things were different back then, in podcasting and in life. Our only goal back then, was to make each episode better than the last. We still strive for that, putting as much work into the show as our schedules will allow. We love podcasting, and we’re incredibly blessed to have listeners like you. We’re gonna start this episode by thanking our patrons: Joel, Anthony, Jacklyn, Shelly, Linda, John, Jacob, and our newest patron: Jingleheimer Schmidt! Just kidding, it’s our long-time listener and pal, JD! You guys have given us so much, thank you! 

So, we’re closing out the month with an exciting episode about one of the biggest pieces of the Christmas season: Christmas Music! It’s no secret that we’re big fans of music (go ahead and listen to our movie score episodes) and Christmas is a season with it’s own soundtrack. 

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yule-tide carols being sung by a choir–and Bing Crosby–and Mariah Carey–and literally every artist ever–yes, these are the signs that it’s Christmas! There are thousands of Christmas songs, but every year we tend to hear the same few, covered by different artists. Some of these compositions were written specifically for the screen, and made such an impact on audiences, that they became instant Christmas classics. So today, we are taking a look at the film and TV origins of popular Christmas songs! 

We will also refrain from talking about “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and any song from “The Muppet Christmas Carol” since we’ve already talked about their origins this season.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS MUSIC

  • Christmas carols have always been about the people singing them. Although Christmas-themed music dates back to the fourth century, Christmas songs were often considered inappropriate within the walls of churches and cathedrals, and were a tradition of the streets
    • When Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector of England, Ireland, and Scotland, he banned Christmas carols.
    • Even today, many Christmas carols are not performed during Christian services, but it’s generally up to the leader of each church in terms of which songs may be sung. Growing up, pretty much any song that was old and religious enough to be in the hymnal was fair game (Hark, The Herald Angels Sing; Go, Tell it on the Mountain, etc.) 
  • It’s tough to determine the first Christmas carol. One of the oldest still sung today, is “The Friendly Beasts,” a French song that dates back to the 12th century. The oldest, most popular English song is likely, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” from the 16th century–though, as it seems to go, the lyrics came almost 200 years later.

But today, we’re not going that far back! We made a list of some of the songs we hear the most around the holidays, some suggested to us by friends and listeners, and some we just can’t get out of our heads. We’re talking about them in age order, and if we forgot one you love, let us know! We’d love to do this again! 

WHITE CHRISTMAS

The first song on our list is “White Christmas”, first featured in the film Holiday Inn (1942.)

  • On December 25, 1941, just weeks after the attack at Pearl Harbor, Bing Crosby debuted the song, “White Christmas” during the Kraft Music Hall radio show. 
  • The song was written by Irving Berlin, originally for a musical that became the movie, “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. This film also featured very popular songs like, “Happy Holiday” and “Easter Parade,” but no songs compared to the sheer popularity of “White Christmas.” 
    • The film follows two men (a dancer and a singer), trying to win the affections of a beautiful woman. It takes place at an Inn that’s only open on holidays.
  • The song, like many Christmas songs on this list, has a certain melancholy nature. Christmas is not a happy time for everyone. Irving Berlin didn’t actually celebrate Christmas, as he was Jewish. But on Christmas day in 1928, he and his wife lost their three-week-old son. Every year, they would visit their son’s grave on Christmas day. 
    • In 1941, just as America was entering WWII, this song was exactly what the nation needed to hear. It was sad, and longing, with hints of the wonder and magic that makes Christmas special. 
    • White Christmas is not only the won an oscar, it’s the best-selling single ever, with over 50 million copies sold!

HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

  • This Christmas classic was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, a songwriting team for MGM, that had written for other Broadway musicals and films.
  • “Meet Me in St Louis” is a musical drama that follows a family at the turn of the century. It was a nostalgic film, like many at the time (1940’s), looking back before there were world wars. The main conflict of the film, is that the family must move away from their beloved city, and miss the St Louis Fair.
    • In an interview Martin explained that he found the melody first which was a madrigal style, meaning that it would benefit from using multiple voices and few to no instruments. After trying to make the melody work for a while, he ended up throwing it out. Luckily, Blaine had heard it and said it was too good to give up. So, they fished it out of the trash and wrote something magical together! 
    • The first draft however was too sad and Judy Garland had asked for a rewrite which became the song we all know!
      • Some of the original lyrics were: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last; Next year we may all be living in the past” and, “Faithful friends who are dear to us, will be near to us no more.” 
      • The scene in the film is sad, and a sad song would have been effective, but not as effective as a happy one. This way, the character is singing through the tears, the way many of us often do.
      • When Judy refused to sing the original, Hugh Martin just told her that he was sorry, but that it was what it was. It was another actor, named Tom Drake, that pulled him aside and convinced Martin to rewrite the lyrics.
  • The song owes its popularity to the everlasting appeal of Judy Garland, as well as its relatability. In a world of songs that tell us that Christmas will make us happy, this song tells us that we need to allow ourselves to be happy at Christmas–that it won’t just happen for us. And even though the song is a pep talk, telling us that we can make it through, no matter how bad things get, it’s still sad. And in that way, it reminds us that it’s okay to not be happy at Christmas, no matter how you think you have to feel. The melancholy tune has been covered by countless artists, like Bing Crosby, Bob Dylan, and Sam Smith.
    • If you listen closely, you’ll notice that some versions have changed lyrics. Frank Sinatra asked for a rewrite when he covered the song, and his version has now become the standard “cover” version of the song. Originally, the song has the line, “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Thanks to Frank, today’s versions replace that line with, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE

Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Neptune’s Daughter (1949)

  • This song was written by Frank Lousser and his wife Lynn Garland. They created it in 1944 as a fun number to say goodbye to their party guests. So in a way it was not to ask those to stay but to kick them out… 
  • Loesser himself was known for his song-writing abilities, writing over 700 song lyrics, including the songs for “Guys and Dolls” and the classic, “Heart and Soul.”
    • When Lousser sold the song to MGM, his wife felt betrayed, because it was their song. The tune was featured in the film, “Neptune’s Daughter” and won an oscar.
    • Neptune’s Daughter follows a fashion designer that steps in to stop a man from breaking her sister’s heart. Things get complicated when the man mistakes her for her sister.
  • The song was always controversial, as some stations didn’t want to air it, citing the lyrics as too risque, but ultimately it climbed the charts and was a huge hit.
  • Of course, it’s impossible to talk about this song without mentioning the controversy surrounding it. It’s important to understand that this controversy isn’t new, and absolutely no one is allowed to tell someone else how a song makes them feel–that is for certain.
    • At the time this song came out a woman had to be the one to keep a man from getting very far. Her reputation was at stake, she was essentially not allowed to want sex. Some believe the song was actually liberating for women, depicting an unmarried woman who has gone home with a man for the evening. Every time he asks her to stay, she doesn’t explicitly say that she doesn’t want to, just that other people will gossip about it.
    • The most infamous line, “What’s in this drink?” was meant to be a joke at the time (one that was used fairly often), essentially making an excuse to do something that they want to, but really shouldn’t do.
  • In the original notes for the song, the woman was labeled as “the mouse” and the man as, “the wolf,” which indicates a certain predatory nature, that can be upsetting to think about. The choreography of the scene may also be troubling to modern viewers, as the female puts on her hat and coat, and the man takes them off.
  • Although the song was certainly not intended to be about date rape, many listeners find the lyrics to be too lighthearted toward lack of consent between sexual partners. It doesn’t matter what the intent of the song was, if it upsets you, it upsets you. Your feelings are valid. And, no matter how you feel about the song, it’s important to have these discussions about it!

SILVER BELLS

Silver Bells – The Lemondrop Kid (1951)

  • Silver Bells was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, two songwriters that were coming to the end of their contracts with Paramount. They knew that another flop would be the end of their careers, and they were reluctant to write a Christmas song for this reason. Livingston has said that the inspiration was the bells rung by the Salvation Army in New York, but Evans has said that it was because of a bell that sat upon a desk that the two had shared. In the context of the movie, it’s about the salvation Army bells.
    • The Lemondrop Kid stars Bob Hope as the title character, as he tries to rapidly make $10,000 to appease an angry gangster.
  • The original name of the song was to be “Tinkle Bells” but luckily Livingston’s wife heard the name and informed them what comes to everyone’s mind when they hear the word, “tinkle.” 
  • The song was written specifically for the movie The Lemondrop Kid but when Bing Crosby heard about it he managed to release the hit a year before the movie. Since Crosby managed to make the song popular, Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell had to reshoot this number to make it more central to the movie.
    • Bing’s version secured Livingston’s and Evans’ jobs as songwriters, since his version topped the charts and gave them a successful new Christmas song.

WINTER WAS WARM

Winter Was Warm – Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

  • Produced by UPA in the early 1960’s, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is the oldest animated Christmas TV special. It’s a musical, filled with some wonderful Christmas tunes, but one of the most memorable was, “Winter Was Warm,” sung by Belle (played by Jane Kean) as she parts ways with Scrooge.
  • Lyrics were written by Bob Merrill and composed by Jule Styne, and although the song is not very well-known today, we thought it was worth looking at for this episode. 
  • Similar to how “The Love is Gone” was cut from the theatrical release of “The Muppet Christmas Carol” “Winter Was Warm,” was often cut from the television run of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. 
    • This scene is the emotional anchor of the special, as much of it is light-hearted and comical, except for this sweetly sad song. The melody plays throughout the score as well.
    • The lyrics are short, but poignant 
      • It seems as I recall
      • No blossoms fell that fall
      • May didn’t leave at all
      • Or did love paint an illusion?
      • Now trees with a sigh
      • Stand and shiver
      • while their dreams fall and die
      • And all my dreams are there
      • Wrapped up somewhere in summer leaves
      • Oh, what I’d give to be
      • To be in love again
  • In this animated adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Mr. Magoo is an actor playing the part of Ebenezer Scrooge in a Broadway musical production of the novel. Later, Mr Magoo played other famous literary characters, but this was the first.

CHRISTMASTIME IS HERE

Christmastime is Here – A Charlie Brown Christmas

  • The opening number for A Charlie Brown Christmas has become somewhat of a Christmas staple. Vince Guaraldi composed the somber Jazz melody, and producer Lee Mendelson decided it needed some lyrics. He wrote the joyful words in only a few minutes, creating a sort-of bittersweet and contradictory song, perfect for Charlie Brown. 
    • It was specifically composed to open the movie and is sung by a group of children from a Bay area church choir.
      • In last year’s episode about this special, we said it was Mendelson’s son’s 6th grade class. That information is apparently incorrect! 
    • The vocal version is just under three minutes while the instrumental version is about 6 minutes.

YOU’RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch – How The Grinch Stole Christmas

  • The lyrics to this absolute classic were written by Theodore Geisel (Dr Suess), with music done by Albert Hague.
    • Suess wasn’t thrilled with the idea of songs in a special that he was already reluctant to do–He only said yes because he was war buddies with Chuck Jones.
    • Composer Albert Hague invited Suess over, and played him the music he had written for the special already, and Suess was sold on the idea.
  • Although the special was narrated by Boris Carloff, the song itself was sung by the incomparable Thurl Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft was a classic voice actor that also played Tony the Tiger! 
  • The song pops up three times within the TV Holiday Special. The song that we currently hear on the radio is a mashup of the three sections within the special.
  • The song has been covered many times, but most notably for the two subsequent versions of the story in 2000, and 2018–by Jim Carey and Tyler, the Creator respectively.

WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS

We Need a Little Christmas – Mame (1974)

  • Technically, this song is from Broadway, but we’re including it because of how relatable it is to 2020, and it did appear in the 1974 film adaptation of the musical, “Mame.”
    • The film follows a young orphan who is sent to live with his closest relative: a free-wheeling New York socialite named Mame (played by Lucille Ball.) 
  • Written by Jerry Herman, Angela Lansbury originally sang the song on Broadway. The musical takes place at the very beginning of the depression, when Mame loses all her money in the stock market crash. Although it isn’t customary to celebrate Christmas as early as they do, she decides they need Christmas to cheer up their spirits.
  • The sentiment seemed to apply to 2020 as well, with Christmas lights and trees being set up before Thanksgiving, with much less push-back than usual. Sometimes we need Christmas. 

PEACE ON EARTH/THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY

Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy – Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas (1977)

  • Every year, you will find a Christmas special hosted by some celebrity. This is a tradition that dates back to the beginning of TV, and will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Back in 1977, Bing Crosby, the king of Christmas, recorded his last holiday special.
    • Bing was in the twilight of his life, a living piece of music and film history. So it was strange for viewers, when David Bowie, a hugely popular rock artist, joined him on screen. Bing was classic, and Bowie was new-age. When Bowie had arrived, he reportedly had to tone-down his look in order to appear next to Bing, so that the scene wouldn’t be too jarring.
    • The song they were meant to sing was, “Little Drummer Boy,” and Bowie did not approve of it. He asked if he could sing something else, so three men that worked on the special, Ian Frasier, Buz Cohen, and Larry Grossman, wrote another song in a little over an hour. The song was, “Peace on Earth,” and the two performers perfected the performance before recording.
    • Although producers were worried that the pairing wouldn’t work out, the song is a perfect example of two worlds colliding. These two men couldn’t be any more different, but if they could sing together, maybe anything is possible at Christmas.
    • Bing Crosby passed away a month after recording. When audiences saw the special in November of that year, he was already gone.

WALKING IN THE AIR

Walking in the Air – The Snowman (1982) 

  • Premiering December 26th, 1982 “The Snowman” is an animated short, based on the wordless picture book by Raymond Briggs. It follows a young boy named James who builds a man in the Christmas snow. The snowman comes to life, and takes James on an adventure around the world.
  • Composed and written by Howard Blake, “Walking in the Air,” is a hauntingly beautiful song from the animated short. It was originally performed by a 13-year-old choirboy named Peter Autry. 
  • The song is so central to the half-hour special, I (Robin) used to think the short was only the length of the song! I remember watching this with my mom, thinking it was too short. It perfectly captures the wonder of childhood, the magic of Christmas, and the sweeping sadness of growing up.

CHRISTMAS VACATION

Christmas Vacation – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) 

  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of those classic Christmas movies that we all have fond memories of seeing, even when we were children and it was inappropriate. Each of the vacation films opens with the song, “Holiday Road,” but this one had a specific song created just for the movie–with some fun late-80’s animation to go with it! 
  • Written and composed by husband and wife Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the song was simply called, “Christmas Vacation.” 
  • It was performed by R&B legend Mavis Staples.

SOMEWHERE IN MY MEMORY

Somewhere in my Memory – Home Alone (1990)

  • In 1990, John Williams scored the massively successful film, “Home Alone.” The entire soundtrack is a masterpiece of Christmas warmth and nostalgia, with some exciting themes, like the one that plays while 8-year-old Kevin sets the traps.
  • Possibly the most memorable song from the soundtrack, is the beautiful piece, “Somewhere in My Memory,” with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. Bricusse is an Oscar and Grammy winning lyricist, who has written songs for over 40 musicals, including the songs for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)! 
    • Williams and Bricusse worked together again on “Hook,” writing songs like, “When You’re Alone” and “We Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” 
  • This song isn’t very old, but since it was released, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it. From the opening bells to the soft choral performance, to the lyrics calling us back to our favorite Christmas memories–this song isn’t just about Christmas, it is Christmas.

ALL ALONE ON CHRISTMAS

All Alone on Christmas – Home Alone 2 (1992) 

  • Two years after the first Home Alone, Kevin got lost in New York. This sequel came with many nods to the original, including “Somewhere in My Memory,” but it also had its fair share of new content.  
  • Written and composed by Steven Van Zandt this song was performed by not only Darlene Love but with her The E Street Band and The Miami Horns.
    • Love’s most famous song is, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home.)”
      • Many consider this song to be a spiritual sequel to that song.

WHAT’S THIS

*Our discussion on this song is in the extended version of the episode, on Patreon.

What’s This – The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) 

  • We just did an episode on this Halloween AND Christmas movie, but we would be remiss not to mention this Christmas tune written and composed by Danny Elfman.
  • In the context of the film, Jack Skellington has fallen into Christmastown, and is confused by the things he finds there. It’s an upbeat, joyous song, and for Elfman it represented his feelings about leaving rock music to be a film composer. 
  • This scene was the first musical number filmed for the movie!

AS LONG AS THERE’S CHRISTMAS

*Our discussion on this song is in the extended version of the episode, on Patreon

As Long as There’s Christmas – Belle’s Enchanted Christmas (1997) 

  • Seven years after the groundbreaking “Beauty and the Beast,” there was a less-impressive straight-to-video sequel about Christmas. But hey, it’s still entertaining, with some surprisingly delightful music!
  • Composed by Oscar-winner Rachel Portman with lyrics written by Don Black, “As Long As There’s Christmas,” was written for, “Belle’s Enchanted Christmas.” You know, the sequel where Tim Curry plays a pipe organ, and Disney confirms that Beast was actually an 11-year-old boy when the enchantress cursed him? (It’s true, watch it.) 
  • This sequel takes place at Christmas, before the final act of the original film, as Belle tries to cure Beast’s hatred for Christmas.

WHERE ARE YOU, CHRISTMAS?

Where Are You, Christmas? – How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

  • Although a lot of people may recall Faith Hill’s rendition, this song was created by Mariah Carey, Will Jennings, and James Horner for the 2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
    • The three reportedly wrote a longer version of the song, and Mariah Carey was supposed to record it. But (according to People magazine) Carey’s ex-husband at Sony, wouldn’t allow her to sing a song for MCA/Universal. Carey’s official statement was that she didn’t have time to record the song.
    • Faith Hill was a hugely popular country star, coming off a big hit just a year before, so it made sense for her to perform the song.
  • Seven-year-old Taylor Momsen, as Cindy Lou Who, performs the song in the film.

GRINCH FEAT JIM CAREY

Grinch feat Jim Carey – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

  • Using the original song written by Dr. Seuss and composed by Albert Hague, Jim Carey and Busta Rhymes elaborated on and remixed this absolute banger for our enjoyment.
  • We admit, this isn’t one you might hear on the radio very often, but it’s one of our favorites. If fact, Jim Carey’s Grinch was filled with a lot of interesting original Christmas songs and covers, and we suggest you check them all out! More than anything, the album is a nice blast from the past, a snapshot of music from 2000.

CHRISTMAS IS ALL AROUND

Christmas is All Around – Love Actually (2003)

  • The original song was of course called Love Is All Around and was released by the UK band The Troggs in 1967. 
  • For the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral screenwriter Richard Curtis asked the Scottish band Wet Wet Wet to record a version of the song. This version would become incredibly popular and hit the top of the musical charts in the UK.
  • When Richard Curtis went on to direct, “Love Actually,” he decided to bring back this song that so many people in 1994 had grown sick of (for its pure popularity and how often it was played) and make a funny version sung by Bill Nighy’s washed up rockstar character Billy Mack.

ALL SONGS FROM ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE (2018) 

  • Before we finish up our list, we wanted to highlight the holiday Zombie musical, “Anna and the Apocalypse”! Though only a couple songs on the soundtrack are explicitly Christmas-themed, songs featured in a holiday movie certainly count as Christmas songs to us! 
    • We asked our friend and patron JD for his favorite songs from the film, and he suggested the songs, “Turning My Life Around” and “Hollywood Ending.” 
  • The songs were written by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, as the film’s teenage characters face a zombie apocalypse at Christmas.
    • This film is streaming on Hulu and Prime Video, and we suggest you check it out! 

So, Cassettes, thanks again for joining us this Christmas season, and for our two year anniversary! Be on the lookout for the first episode of our new monthly show, premiering on December 24th!


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