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The Origins of 7 Timeless Christmas Songs

They’re the soundtrack to the final month of the year. The ubiquity of holiday songs on television, radio, and social media from Thanksgiving through the Christmas ensures that we'll be able to sing these anthems in our sleep, while dreaming about reindeer, sleigh rides, figgy pudding, and other seasonal imagery.

Lesser known are the backstories of these famous tunes, which share a common denominator but draw from vastly different sources. From centuries-old standards to modern classics, here’s a look at how seven Yuletide favorites became the gifts that keep on giving.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas"

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One of the oldest and most long-winded carols of them all dates back to at least 1780 when it appeared in the British children's book Mirth With-out Mischief. Its purported use by Catholics to secretly pass on the tenets of their faith may be hearsay, as it was more likely part of a "memory and forfeits" game, in which participants repeat the previous lines of a song before adding another. Melody and lyrics for the contemporary version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" can be credited to English composer Frederic Austin in 1909 — while we can also thank PNC Bank for annually posting the inflation-adjusted estimates for purchasing a partridge in a pear tree, two calling birds, and the rest. In 2021, all 78 gifts would cost more than $41,000.

"Silent Night"

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Legend says that an Austrian priest hastily whipped up this classic for his parishioners to sing after mice chewed through the church organ, but the truth is decidedly less dramatic. Having already crafted a poem titled "Stille Nacht," Father Joseph Mohr enlisted schoolteacher and musician Franz Xaver Gruber to compose an accompanying melody on guitar for a performance at Christmas Mass in 1818. Enthusiasm for this simple but powerful piece steadily spread across Europe and overseas, which prompted an English translation by New York Episcopal priest John Freeman in 1859, before both German and English troops famously sang the song during a WWI Christmas ceasefire in 1914.

"Jingle Bells"

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This ode to outdoor wintertime fun may have been composed in the warm-weather locale of Georgia — despite the claims of a city in Massachusetts. All aside, historians agree that the song was the work of James Lord Pierpont (uncle of Gilded Age tycoon J.P. Morgan), who copyrighted it in 1857 under the title of "One Horse Open Sleigh." First recorded in 1889, "Jingle Bells" never achieved the massive sales recorded by some of the other standards on this list, though it does have the unique distinction of being performed in space in 1965.

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town"

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Tin Pan Alley writer Haven Gillespie wasn't feeling the holiday spirit after attending his brother's funeral in September 1934, but he nevertheless agreed to write a children's Christmas song at the urging of his publisher. Riding the subway after the meeting, Gillespie started reminiscing about his mother's warnings that St. Nick was monitoring his behavior, and within 15 minutes he'd scribbled the lyrics for "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" for composing partner J. Fred Coots. Popular entertainer Eddie Cantor took it from there by singing the ditty on his Thanksgiving radio show, and a holiday standard immediately took root.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"

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Tasked with penning a story for a department store Christmas giveaway in 1939, copywriter Robert L. May took a page from the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and created a now-familiar tale about a reindeer who saves the day with his distinct snout. The book reached some 2 million customers, but true fame only arrived after May reclaimed rights to the story and passed it on to songwriter Johnny Marks the following decade. By the time the song landed in the lap of Gene "the Singing Cowboy" Autry in 1949, there was no slowing its rise to the top of the Billboard charts in early 1950 and Rudolph's ascent to the firmament of Yuletide culture.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

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First sung by Judy Garland in 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'' nearly missed out on its prominent introduction to the world. Writer Hugh Martin's early draft had to be rescued from the trash by partner Ralph Blane, and it was subsequently fleshed out with such depressing lyrics that Garland refused to sing them. Martin grudgingly made the changes to satisfy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, only to tweak the lyrics again to provide something more "jolly" for a 1957 Frank Sinatra rendition. Both the original and Sinatra versions have since been re-recorded many times over, by artists ranging from James Taylor to Twisted Sister.

"White Christmas"

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Another holiday classic with Hollywood roots, this Irving Berlin-composed reflection on the timeless joys of the season was originally earmarked for an earlier project before surfacing in 1942's Holiday Inn. And while Berlin felt that "Be Careful, it's My Heart" would be the film's biggest hit, it was the Bing Crosby-crooned "White Christmas" that instead grabbed listeners and claimed an Oscar in 1943. But even that achievement barely hints at its impact, as Crosby found an insatiable audience for the song while performing for American troops overseas. Along with fueling a 1954 movie of the same name, as well as covers by Elvis Presley, Bette Midler, Michael Bublé, and many other stars, Crosby's "White Christmas" stood as the best-selling single of all time until Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997."

Featured image credit: Akiromaru/ iStock

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