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The Stories Behind Classic Christmas Carols

One of the best parts about Christmas is the music, especially the carols. The fun little songs that have become iconic over the years have their own special appeal. But where do they come from? Who comes up with the hooks behind some of the most quintessential Christmas carols? Why did Rudolph have a red nose? Why did Grandma get run over? Who’s jingling those bells? The stories behind some of the most significant Christmas carols are fascinating. For Christmas this year, we’re taking a little time to enjoy them. Or, maybe it’s just an excuse to listen to some of our favorites right before the holiday, but can you blame us? It’s Christmas!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Who would have guessed that a marketing gimmick would become one of the most iconic Christmas characters? In 1939, Robert May had a problem. His employer, a department store, had tasked him with coming up with a Christmas storybook that could be given to customers as a promotion around the holidays. May leaned into his own life experiences like his childhood as a shy, smaller “underdog,” his daughter’s love of deer at Lincoln Park Zoo, and his struggles with his wife’s worsening illness. The glowing nose was even influenced by a wintery Chicago day when fog blanketed Lake Michigan. After his wife passed, he threw himself into finishing the story, using his daughter as a guinea pig. When she loved it, he knew it accomplished what he was hoping.

The store must have not known what they had, because even after giving away more than two million copies that year, they still gave May the rights to the story. May would work with his brother-in-law, a songwriter named Johnny Marks, to adapt the story into a song. The first recording of this version was by Gene Autry in 1949. The rest is history. It would go on to be recorded by Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Dean Martin, the Temptations, Meghan Trainor, and referenced in songs like “Run Rudolph Run” by Chuck Berry and “Little Saint Nick” by the Beach Boys. It would eventually be made into a groundbreaking animated television special. It has been rebroadcast every year since 1964, making it the longest-running Christmas special in history.

Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer

On to one of the silliest Christmas songs that has become a classic in the last few decades, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is the most festive vehicular manslaughter case you’ll ever hear. You’ve got to wonder, how did that song ever become a thing? It all started with a question. “How would grandma die at Christmas time?” OK, maybe we should back up a bit. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was written by Randy Brooks in 1977. One year, Brooks heard the Merle Haggard song “Grandma’s Homemade Christmas Card,” which prompted the question that started it all. At the time, there was a trend for overly sentimental holiday songs that revealed the subject had died in the final verse. Instead, Brooks decided to kill off Grandma right away. He would often write funny songs to include in his band’s set to liven things up, so this was very much in his wheelhouse.

After playing the song one night, Brooks was approached by his friend Dr. Elmo Shropshire of Elmo ‘n’ Patsy, who asked if they could record the song. Brooks agreed, and it’s that version of the song that became a hit. In 1983, it would hit number one in Billboard’s Christmas Songs chart and earn millions of dollars in sales, merchandising, and licensing. Don’t feel too sad for Randy Brooks, who retained a writing credit on the song and eventually recorded his own version of the song. To this day, he has no regrets, calling it one of those “lucky, lucky things that happens in someone’s life.”

Jingle Bells

From one song about sleigh-related crashes to another, we have one of the oldest secular Christmas carols, Jingle Bells. But it wasn’t always a Christmas song. Or, called Jingle Bells. Or, even considered family friendly. “The One-Horse Open Sleigh” was written in 1857 by James Lord Pierpont. Pierpont was the wild child of his family. His brother and father were both staunch abolitionist preachers, while James was a boarding school runaway who later joined the Confederacy. It was his time as the music director at his brother’s church in Savannah, Georgia that would prove the most influential to our story.

The song itself has nothing to do with Christmas. The original lyrics actually are about a young couple going on a sleigh ride and getting into a crash. Another verse tells of the singer falling in the snow when someone passes them in a sleigh and laughs at them as they pass. Not really keeping with the Christmas spirit, to say the least. The lyrics even tell listeners to “go it while you’re young.” If you were looking for a little of “The Fast and the Furious” in your Christmas carols, this song about fast vehicles, girls, and crashes fits the bill.

All joking aside, how did “Jingle Bells” become a Christmas classic if it has nothing to do with Christmas? While Thanksgiving may have originally claimed the song, when Bing Crosby included it on his best-selling 1945Merry Christmas” album, it became a Christmas classic. Today, the song has been covered by practically every musician, with some notables including Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, and the Edison Male Quartette on the earliest surviving recording of the song from 1898. It even became the first musical broadcast from space in 1965!

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Christmas songs are one of the best parts of the holiday. The best ones get the spirit perfectly, whether that’s the light-hearted playfulness or the quiet contemplativeness that many of the best carols have. We hope you enjoyed this dive into some of the most interesting backstories of these classic carols. From everyone at the Shop & Enroll Blog, merry Christmas and happy holidays!

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