No time of year is more fundamentally sensate than the holidays. Each of our five senses has powerful triggers letting us know the time of year and vividly calling to mind holidays of years past: the sight of bright lights, colorfully-wrapped presents and shiny tinsel, the feel of cold air on the face and warm sweaters against the skin, aromas of fresh pine and wood smoke as well as the taste of long-cherished family recipes.
But no sense plays a greater role in our impressions and memories of the holidays than sound. Just a few notes from those timeless seasonal favorites bring the holidays flooding into our mind and our memories. Roots music looms large among those classic songs of Christmas and the holidays—perhaps unsurprisingly, given roots’ long pedigree, the quality of the music and its deep connection with the fundamentals of American culture.
Here, for your enjoyment, is a stroll through a dozen of the of the greatest, and most influential, Christmas and holiday roots music songs —the ones it just wouldn’t be quite the same season without.
#12) “All I want for Christmas Is You” by Vince Vance & The Valiants
(Not, and I cannot stress this enough, to be confused with the Mariah Carey song of the same name) It must be a strange place for a band to have a song that is orders of magnitude better known than the band itself. In this case, it’s also a shame. New Orleans’ Vince Vance & The Valiants, two-parts faithful practitioners of Golden Age country and rock and one part campy theater troupe, are well worth a listen and even more worthy of seeing live. Hopefully, those December royalty checks ease any frustration over the band’s relative anonymity: since its release, “All I Want for Christmas is You” has charted no less than six times. And it’s easy to see why, its simple but sweet lyrics tug at the heartstrings while guitar strings anchor a 50s rock sound that hands the song an element of ready-made nostalgia far exceeding it 1993 release date.
#11) “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” by Elmo & Patsy
Country music has plenty of songs about murder, but few that are relentlessly upbeat as this seasonal tale of vehicular homicide. This 1979 novelty hit by Elmo & Patsy must surely be the only song in the regular holiday cannon chronicling the death of a cherished family member (of course, given the family stresses that can occur around this time of year, perhaps that is also a subconscious secret to the song’s enduring popularity). The song manages a delicate balancing act between parody and affection as it examines how grandma’s death impacts a good old-fashioned family holiday. While it is easy to dismiss this song as a corny novelty number, it deserves to be said that (in the context of what the song was intended to be) many of the lines, penned by veteran songwriter Randy Brooks, are pure genius.
#10) “Santa Baby” By Eartha Kitt
On those cold December nights maybe we’re all craving something a little hot. And this 1953 song, written by Joan Javits and Philip Springer is made to order. Let’s face it, no other commonly encountered holiday song is as implicitly sexual as “Santa Baby.” This salacious element is further reinforced by the plaintive, sensual and full-throated vocals of the original recording artist–jazz singer and cabaret superstar Eatha Kit. With lyrics such as “So hurry down the chimney to me,” “Santa, cutie, fill my stocking … with a duplex and checks” and “Come and trim my Christmas tree … with some decorations bought a Tiffany’s,” there’s not much doubt that this singer is on the naughty list (and I doubt Santa minds one bit).
#9) “A Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives
Songwriter Johnny Marks deserves a special place in the Holiday Hall of Fame and special mention on this list. Marks made a career out of writing hit Christmas songs—including no less than four songs on this list “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” “Run, Run Rudolph” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
There is no doubt that the Burl Ives version of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” is the definitive one. While today best remembered for his jazz standards, as a young man Ives was deeply immersed in America’s folk scene and earned solid roots credibility, being closely associated with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and often living the life of an itinerant musician. The song was written and recorded for the iconic 1965 Rankin-Bass stop-motion animation Christmas program, “Rudolph the Red-Reindeer.” In the program, Ives’ rendition of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” is performed by a snowman clearly modeled after the singer’s distinctive appearance. While “A Holly Jolly Christmas” cleaves closer to the jazz standards side of Ives’ oeuvre, his folk cred earns this song a place on our list.
8. “Christmas Time is Here” by The Vince Guaraldi Trio
Like “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Christmas Time is Here” owes its place in America’s holiday hearts to its appearance in a 1965 television Christmas special, in this case “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” While the straight jazz practiced by Guaraldi and his trio is not the bread and butter of Awaiting the Flood, there is no doubt about its rootsy authenticity. Written by Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson, the vocals provided by the familiar voices of The Peanuts characters and the trio’s magnificent slow jazz instrumentation instantly call Christmas to mind for generations of listeners.
#7) “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee
Another Johnny Marks composition, “’Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” could not have been entrusted to a more appropriate artist than roots queen Brenda Lee (although she was only 13 years of age at the time of its 1958 recording). Lee, at various points of her career, excelled in genres including country, gospel, rockabilly and rock and roll. “Rockin’” showcases that diversity nicely, equal parts country, rock and rockabilly. Boots Randolph’s hard-driving saxophone playing on the track is every bit as impressive as Lee’s vocals. At a time when much of America was still ambivalent about rock and roll (to say nothing of rock and roll Christmas music), the song is also notable for extending a lyrical olive branch, “Rocking around the Christmas tree, have a happy holiday. Everyone’s dancing merrily in the new old-fashioned way”
#6) “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon
(Often referred to by its opening line, “So This is Christmas.”)
A member of the most influential rock band of all time and whose later solo work often dabbled in folk, a Christmas song by John Lennon is an easy admission to this list (The near-angelic supporting vocals by the Harlem Community Choir don’t hurt, either). While highly polished in its production values, the song leans on Lennon’s later folk phase both musically and thematically. In true Lennon fashion, and almost alone in the Christmas cannon, he delivers a song that refuses to allow listeners to surround themselves in a warm cocoon of holiday comfort—pointing out that war, fear and poverty don’t stop just because it happens to be December 25th (“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”). No one would call Lennon a religious man but, with “Happy Xmas,” he offers up a song which is far closer to the true spirit of Christmas than most.
#5) “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms
Although country/rockabilly artist Bobby Helms had two #1 hits (not, surprisingly, including “Jingle Bell Rock”) and 12 songs which charted, he has largely faded from popular memory. His legacy is ensured, however, by 1957’s “Jingle Bell Rock.” The song’s lyrics contain some nice Easter Eggs, giving shout-outs to other songs, both traditional Christmas (“Jingle Bell Time, is a swell time, to go gliding in a one horse sleigh”) and then-contemporary hits (“Jingle around the clock”). In addition to Helms’ smooth country vocals, the electric guitar accompaniment by Hank Garland (who worked with artists such as Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley) is glorious and, if anything, feels underutilized to a modern listener. Perhaps that was deliberate, a relatively sedate, moderate-tempo rockabilly number supported by Helms’ relatively traditional vocals, “Jingle Bell Rock” helped ease the transition of rock/rock-related Christmas music into the popular consciousness.
#4) “Run, Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry
If Bobby Helms was trying to ease America into Christmas rock, a year later Chuck Berry was operating with no such restrictions. While songs such as “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Rockin’ Round the Christmas Tree” and even “Blue Christmas” all incorporated some rock elements, Berry served up the read deal. “Run, Run Rudolph” comes complete with exuberant rock vocals, lyrics using lingo from the burgeoning rock subculture and the artist’s trademark axe work—including an intro that sounds like a barely-slowed version of “Johnny B. Goode.” Hitting #69 on Billboard’s Hot 100, “Run, Run Rudolph” wasn’t a big hit, but it was a pretty clear declaration that Christmas rock was here to stay.
#3) “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley
Interestingly, “Blue Christmas” was written in 1948 and was recorded by a variety of artists, even enjoying moderate success, over the decade before Presley recorded it in 1957. His version swept all other contenders from the field. With the King’s velvety, heart-melting vocals, the question is do we not notice this isn’t really a Christmas song — or do we just not care? With the holiday merely serving as backdrop for one of Presley soul-rending ballads of lost or unrequited love, calling “Blue Christmas” a Christmas song is like calling “Heartbreak Hotel” a hotel song. But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter —we could listen to it, on repeat, for hours.
#2) “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)“ by Nat King Cole
Perhaps no singer in the history of American music had a more magnificent voice than Elvis. But, if anyone did, one of the top contenders is surely that avatar of jazz and swing, Nat King Cole. A perfect musical match, Cole’s warm, rich baritone was an ideal vehicle for the saccharine but visually compelling lyrics of Mel Torme and Bob Wells. When voice and lyrics were combined, the result was a song unparalleled in its ability to conjure images and emotions of the holidays the way we believe they should be. First released in 1946, “The Christmas Song” instantly eclipsed a bevy of songs with much longer legs as a definitive holiday classic. The award for “Most Covered Christmas Song of All Time” is a hotly contested field (and taking the time to tabulate authoritative results would take until next Christmas), but “The Christmas Song” is certainly one of the finalists, including covers by such counterintuitive artists as Rod Stewart, Donna Summer and Big Bird & The Swedish Chef (of Muppets fame).
#1) “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry
Many roots music songs have become part of holiday tradition. Only one has actually created holiday tradition, earning it the number-one spot on our list. In 2014, it’s a tale we all know well. But, until 1939, there was no Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In 1939, Robert May wrote a short story for a children’s coloring book published by Montgomery Ward — about a reindeer who was mocked for being, well, a little different —but ultimately triumphs by using that difference to save Christmas, and everyone learns a valuable lesson. A lot of Christmas books get written, and a lot Christmas books get forgotten. Rudolph might have ended there, except that May’s brother-in-law happened to be … Johnny Marks. In 1949, in the first example of his remarkable ability to generate holiday hits, Marks turned May’s story into a song. Then, with his amiable, down-home vocal stylings, Gene Autry needed just three minutes and ten seconds of recording time to turn a one-off children’s story into an essential part of Christmas lore. Unlike many Christmas songs, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” wasn’t a slow burn to success. When it hit #1 on the charts during Christmas week, 1949, everyone’s favorite bioluminescent reindeer was here to stay.
So, there you are, twelve roots songs that have worked their way into our holidays and our hearts.