Nativity Scenes
Movie Details
Christmas History
3D Technology
Antique Christmas Lights
European Churches
Contact Us



Stories of Christmas Songs

Christmas Song Book - watch the video

These are the stories of America's Christmas songs and hymns, many of which have become popular worldwide.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (1850)

The words for this hymn came from a poem written by Unitarian minister Edmond H. Sears during the winter of 1849. This took place at the First Church of Wayland, Massachusetts. In 1850, the music heard in this song was written by Boston born composer Richard S. Willis. Eventually Willis discovered a printing of the poem and merged his music with it. This work was printed in various hymnals and became a popular church song in the U.S. and England by 1870.

Jingle Bells, or One Horse Open Sleigh (1856)

The words and music were composed by James Pierpont in Medford, Massachusetts, about February 1850. He composed this for his friends, who were in the annual Medford to Malden sleigh races. The song became popular in the schools there because it was written on the music teacher’s piano. The Puritan general population of the town did not adopt the same enthusiasm for it. This was mainly because the adults who sang One Horse Open Sleigh competed in the sleigh races or spent time at the taverns afterwards. In either case they were well fortified with Medford Red Rum to keep warm. The Puritans did not approve. Pierpont moved to Savannah, Georgia, in 1854. He became the organist at the Unitarian Universalist Church there. People in Savannah loved this cheerful song from the north. Pierpont applied for a copyright in December of 1856.

We Three Kings (1865)

John Henry Hopkins Jr. was the rector of Christ’s Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. In 1857, he wrote We Three Kings of Orient Are for a Christmas pageant. This was loosely based on the gospel of Matthew 2:1-12. The song gained lasting popularity after it was printed in a book entitled Carols, Hymns and Songs, in 1865.

Up on the Housetop (1866)

This childhood favorite was written by Benjamin R. Hanby just before Christmas 1864. The Quakers of nearby Richmond, Indiana, invited Hanby to entertain them on Christmas day. He sang the new song for a group of poor children. They loved it. The next year Benjamin Hanby moved his family to Chicago, where Up on the Housetop was first published in 1866.

O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868)

Phillips Brooks, rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, wrote the lyrics. Brooks gained the inspiration for this composition by visiting the Holy Land in 1865. He wrote the song as a Christmas gift for the children of his church in 1868. The organist, Lewes Redner, composed the melody on Christmas Day. Today, the church still stands on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. Special services are held on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Children play a major part in the productions.

Away In a Manger (1887)

Historians have long tried to find the origin of the words. They all end up with a colony of German Lutherans in Pennsylvania. In 1885 the words were first published in the Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families. Over the years, Away In a Manger has been sung to about 40 different melodies. The one most familiar today is attributed to James R. Murray of Cincinnati. It first appeared in his 1887 book Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses.

Toyland (1903)

In early 1903, Victor Herbert wrote Toyland with Glen MacDonough for his new operetta Babes in Toyland. The show was first produced in Chicago. In October 1903, it moved to the Majestic theater in New York. Toyland was not really written as a Christmas song. That year it became a favorite of the season.

I Wonder as I Wander (1934)

This was written by John Jacob Niles in 1933. In his own words, he said. "I Wonder as I Wander grew out of three lines of music sung to me by a girl who called herself Annie Morgan. The place was Murphy, North Carolina, and the time was July 1933. At 25 cents a performance, I tried to get her to sing all of the song. After eight tries, all of which I had carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material and a magnificent idea. With the writing of additional verses and the development of the original melodic material, I Wonder as I Wander came into being." Niles published it in his 1934 booklet, Songs Of The Hill Folk. It is often referred to as a traditional Appalachian carol. Just how far back the original tune and lyrics go is not known.

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1933)

This song, which really started the boom of Christmas music in America, was written during a 15-minute subway ride in 1933 by Haven Gillespie.

Winter Wonderland (1934)

This song was written by Felix Bernard and Dick Smith in 1932. They made a wheezy recording of it in 1933. Joey Nash was a tenor on the Studebaker Champions Hour during the early 30s. Dick Smith's brother lived across the street from Joey in Brooklyn, and he brought over the record during the summer of 1934 for Joey to hear. Joey was captivated by the melody. In October 1934, he sang it on the radio program and it became a national hit.

White Christmas (1942)

Irving Berlin wrote this song for the first time in 1938. It was intended for a Broadway play that was never produced. During the spring and summer of 1941, Berlin worked on songs for a new Paramount film called Holiday Inn. In September, he boarded the New York Central train and headed for Hollywood. At Paramount, Berlin stuffed a transposing piano in musical director Walter Scharf's small office near the set. He did most of his final composing for the movie there. When Bing Crosby was recording the White Christmas scene, Berlin was behind a baffle listening to it. Afterwards, Irving went up to Bing, expressing how nervous he was about how the song sounded. Crosby poked him with his pipe and said "Irving, you don’t have to worry about this one." Holiday Inn opened in August 1942. By September, it was obvious which song would be the favorite. Everyone was dreaming of a white Christmas during the dark days of World War ll. The song became the most popular Christmas song in American history, a record that stands to this day. In Germany and Austria, Crosby is known as der Bingle. He croons at every Christmas market there now.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1942)

Clement Moore’s poem, was first set to music by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, with the musical arrangement by Harry Simeon. It was a very popular recording for them for many years.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1943)

Walter Kent and Kim Gannon wrote this in the Hollywood Hills in May 1943. It was a hot day. The idea for the song was Kim’s. He wrote the first and last lines. Kim told Walter that they only had to fill in the rest. This took them about four hours. They realized that Bing Crosby would be a perfect fit for the song. So, they took it over to him at Paramount, where he was making another movie. Bing loved this sentimental ballad. He recorded I’ll Be Home for Christmas in early October, and it became a huge hit by November 1943. Of course, everyone wanted their loved ones home during the war, and even more so during the Christmas season.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944)

This song was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in 1943 for a new MGM movie, Meet Me in St. Louis. It was a film with lots of warm memories of home. Hugh Martin remembered how the powerful emotions of Judy Garland’s singing touched everyone in the studio in December 1943. "We had a tough old engineer at the controls when Judy was recording Have Yourself A Merry Christmas for the first time. He became unable to see the controls because his eyes were so full of tears." The film made its debut in St. Louis on November 22, 1944. It broke box office records. Meet Me in St. Louis became MGM’s biggest money- maker since Gone with the Wind in 1939.

Let it Snow (1946)

This song came from the famous song writing team of Sammy Kahn and Jule Styne in 1945. Vaughn Monroe recorded the song in 1946. It became a huge hit for the Christmas season of that year.

Christmas Island (1946)

A joyous hit song for Christmas 1946. Christmas Island was written by Lyle Moraine early that year. He presented it to the Andrews Sisters and they loved it; so did Guy Lombardo and his orchestra. They teamed up and recorded How’d You Like to Spend Christmas on Christmas Island? with Guy and his Royal Canadians in September 1946. The song was very popular for 25 years. It is still played on nostalgic radio stations today.

The Christmas Song or Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (1946)

This song was written by Mel Tormé (19 years old) and Bob Wells (22 years old) in 1945. Bob wrote most of the lyrics at his mother's piano in Toluca Lake, California. Mel came over on a hot day in July and they worked out some music to go with the words. This took about half an hour. They could not think of an ending and decided to drive over to Mel’s apartment on the Sunset Strip. They came up with the last two lines during that short trip. At this time, they had the same agent as singer Nat King Cole. Bob suggested that Nat could sing the song much better than Mel. Mel knew he was right. Doing it with Nat’s Trio was not good enough, so in September 1946, they recorded the song with a full orchestra and chorus. Later in his singing career, Mel did record the song himself.

Here Comes Santa Claus (1947)

This was the only Christmas song hit of 1947. Oakley Haldeman wrote the words and music for this song in early 1946. At the time, he was employed by Gene Autry to write western songs for his cowboy movies. Gene gets the credit for the music, because that was in the contract; he always received 50% of the song credits. Gene Autry recorded Here Comes Santa Claus around September 1947.

All I Want for Christmas (is My Two Front Teeth) (1948)

Don Gardner wrote the words and music. The Spike Jones Band recorded it in December 1947. They did it then because a musicians strike was looming in 1948. George Rock sang the little boy's part in a baby voice. He was the trumpet player and 23 years old at the time. At the end of October 1948 the band was at CBS in Hollywood doing a TV show. George Rock met Patty Andrews in the hall and she congratulated him on their new hit Christmas song being played on the radio. George said, "What?" Everyone had sort of forgotten they ever made the record. Seeing as how they had a hit, the band started doing the visually hilarious number on their TV show.

Christmas 1949

This season was most unusual, because there were no less than eight new Christmas songs on the radio. All of them sold at least a million records. On top of that, America had nearly recovered from World War ll and the economy was good. The combination of all these factors provided the most jubilant Christmas in American history.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1949)

Of the eight new Christmas songs in 1949, Rudolph was the whopper. Folks made deer out of plywood and put them out in the front yards. Some looked like collies, some like cows, but they all had a red bulb for a nose. The song came from a story written by Robert L. May, a copywriter at Montgomery Ward in Chicago. He wrote the story for a little book that the store Santas could give away to children at the stores in 1939. During the Christmas season of 1939 the Montgomery Ward Santa’s gave away 2.3 million Rudolph books. After the war, in 1946, they gave away 3.6 million more. Bob May’s brother in law, Johnny Marks, wrote the Rudolph song in May and June of 1949. He sent demo records to all of the prominent singers of the day. Only Gene Autry’s office called him about Rudolph. Gene’s wife Ina liked the song. Gene thought it was too childish for him. At the end of a recording session in September 1949, they had time left over, so, they brought out Rudolph and Gene sang it once. That cut turned to be the biggest hit of his life.

Merry Christmas Waltz (1949)

This was written by Charlie Tobias and I. Mosel, and was recorded by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians in 1949. It was a great Christmas hit for the outfit that made The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven.

Merry Christmas Polka (1949)

This was a hugely popular recording by the Freddy Martin Orchestra for Christmas 1949. Paul Francis Webster wrote the words, and the music was composed by Sonny Burke. Guy Lombardo and Freddy Martin were very good friends for most of their lives. Both of their orchestras played these two songs for many years.

C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S (1949)

The words were written by Jenny Lou Carson, the music was composed by singing star and movie star, Eddie Arnold. Eddie Arnold sang this song that describes the meaning of Christmas by using each letter of the word. It became a best-selling record in 1949.

Will Santy Come To Shanty Town? (1949)

This was another hit for Eddie Arnold in 1949. He wrote the music and sang this novelty song. Steve Nelson and Ed Nelson Jr. wrote the words. There is a very good chance that these songs were on either side of a Victor 78 record this Christmas.

Christmas Candles (1949)

This song was written by Leveen and Breen in Australia in 1943. A recording of it was released in The United States for Christmas 1949. Sheet music and records were sold in America at a moderate level.

Sleigh Ride (1949/1950)

This was originally released on a 78 rpm record as an instrumental by the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1949. It was written by Leroy Anderson, who was also the composer and arranger for the orchestra. In 1950, Mitchell Parish wrote lyrics for Leroy’s instrumental, and it became a hit again, only this time it was bigger and more memorable.

I Just Go Nuts at Christmas (1949)

This wonderful novelty song was written and sung by Harry Stewart of Los Angeles for Christmas 1949. Harry was a very funny performer who played in many venues during the 40s and 50s. He played four main characters in his comedy skits: Yogi Yorgesson (Swedish), Claude Hopper (Western), Harry Kari (Oriental), and Klaus Hammerschmidt (German). His Swedish-American Christmas comedy skit was recorded and became a hilarious addition to the holiday music for at least 25 years. It is still heard today on the oldies radio stations.

Marshmallow World (1950)

This was written by Carl Sigman and Peter DeRose in 1949. It became two best-selling singles in 1950 when recorded by both Bing Crosby and Vaughn Monroe.

Frosty the Snow Man (1950)

This was written by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins in 1950, and introduced by Guy Lombardo, Kenny Gardner, and the Lombardo Trio on radio the same year. They made a recording of the song in 1951, as did Gene Autry and Nat King Cole. Gene Autry's version sold more records that the others. The song became the inspiration for a 1969 animated version of the story, starring Jimmy Durante.

Silver Bells (1950)

This has become one of our most loved Christmas songs, perhaps because it is one of the few that depicts Christmas-time in the city. It was written at Paramount Studios by the song-writing duo Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1950. This was for a new movie called The Lemon Drop Kid, starring Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. The movie, based on a story by Damon Runyon, was shot during July and August of 1950. It was not released at Christmas; it was released March 8, 1951. Meanwhile, Bing Crosby, who was often at Paramount, heard the song. He decided to record it with Carol Richard for the Christmas of 1950. It was a huge hit that season, a rare case of a film song topping the charts before the movie came out.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (1951)

This was written in 1951 by Meredith Willson, author of The Music Man. It was performed and recorded by both Perry Como and the Fontaine Sisters that Christmas season.

Christmas in Killarney (1950)

This is an Irish Christmas song, written by John Redmond, James Cavanaugh, and Frank Weldon in 1950. They were Irish-Americans, thinking back to the old sod. The first recording of Christmas in Killarney was made in 1950 by the Percy Faith Orchestra with the Shillelagh Singers. It became a big hit when sung by Dennis Day on radio in 1951. Dennis was a highly respected Irish tenor. Christmas In Killarney was eventually recorded by many others, including Bing Crosby.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (1952)

This was a whopper of a song in 1952, written in England by famed tunesmith Tommy Connor. He could not sell the song there, so he came to New York to try his luck. Showing the song to Mitch Miller did the trick. Mitch knew that his young talent, Jimmy Boyd, could do it. They made the recording when Jimmy was not quite 13 years old. The record was released in November 1952, and became the number one recording on the U.S. hit parade in three weeks. It broke all records at Columbia, selling 248,000 discs in one day.

Caroling, Caroling: 1954
Written by Alfred Burt and Wilha Hutson in 1953. The first commercial recording was on a Columbia record album cut in April of 1954. It was sung by the Columbia Choir with the Ralph Carmichael Brass Ensemble. Nat King Cole heard this recording and decided to include it in a new Christmas album. When this recording came out in November of 1954, it was loved by all and drew attention to the other 15 carols by Alfred Burt.

Jingle Bell Rock: 1957
This song was actually an experiment in creating a new sound in the country music capitol of Nashville. Owen Bradley was the producer. He had purchased an old house on 16th Avenue a few years earlier to be made into a recording studio. This street would later become music row. Joseph Beal and Jim Boothe wrote Jingle Bell Rock earlier this year. Joseph Beal was born in 1900 in Massachusetts and had been on many a sleigh ride. He imagined a sleigh rocking thru the snow causing the bells to jingle. The kids listening to rock and roll this year thought that to be a rather hilarious story. The recording was made in a room on the first floor of the old house. It featured the Anita Kerr Singers and some local studio musicians to back up Bobby Helms. They rehearsed quite a few times, developing arrangements on the spot. Brilliant jazz guitarist Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland, came up with some riffs that were pure magic. Owen Bradly was on piano. Bobby had his own microphone and everybody else had the other one. They were fed into a mono tape recorder and that was it. The new Nashville sound of Christmas was a huge success selling nearly 500,000 records the first year.

Rockin Around The Christmas Tree: 1958
This real rock and roll song was written by Johnny Marks, while he was vacationing in Vermont during the summer of 1958. He was watching kids dance near the pine forest. Johnny sent his latest creation to Owen Bradley. Owen realized that this song was a perfect match for one of his rising young stars, Brenda Lee. On October 19, 1958 the same talented group that made Jingle Bell Rock assembled in the big room of the old house on the second floor. It was all decorated for Christmas. Brenda Lee was 13. The only addition to the band was Boots Randolph. This way Brenda could start off with a choir and then rock with guitars and the sax. The recording was released by Decca in November of 1958. It was played on radio stations all over the country, but hardly anybody bought it. Only sold 5,000 copies. Most people did not know who Brenda Lee was. However, during the next two years Rockin Around The Christmas Tree would sell millions of records.

The Chipmunk Song: 1958
This novelty song was written and produced by Ross Bagdasarian AKA David Seville. He was a technical genius who rigged tape recorders to run at different speeds for creating the chipmunk’s voices. The Chipmunk Song was released in late fall of 1958. It is the only Christmas song that topped the Billboard charts. The record sold over 4 million copies in seven weeks.
This unusual creation eventually won three Grammys and an Emmy.

Little Drummer Boy: 1958
Harry Simeon co-wrote The Little Drummer Boy with Katherine Davis and Henry Onorati in 1958. His chorale of 25 voices was the first to record it. In 1977, Bing Crosby and David Bowie sang the song in a duet that was recorded on video to be used for Crosby’s annual Christmas show. Bing died of a heart attack on October 14, 1977. The Little Drummer Boy tape was played on the show.

A Holly Jolly Christmas: 1962
This song was written by Johnny Marks in 1962. It eventually found its way into the now classic stop action Rudolph TV special, which was developed and made during 1963 and 1964. All of the rest of the songs in that film are copyrighted 1964. At the time of production, this Rudolph show was expected to last about three years on TV. It is still rolling merrily along in High Definition these days. This movie has made more money for the Robert L. May and Johnny Marks families than the Rudolph song ever did. It put nine children thru college between 1965 and 1978.

Bob May was the first person that Tom Carlisle interviewed in his long quest for the authentic stories surrounding the Christmas songs. That was in October of 1975. He was a jewel of a man. Tom interviewed Gene Autry in 1983 and Johnny Marks in May of 1984.

This Song List was composed by Thomas H. Carlisle by digging through the in November and December of 2009. Additional information was provided by this country’s other two Christmas song historians. They are James A. Richliano and Ronald M. Clancy. We are also the best of Christmas friends.

Purchase These Original Songs:

There are three sources that have saved this wonderful old music for us. They are all available on CDs that can be ordered on line.

Time Life Has two sets of 2 CDs each. They are entitled Treasury of Christmas, Holiday Memories and Volume Two Treasury of Christmas.

The Millennia Collection by my friend Ron Clancy. This fine historian has produced no less than six CDs of the most beautiful and historic Christmas music. You will want to start out with the American Christmas Classics 3 CD set. They come with the most beautiful book on these songs that anyone has ever printed.


Readers Digest. The first person to round up the history of our popular Christmas songs was Bill Simon of the Readers Digest. He did this during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. I knew him for about 12 years. Today all of his work is found on a 4 CD set called I’ll Be Home For Christmas.

COPYRIGHT © Thomas H. Carlisle, All rights reserved