The holiday season is the only annual celebration that could be said to have inspired its own genre of music. Not formally a genre, of course — holiday music comes in all varieties, from blues, rock and country to classical and hymns — but no other holiday has inspired such a vast canon of songs. Christmas carols date back as early as the 13th century, when presumably Mongols, crusaders and Byzantines took a break from sacking various cities to allow for a holiday feast and singing.
Of course, many traditional holiday carols, and even many popular holiday songs, predate the era of recorded music, which is the focus of the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. Even fewer holiday songs have definitive renditions. Performing rights society ASCAP lists chestnuts such as "Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" among its top 10 most performed classic holiday songs, a milestone generally reached through multitudes of cover versions.
Still, in the recorded music era, a handful of songs that would be as missed on Dec. 25 as presents and eggnog have been the subjects of enduring, classic recordings, eight of which have been inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame to date.
"All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" (1948)
Spike Jones & His City Slickers
Jones, who predated "Weird Al" Yankovic by some 40 years as pop's premier parodist, enjoyed one of his best-known recordings with this farcical carol. Written by grammar school music teacher Donald Gardner in 1944, the Slickers' original recording, with childlike vocals by group member George Rock, hit No. 1 in 1949. "I was amazed at the way that silly little song was picked up by the whole country," Gardner said in 1995. It might be considered an early tuneup that Jones was the drummer on Bing Crosby's indefatigable "White Christmas."
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Vince Guaraldi Trio
The 1965 holiday TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was destined to be a dud, at least based on the initial reaction to the finished show by both its producers and the network, who thought its pacing and dashed-off animation would doom the show. But like Charlie Brown's forlorn Christmas tree, there was beauty beneath the dying needles. It won a big audience, critical acclaim, an Emmy, and a Peabody Award and has aired annually every year since its first broadcast, celebrating its golden anniversary in 2015. Its soundtrack, with original music written by Vince Guaraldi and performed by his trio, was a risk, matching West Coast jazz to an animated TV show. Again, it proved a surprise hit. The network "didn't think jazz fit properly," show executive producer Lee Mendelson said in a 2006 interview. Still, the show aired basically as is, and the album has never gone out of print since.
A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963)
Phil Spector And Various Artists
Though primarily a behind-the-scenes record producer, Spector was so well known and popular in his own right in the early '60s that he issued this holiday album, calling on his stable of artists (the Crystals, the Ronettes and Darlene Love, among others) to perform holiday classics as well as the now widely loved original "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." The album has become part of our holiday music soundtrack since its 1963 release. "After we finished [recording 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)'], everybody just kind of stopped and stared," Love told GRAMMY.com in 2013. "It was like, 'Wow, what did we just do?' It had this power, even in the session."
"The Christmas Song" (1946)
Nat "King" Cole
Both ASCAP and BMI cite it as one of the most performed holiday songs of all time. Mel Tormé and lyricist Bob Wells wrote the song during a hot Los Angeles summer in 1944 as a way to trick themselves into feeling cooler. Cole recorded four versions. The inducted version was first, cut simply with his trio. A final version made in 1961 with a full orchestra is the one to which you likely roast chestnuts today. The list of covers is nearly infinite, and includes unlikely versions by Big Bird and the Swedish Chef, Daffy Duck, Bob Dylan, Twisted Sister, and Kim Taeyeon of K-pop group Girls Generation, highlighting the song's universal reach. After the initial 1946 recording, according to Performing Songwriter, Tormé and Wells pointed out the grammatical error Cole sang in the bridge: "To see if reindeers really know how to fly." Cole was a perfectionist, but correcting that error was not likely the reason for the three additional versions of the song.
"Feliz Navidad" (1970)
Was it the first Spanglish hit? Certainly it could be argued it's the most recognized Spanish-language holiday song in the popular canon. Released in 1970, "Feliz Navidad" soon became a heavy-rotation holiday standard, despite Feliciano's low-key expectations. "I never thought it would be as popular as it is and the big hit that it is," he told CBS' "Sunday Morning" in 2006. In a controversy that resonates perhaps even more deeply today, the song was parodied in 2009 using offensive stereotypes of Latin American immigrants to the United States. Feliciano, a native of Puerto Rico, elegantly rebuffed the parody by re-enforcing the song's initial intended message: "This song has always been a bridge to the cultures that are so dear to me, never as a vehicle for a political platform of racism and hate," he wrote on his website.
My Favorite Things (1961)
John Coltrane Quartet
The Sound Of Music — Soundtrack (1965)
Julie Andrews & Various Artists
Though originally written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the musical "The Sound Of Music," "My Favorite Things"' wintery images and ode to things gift-related ("brown paper packages tied up with strings") have since made it closely associated with the holidays. Andrews' version, included in the 1965 film The Sound Of Music, is no doubt the most definitive. Coltrane entered the Hall with a very different version, a nearly 14-minute modal jazz masterpiece. The song had taken on its holiday symbolism at least as early as 1964, when Jack Jones included it on The Jack Jones Christmas Album. Many holiday covers have followed, but these two Hall-inducted versions are among our favorite things.
"Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1949)
It's true, Rudolph was all a marketing ploy. But it could be argued in this case that the commercialization of the holiday season had a timeless, positive result. In 1939 a Montgomery Ward store in Chicago commissioned a holiday story to help beef up sales. Ad copywriter Robert L. May was selected to write the story. After considering names, including Roland and Roddy, Rudolph was born. The books Ward printed were a hit. Next, May asked his songwriter brother-in-law to write a tune to his story. Johnny Marks obliged, Gene Autry cut it, and it reportedly sold 30 million copies. That led to a 1964 animated TV special, and Rudolph went down in history. For Autry, the singing cowboy who already had a massive film and singing career before Rudolph, this holiday diversion from his usual country repertoire became the biggest hit of his career.
"White Christmas" (1942)
Bing Crosby, The Ken Darby Singers
Guinness World Records credits Bing Crosby's version of "White Christmas" with selling at least 50 million copies, making it the best-selling single ever. Written by Irving Berlin — and another holiday classic written in warm weather conditions — the song was first recorded by Crosby, with the Ken Darby Singers, as part of the 1942 film Holiday Inn. Reportedly cut in 18 minutes, the original recording is not the one we're familiar with today. Crosby rerecorded it in 1947 after the original master was damaged, with attention paid to making the new version as close to the original as possible. Berlin won his only Oscar for the song. Both "White Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" were among the first five titles inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.