It would be hard to leave this one off of any list of holiday tunes. First of all, as it's named, this is “The Christmas Song.” Second of all, everyone has recorded a version of it – I have thirty different renditions of it in my own personal collection.
Third, there's the classic story of the song's composition. Mel Tormé and Bob Wells were working together one hot day in the middle of summer in 1945. The day was so warm that Wells started writing down winter phrases to help himself cool off: “Chestnuts roasting…, Jack Frost nipping…, Yuletide carols…, …Eskimos.” Mel looked over at Bob's notepad, saw the words, and 45 minutes later the music and completed words to this perennial favorite were written.
Fourth, though – and perhaps most importantly – I have to include it because it is just a terrific song.
There's the wonderful music: soaring, gracefully descending, slowly swaying, seeming to lovingly caress each word and scene as they're presented.
And the lyrics, while deceptively simple, are crafted ingeniously.
We start with just four simple lines, each presenting a different image typical of the Christmas season, culminating with the clever rhyme of “Eskimos” with “nose.”
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose,
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
Folks dressed up like Eskimos.
The second verse shifts gears a bit, moving from a simple list to statements. Whereas each line in the first verse stood alone, each pair of lines in the second verse now forms a complete sentence. But look at how the song makes the transition! The first two words of the next verse actually supply a third companion to the “nose-eskimos” rhyme, grafting the two verses together in an unusual fashion.
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright.
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.
The second verse ends with an image of “tiny tots,” and the next verse extends this scene, describing what might be in their little heads on Christmas eve. Note also that the rhyming pattern changes here, switching to simpler couplets rather than the more sophisticated rhyming of alternate lines.
They know that Santa's on his way.
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.
And every mother's child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer really know how to fly.
And now, having quickly traversed from a very adult observation (“folks dressed up like Eskimos”) to a very childlike perspective, the song concludes by directly addressing its listeners. One has to admire the songwriter's artfulness here, taking the most commonplace greeting of the season – “Merry Christmas!” – and then building these four lines of ornate framing around it, helping us to appreciate the phrase anew.
And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
To kids from one to ninety-two.
Although it's been said many times,
Many ways, Merry Christmas to you.
Note, finally, the delayed rhyming, with the rhyme for “phrase” not showing up in its expected location, at the end of the third line, but instead making its appearance with “ways” at the beginning of the fourth line. The effect, I think, is to increase the suspense before the final phrase, and hence sharpen our focus on these final four words: “Merry Christmas to you.”
There are more than a few great recordings of this song to choose from – starting with the originals by Nat King Cole – but the one I will recommend to you today is by Diana Krall, taken from her excellent album from 2005, simply titled Christmas Songs. Diana's voice here is warm and intimate and expressive, seemingly carving fresh meaning out of every syllable, with quiet and supportive accompaniment. The crew takes their time with the delivery of the song, but the pacing is more than justified by the rich details found throughout.
Or see the complete list of Christmas Favorites from The Practical Utopian.