What Christmas With Elvis Presley Was Really Like

The man behind the lyrics to "Blue Christmas," Jay Johnson, originally intended the song to be for those who have a rough time of it during the holiday season (per "Behind the Christmas Hits with Drew Savage"). But that wasn't how the man who made the song famous, Elvis Presley, felt about the holiday. Indeed, Graceland declared Christmas Presley's "favorite time of the year," and he loved to decorate with red, white, and blue — a rotating, musical white Christmas tree with red ornaments, red drapes, and blue driveway lights. He even dropped $300 (over $3200 in 2023 money) on a custom Christmas sign for Graceland when he first moved in.

In the 1960s, Presley expanded his ornaments and lawn decorations to include a Nativity and a row of aluminum Christmas trees in front of the house. Inside, Vernon Presley played Santa Claus, as did the stuffed monkey of the pool room. Vernon also warned his son, kiddingly, that his driveway lights would confuse any planes passing overhead on their way to the airport. To date, says Graceland, no one's tried to land on the driveway.

Today, Yuletide visitors to Graceland can see it much as Presley would have. Many of his personal decorations are still used, and those he originally rented have since been purchased by the estate. Even the tinsel decorating one of the trees inside Graceland is Presley's own, recycled year after year. The decorations stay up until Presley's birthday, January 8, just as he would have done.

Elvis's gifts were luxurious and mischievous

As enthusiastically as Elvis Presley attacked the decorative side of Christmas, he was just as passionate about gifts. Not so much what he would get — as Priscilla Presley remembered, he was very much the man who had everything and was difficult to shop for (via the Daily Express). Among the gifts he did receive and treasured were a set of bongos Priscilla bought for him the first Christmas they spent together in Germany in 1959. The drums are still at Graceland.

That first Christmas together let Priscilla see how much her future husband loved the holiday and how much he put into the presents he gave others. That year, he gave her a gold and diamond watch. When she joined him in Graceland in 1962, he gave her a diamond (but not an engagement) ring. Gifts for others could be made into jokes — one year, Presley gave members of his entourage 50-cent McDonald's certificates in lieu of anticipated bonuses (the bonuses, and expensive gifts, came later).

When Lisa Marie Presley was born, her father found a new joy in gift-giving. Priscilla recalled that Presley would sit up by the Christmas tree, waiting for his daughter to come down and see the presents. "Christmas for Elvis wasn't about receiving," said Priscilla. "It was always about giving. It was about seeing the reaction on people's faces when he would give them things."

He thought of Blue Christmas as a joke

For most of the general public, Elvis Presley is most connected to the Christmas season through his music, specifically "Blue Christmas." He wasn't the original singer of the tune, nor did he have anything to do with its creation. According to "Behind the Christmas Hits with Drew Savage," the song was originally written by Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson and first recorded by Doye O'Dell in 1948. It didn't fall into Presley's hands until 1957, and when it did, he only grudgingly agreed to record it for a Christmas album. The backing vocals were turned into a joke — no one in the session took it seriously. At the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012, one backing vocalist, Millie Kirkham, spoke of the experience (per The Tennessean). "When we got through, we all laughed and said, 'Well, that's one record that the record company will never release.'"

They were wrong — "Blue Christmas" made the album and was well-received. When it was released as a single in 1964, it charted at No.1 on Billboard's Christmas list. And it was on account of the song's success that Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, went to NBC looking for a then-unheard-of TV special focused entirely around Presley as a solo artist. Parker originally imagined that it would be a dedicated Christmas special. Instead, it became Presley's lauded 1968 comeback event. But on the colonel's insistence, he did sing "Blue Christmas," which remains the only surviving video of Presley performing a Christmas tune.

The success of Presley's cover all but erased O'Dell and others' recordings of the song, but Hayes and Johnson didn't complain. The first year Presley's "Blue Christmas" single hit the market, they made more than they had in the nine years prior.

Elvis's earliest Christmases were lean ones

The splashy Christmases of Graceland were a far cry from those Elvis Presley knew growing up. The Presley family was very poor during his childhood. His father, Vernon, wrote in Good Housekeeping that they sometimes had nothing to eat except cornbread and water. But young Presley never went without presents, even if his parents had to go without essentials to make sure he got them. Old classmate Don Winders recalled in Michael Freedland's "Elvis Memories: The Real Elvis Presley, By Those Who Knew Him" that one Christmas, Presley was given a wagon. It was as much a family tool as it was a toy, to be used for fetching groceries and firewood. It was promptly destroyed — accidentally — by a local truck driver, who was so ashamed that he paid to have it replaced.

If his earliest Christmases were modest, some of them were also a chance for young Presley to show his musical talents. Lifelong friend George Klein told Freedland that he and Presley teamed up for a high school talent show. Klein was the producer, Presley the talent, and Christmas carols were the music of choice. Later, Klein joined Presley's Memphis Mafia, whose membership frequently received lavish presents from the boss at Christmastime. Another member, T. G. Shepperd, linked Presley's early poverty to his generosity later in life. "It came from being poor himself," Shepperd told Freedland. "He learnt from his mom ... giving is more blessed than receiving. It made him feel good."

A Presley Christmas prank terrorized the family dog

Elvis Presley's yuletide parties and pranks could sometimes get out of control, as his cousin Billy Smith knew all too well. Smith — who was part of the Memphis Mafia — appeared on his son Danny's YouTube channel "Memphis Mafia Kid" to share Christmas stories from Graceland and focused on one year when Presley felt that Christmas needed fireworks. Not just fireworks, but $1000 worth of them.

With a large number of guests that year, Presley divided the Christmas party into two teams, camped on opposite ends of the Graceland grounds and well-armed for war. The teams blasted fireworks at one another across the grounds, filling the yard with smoke so thick no one could see the opposing team. When Presley sent another cousin to retrieve more fireworks from a shed, the cousin struck up his lighter. Seeing the light through the fog and mistaking it for the other team, Presley fired a rocket that way.

His rocket hit the box his cousin was handling, sending fireworks everywhere. The teams hit the ground, but one of the stray rockets went spiraling into the dog house where Presley's German Shepherd was chained up. It ran out as far as the chain would let it. The dog survived, but it avoided the dog house for the rest of its life.

Elvis didn't like to play his own music at Christmas

On Danny Smith's YouTube channel "Memphis Mafia Kid," his family recalled Christmases at Graceland as informal affairs. Guests would come on Christmas Eve before going home to their own families, either that night or the next day. As wild as the party could get, it was often just Presley with his friends and their families, chatting and eating. Eventually, Presley would call the adults upstairs, including his cousin and Smith's father, Bill. Smith, Lisa Marie Presley, and the other children present would have the run of the house. 

Music was part of a Graceland Christmas, but not Presley's. "We didn't play Elvis' records," said Priscilla Presley (via the Daily Express). "He was really quite shy and almost a little embarrassed to play his own records." Instead, Presley would put on the radio, or music by Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell, and other artists he admired. One wonders what he would make of Graceland putting on a televised Christmas concert for 2023 that pays tribute to him with every act (per People).