The Untold Truth Of Your Favorite Christmas Carols

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If you turn on the radio, watch television, or go out in public at any point between November and New Year's, you're going to be subjected to a barrage of Christmas carols. You've heard most of them about a million and one times before, and you might even be sick to death of them days before Christmas comes. But remember, these carols have been around for decades, long enough to build up some seriously dark, weird histories that'll give you a new appreciation for them. Death, adultery, drinking, and violence? Christmas carols have all that. They even have Nazis.

'The Twelve Days of Christmas' isn't about what you think it is

Whenever "The Twelve Days of Christmas" starts, you know you'd better buckle up because it's a long song. That's actually by design.

The oft-repeated story about "Twelve Days" is that it was written at a time practicing Catholicism in England was potentially deadly, so the faithful filled the seemingly harmless song with coded references to Catholic beliefs. The four calling birds are the four gospels, for example, and the six geese a-laying are the six days of creation. It's a great story, but Snopes says it's completely wrong.

The first giveaway is that the story only developed in the 1990s, and the connections supposedly made in the song are Protestant beliefs as well as Catholic ones. "Twelve Days" is actually French, not English, and the first known version was printed in a children's book in 1780. It's likely it was just a nifty little tune designed as a memory game, testing kids' ability to memorize horribly long verses in a relatively fun way. Fun, at least, the first 12 times you hear it.

'Joy to the World' had nothing to do with Christmas

"Joy to the World" is one of the most triumphant and uplifting Christmas carols, but weirdly, it had nothing to do with Christmas when it was written. In fact, it's about the exact opposite of Christmas.

It was written by Isaac Watts, a composer who revolutionized the way hymns were sung (via Christianity Today). He was born in 1674 and wrote a ton of hymns based on various portions of the Bible. When he wrote "Joy to the World," The Gospel Coalition says he was writing based on Psalm 98 which, if you're not familiar with your Psalms, is the one about the Second Coming. There are some sneaky references to dark, end-of-the-world things in the original hymn (via Hymnary), and he talks about "sins and sorrows," thorns infesting the ground, and curses. Not very jolly, is it? It's still meant to be an uplifting song, and it likely became linked to Christmas because it's about the destiny Christ was born to fulfill. Tenuous, sure, but many people would take "Joy to the World" over "Dominick the Donkey" any day.

'Jingle Bells' was originally an R-rated drinking song

"Jingle Bells" wasn't always as child-friendly as it is today, and according to The Atlantic, the history of this little ditty starts in 19th-century New England with the nephew of J.P. Morgan.

Morgan's nephew was James Lord Pierpont, who's credited with writing the song. He was also something of the black sheep of the family and was always running off to start and fail all kinds of random endeavors. "Jingle Bells" is his only real accomplishment, and once you know he wrote it in a Massachusetts tavern, it makes sense the original lyrics included things like, "Go at it while you're young / Take the girls tonight, and sing this sleighing song." Those jingling bells weren't always bells, either, and it was originally a cue for soused singers to jingle the ice in their glasses along with the melody.

The song's original narrator also gets hammered after ending up in a snowbank with his young lass, Miss Fanny Bright. Doesn't seem like something you'd want to teach your 19th-century tikes, right? Wrong. The song debuted at a Thanksgiving Sunday School service in Savannah, Georgia. Nineteenth-century parents had to find their entertainment where they could, and if it was teaching their children vaguely dirty songs they couldn't possibly understand, more power to them.

'White Christmas' signaled the end of the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was about as controversial as wars can possibly get, and when it ended, it ended in spectacular and dramatic fashion. According to the CIA, American personnel living and working in Saigon were all made aware of a secret code that would be broadcast by the American Radio Service as the signal to get to their prearranged evacuation points. Someone on the service would announce the temperature in Saigon as "105 degrees and rising" and would then begin to play arguably the most famous Christmas song of all: Bing Crosby's version of "White Christmas." That's exactly what happened minutes before 11 a.m. on April 29, 1975, and it's impossible to imagine the feelings that melancholy Christmas song must have evoked.

It was April, but the choice of song was wholly appropriate. According to what author Jody Rosen told NPR, "White Christmas" had originally become popular because it spoke to American GIs serving overseas during World War II. All they wanted was to go home, and decades later, that's exactly what the song meant for another group fighting another war in another part of the world.

'Baby, It's Cold Outside' was once super-feminist

No Christmas song can make a person cringe quite like "Baby, It's Cold Outside." It debuted in 1944, but in recent years it's gotten a ton of flak for seemingly unmistakable, predatory behavior. The original score even identified the parts as the "Wolf" and the "Mouse," and when she not only asks to leave repeatedly then wants to know what's in the drink he's given her, it becomes less cheery and more stalker-y. Vox went through the entire song to show just how it can be read either as romantic or completely horrible, making it even weirder that the song was originally written as a super-feminist anthem to free choice.

It was written by Frank Loesser, and it's important to remember it was the 1940s. The idea that an unmarried woman would dare to spend the night at her boyfriend's house was pretty unthinkable, and most of her protests are regarding what others will think of her, not what she wants. The Washington Post says the original song (and the movies it was used in) emphasized her right to be a liberated woman who could spend the night with a man if she wanted to. It doesn't read like that in the slightest today because my, how times do change.

'O Holy Night' was banned by the church

There are secular Christmas carols, and there are religious ones. When it comes to the latter, surely, no one's going to argue that "O Holy Night" doesn't belong there. Well, it has "holy" right in the title, but the Catholic community in France once banned the song for being too secular.

The reasons are a bit complicated, according to Extraordinary Intelligence. The first strike against the song was the author himself, a wine inspector and part-time poet named Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure. After a priest asked him to write a special poem for Christmas Mass of 1847, he first wrote "O Holy Night" then decided to set it to music with help from composer Adolphe Charles Adams. It was a Christmas staple from that first performance, but when Cappeau left the church, it became a problem. It was an even bigger problem when the church realized the composer was Jewish, and they banned the suddenly secular song.

The common folk still loved it, but we know the common folk don't count for much in history. The song was ultimately saved in a weird way, when it was translated into English by abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight. It became an anti-slavery song (as it included the lyrics "Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother"), and in 1906, it became the first song to be heard over the radio.

'Silent Night' (and other carols) were rewritten by the Nazis

Christmas presented the Nazis with a problem because clearly, they couldn't be seen celebrating the birthday of a Jewish man. What came was a massive rebranding of Christmas, removing the religious bits and inserting all sorts of Nazi imagery, symbolism, and neopagan weirdness. That included rewriting any Christmas carols mentioning elements like Christ. One song that got completely different lyrics was "Silent Night." Fortunately for our nightmares, Oxford University Press was kind enough to reproduce them, and the first verse (here translated into English) goes like this:

"Silent night, Holy night, / All is calm, all is bright. / Only the Chancellor stays on guard, / Germany's future to watch and to ward, / Guiding our nation aright."

That's some eerie stuff, and let's take a minute to be thankful we're still not singing that version every Christmas. We are, however, still singing some Nazi-doctored carols. The Telegraph says it's the Nazi, religion-free version of "Unto Us a Time Has Come" that is still popular, though we honestly can't tell you why.

The story behind 'White Christmas' is horribly depressing

Let's not beat around the bush. Christmas can be incredibly depressing because in spite of all that good cheer, it's also the time of the year some people feel loneliness and loss the most. "White Christmas" seems to sum all those feelings up in a soulful, melancholy sort of song, and there's a depressing reason it's so good at hitting you right in the feels.

According to what author Jody Rosen told NPR, it's not entirely clear when the Russian Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas." The best we can do is 1937, 1938, or 1939, somewhere around a decade after his 3-year-old son's death on Christmas Day 1928. Berlin and his wife spent every Christmas thereafter visiting their son's grave. That's the sort of thing that ruins Christmas. By the time Berlin wrote "White Christmas," he'd been visiting the grave for at least a decade's worth of Christmases. You hear it in the song now, don't you?

Rudolph's origin story is both commercialized and heartbreaking

Ah, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the horribly dated Christmas film everyone still loves. The story of just how Rudolph came to be is pretty odd because History says he was a marketing campaign.

At the tail end of the Great Depression, retailer Montgomery Ward was looking for a new story to package for the kids who toddled in with their gift-buying parents during the Christmas season. They recruited copywriter Robert May to write a suitably inspiring tale, and after ruling out the possibilities of writing about a Rollo, a Rodney, a Romeo, and a Reginald, he settled on Rudolph. He'd be a reindeer, for the simple reason that May's 4-year-old daughter loved reindeer. Thank a fog over Lake Michigan for giving him the idea to make Rudolph the red-nosed outcast he was. It's all good and charming so far.

But there's a twist. May's wife had been fighting a battle against cancer, and even as he worked on Rudolph, he saw his wife lose the fight. She passed away in July 1939, and May refused to let anyone else finish his work. He completed the story the next month, and more than 2.4 million copies were bought up for eager children that Christmas. It wasn't until 1949 that May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, put the tale to song with Gene Autry. And that's how the legend was made.

'Silent Night' has a heartbreaking connection to war

The Christmastime truce of World War I seems like a tall tale, but it's absolutely true. CBC News spoke to Stanley Weintraub, who wrote Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, and he even named the man who started it all: Walter Kirchhoff. Kirchhoff was a German officer who before the war had led a very different life as an opera singer in Berlin. Weintraub says he sang "Silent Night" twice, once in German and once in English, and the war stopped as everyone listened.

Weintraub told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that, by all accounts, it was just as moving as you'd think. Soldiers on both sides realized they were fighting — and killing — humans just like themselves, and in some places, those who participated in the Christmas Truce were pulled off the front lines and replaced with men who had no faces to put with the bodies they were shooting at.

"Silent Night" has another wartime connection, too. Stille Nacht Gesellschaft says it was first performed just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars near Salzburg, in an area that had recently (and forcefully) been turned from an ecclesiastical area to a secular one. That makes it pretty much a protest song.

'O Tannenbaum' was written about a cheating lover

It's a part of A Charlie Brown Christmas, so how bad can it be? It's not bad, but the inspiration behind "O Tannenbaum" is heartbreaking any time of the year.

According to Transparent Language's German blog, "O Tannenbaum" wasn't originally written to reference a Christmas tree, but just a regular, plain ol' fir tree. The song's roots are a 16th-century German folk song, and DW says the version that really popularized it as a Christmas song was written by Joachim August Zarnack and rediscovered in 1824. It told the story of a steadfast fir tree that remained true throughout the year, essentially the complete opposite of women. They, Zarnack would write bitterly, had nothing of the faithfulness of the fir tree. "O Tannenbaum" was rewritten as a satirical commentary on the fickleness of Kaiser Wilhelm post-World War I, but it eventually turned into the Christmas carol we all know and love.

'Deck the Halls' was a competitive drinking song

It's pretty clear that "Deck the Halls" is one of the more cheerful Christmas carols, and it's always been that way. According to CBC News, it dates back to 18th-century Wales, when there was certainly no television or Netflix. Instead of gathering around the TV, friends, family, and neighbors would gather around a fire to tell their own stories and, sometimes, sing. What had been invented by then were drinking games, and "Deck the Halls" was one. Participants would go around the room, and everyone would have to sing a four-line verse to that particular melody. "Fa-la-la-la-la" was the refrain, and it was presumably sung while a lot of people chugged their penance.

It wasn't until a few hundred years later that the song was written down in a form we'd recognize, and the Welsh version of the lyrics are still a bit different. They aren't about Christmas as much as they're about merry-making with the lovely young ladies, a bit of trivia that might make you regret that television was invented after all. Good old days, indeed.

'Do You Hear What I Hear' is about the end of the world

There's no centuries-old history behind "Do You Hear What I Hear," a song only written in the 1960s. That's when songwriting team Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker were asked to come up with a B-side to a recording of "The Little Drummer Boy." Instead of looking to the past or the future, they looked at what was going on around them — and The Australian says those were some dark days.

The Bay of Pigs was still a recent memory, nuclear missiles had just been installed in Cuba, and JFK was going back and forth with the Soviet's Khrushchev. Literally, someone could decide to push the button at any moment, and that's terrifying. For Regney, it was the second time he'd been under the shadow of war — born in France, he was recruited into Germany's army when they invaded during World War II. He put on the uniform, but stayed a part of the French resistance movement, even taking a bullet after leading a group of German soldiers into a deadly ambush.

That's the guy who wrote "Do You Hear What I Hear." The star with a tail as big as a kite? That isn't the Star of Bethlehem, but a nuke. He wrote the words and his wife composed the music, but they said they could never sing it themselves — their plea for peace in the face of nuclear apocalypse was just too much. Merry Christmas.