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The fascinating stories behind popular Christmas songs

From Winter Wonderland to Jingle Bells, find out about the events that inspired some of the most popular Christmas songs of today.

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Winter Wonderland

This Christmas song was originally written in 1934 by the lyricist Richard B. Smith. While the song is known for bringing a feelgood factor, Smith actually penned the song while being treated for tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Pennsylvania. He was inspired to write the song after seeing people playing in the snow in the park outside. Smith, unfortunately, succumbed to his disease the year after he wrote Winter Wonderland, but his legacy lives on, as his song has since been recorded by more than 200 musicians.

12 Days of Christmas

This Christmas carol is thought to have been designed as a memory game and was first published in a children’s book in the 1700s. If someone made a mistake when singing the song, they would have to do a forfeit. Some historians also believe there is a hidden meaning to the song, as it was written in an era when Catholics were unable to openly practice their faith. In this theory, the two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments, the four calling birds are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the twelve drummers drumming are the twelve disciples of Jesus.

Jingle Bells

A song written by New England songwriter James Lord Pierpont in the 1800s, Jingle Bells was originally a song penned for Thanksgiving. It first became associated with Christmas when a choir performed it in Boston at Christmas, decades after it was first written. An increasing number of choirs started to add Jingle Bells to their Christmas repertoire, and it’s been known as a Christmas song ever since. The lyrics relate to the bells New Englanders would add to the harnesses on horse-drawn sleighs to avoid collisions in the snow. It also became a popular drinking game at parties, when people would ‘jingle’ the ice in their glasses while they sang along.

White Christmas

Written by Irving Berlin – who went on to become one of the most celebrated songwriters in US history – White Christmas was written when Berlin was missing his family. It was first aired on public radio soon after Pearl Harbour was bombed, and subsequently became an anthem for troops across the world stationed away from home during the holiday season.

Mistletoe and Wine

This song was originally written in 1976 for a musical called Scraps, which was performed in a theatre in Richmond, London. The song was supposed to sound like a Christmas carol but was sung ironically by a matchgirl who was left out in the snow by the heartless middle classes depicted in the play. In 1988, Cliff Richard changed some of the lyrics with socialist undertones and replaced them with religious references instead. This subsequently made Mistletoe and Wine one of the most recognisable seasonal songs of today. However, that doesn’t make it one of the most-liked Christmas songs. Costa coffee shops banned it from their playlists a few years ago, after customers voted it their most hated Christmas song of all time!

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