If you’re a regular reader of this column you know I enjoy writing about history. But there’s a second topic I have a big interest in: music; specifically, the singers and songs that were popular in the 1960s and ‘70s, when I was growing up. So, on the rare occasions when those two topics meet, I’m in a kind of writer’s heaven. That’s the case with today’s column, in which we travel back to a time when some special songs made my childhood merry.
Christmas in the 1960s was an enchanted time. Like other middle class families in a small town, the holiday promised a welcome change to my family’s routines. Our living room was rearranged to welcome a freshly-cut tree, the picture window sparkled with snow sprayed from a can, and our AM radio was always on, awaiting Christmas songs. (This was before stations played holiday music 24/7 from Halloween ‘til the new year.) I’d keep an ear out, and if the deejay announced a Christmas classic, I’d turn up the volume.
Among my earliest yuletide favorites is “White Christmas.” From time to time, my older relatives discussed their memories of our country’s involvement in World War II, and at Christmastime, when Bing Crosby crooned this song, their conversations paused. Only later in life did I understand why. Though Irving Berlin composed his nostalgic tune in 1928 (written while he was grieving the death of his three-week-old son), it wasn’t until 1941, as our country entered the global battle, that the song gained popularity. Our soldiers fighting overseas said that, each December, dreaming of a white Christmas was really about dreaming of home.
Winters in Upstate New York pretty much guaranteed us a white Christmas, but snow-packed roads meant there weren’t a lot of trips in the family car. As the holiday neared, though, Dad would pile us kids in and we’d head out for Christmas shopping. If we were lucky, we’d find a parking space in the busiest section of downtown Fulton and when we opened car doors, holiday music welcomed us. One song I surely heard was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which was playing almost nonstop outside Montgomery Ward. Here’s why:
Rudolph’s fanciful story of flight came to life in 1939, after our country had endured a decade of the Great Depression. The joys of Christmas were in short supply and Montgomery Ward wanted to change that. One of Ward’s ad men created the Rudolph character as an illustrated poem, and it was featured in that year’s catalog, better known as the Children’s Wish Book. Many baby boomers remember spending hours flipping through its pages, making their list for Santa.
Rudolph was an immediate hit and a children’s book followed. By 1947, songwriter Johnny Marks set the legend of Rudolph to music, and Bing Crosby, already strongly associated with the holiday, was offered the song. After he turned it down, Gene Autry, America’s Singing Cowboy, recorded “Rudolph” and its popularity soared as high as a team of flying reindeer.
There was more magic from Rudolph, as well as from Johnny Marks’ songwriting abilities. Once Montgomery Ward had struck gold with its magical reindeer, television wanted in on the fun, so, in 1964, an animated Rudolph TV special aired. Marks wrote a bouncy tune called “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and Burl Ives’ folksy version played like a sleigh ride down a snowy hill, delivering us right into the arms of Christmas joy.
Johnny Marks made one more contribution to holiday melodies with a song that older kids at school were crazy about. There were lots of “groovy” dances in the 1960s, and when the holidays drew near, teens were “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Brenda Lee was only thirteen when her perky voice made our radios pop, and highschoolers everywhere—including my hometown of Fulton—were shimmying and shaking to it.
Another youngster caught America’s attention at Christmas. Though the same age as Brenda Lee when his song became a hit, young Jimmy Boyd was singing about something entirely different when he informed the world “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” When the song was released in 1953, the idea of a married woman having an affair with Santa was a little too risqué, even if Saint Nick was really Jimmy’s good old Dad in disguise. Radio stations banned the song for years, but luckily, by the time I came along, all had been forgiven and “I Saw Mommy” was nothing more than an innocent holiday novelty.
Throughout my childhood, TV offered a new Christmas special every December and we kids wanted to watch them all. “Frosty the Snowman” was first recorded by Gene Autry, but it was Jimmy Durante’s razzmatazz version in the TV special that had us singing along. Frosty also gave moms something to hold over our heads when we couldn’t contain our Christmas excitement: “Be good or there’ll be no Frosty on TV tonight!”
I paid special attention to Mom’s warning when I learned that, in 1965, Charlie Brown was going to have his own Christmas special. I was ten that year, young enough to still believe in animated stories that brought holidays to life, but old enough to appreciate the sentiments of a gentle yuletide song. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” had both.
Comic strip illustrator Charles Schulz and the creators of his TV special wisely added a Christmas soundtrack to the show. They hired composer Vince Guaraldi to provide piano-driven jazzy numbers, which kept the story moving. Then Guaraldi paused with a song that captured the wonder of the holidays. “Christmas Time is Here,” was sung by the angelic choir of Charlie and his gang as they skated across a pond, caught snowflakes on their tongues and discovered the true meaning of Christmas. Today, when I get too busy to remember the joy of the holidays, I only need to hear the opening piano notes of that song and everything I love about Christmas music comes rushing back.