In truth by the time Guaraldi’s masterwork was released, your typical family record shelf held a vinyl library of solid seasonal music encompassing classics such as the Elvis Presley Christmas Album and A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra (both 1957), Merry Christmas by Johnny Mathis (1958), Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald (1960), A Christmas Gift for You produced by Phil Spector (1963) and the Beach Boys Christmas Album (1964).
To that starter set we must add one more: The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival by the Harry Simeone Chorale, re-released under a number of titles since but remembered for its groundbreaking commercial recording of The Little Drummer Boy. Pa-rum pum pum pum. Hollywood television bandleader Simeone also propelled Do You Hear What I Hear? into the stratosphere. Tens of millions of people around the world have heard it since.
In Australia and New Zealand, the Royal Guardsmen’s novelty song Snoopy’s Christmas was a number one single in 1967. It re-entered the charts in New Zealand in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 2013, although a 2007 poll by the New Zealand Herald voted it “the worst Christmas song of all time”.
The 1970s brought the fusion of Christmas music and modern pop to the fore, with The Jackson 5 Christmas Album (1970) and Christmas Portrait by The Carpenters (1978) topping the charts. And while it might have been relegated to the ranks of the pop nonsense chart, A Christmas Together by John Denver and the Muppets (1979) remains a much-loved classic, both poignant and funny. (Miss Piggy: “Piggy pudding?” Gonzo: “No, figgy pudding. It’s made with figs. And bacon.”)
In Britain, the 1970s and 1980s gave rise to an obsession with the national Christmas chart-topper. Some of these were true classics. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir in 1971 was followed by the very regal cover of The Little Drummer Boy by the Pipes & Drums & Military Band of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
The Christmas number ones neither needed to be great nor, frankly, even Christmassy. Chart-toppers included covers of the Hokey Cokey (1981, The Snowmen) and I Got You Babe (2004, Bo’ Selecta with Davina McCall and Patsy Kensit) and Mr Hankey, the Christmas Poo (1999) from the soundtrack of the American social satire South Park.
But it did throw up one of the most loved Christmas pop songs of all time – Last Christmas by Wham! – which was one of the few singles to truly find a place in the pantheon of great Christmas music. It was released in 1984 (on a double A-side single with Everything She Wants) at the height of the duo’s fame. (Honourable mention: 1987’s Fairytale of New York by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl.)
Other twinkling stars of the 1980s included The Christmas Album by Boney M (1981), which blends much-loved carols with religious emphasis. And though it seems on history’s page to have been much older given its connection with the 1954 movie, this is the decade that also gave us the White Christmas album by Bing Crosby (first released 1986).
The 1990s brought us full circle to a new pantheon of Christmas pop from contemporary recording artists. When My Heart Finds Christmas by Harry Connick Jr (1993), Merry Christmas by Mariah Carey (1994), Miracles: The Holiday Album from Kenny G (1994) and These Are Special Times by Celine Dion (1998) all take pride of place in our final 20.
As does one peculiar addition, Ultra Lounge: Christmas Cocktails (1996), which featured a collection of classic artists including Peggy Lee (singing Winter Wonderland), Ray Anthony, Lou Rawls, Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason, Nancy Wilson and Nat “King” Cole. Christmas Cocktails was a hit, rekindling an interest in a generation of artists that might otherwise have been consigned to the history books.
A key Australian inclusion in any top 20 is surely Morningtown Ride to Christmas, from The Seekers (2001). And who can ignore the soundtrack from the 2003 film Love, Actually in 2003? It could even be argued that while the film is a Christmas favourite, the album is barely a Christmas album. Indeed it includes just three actual Christmas songs: the fictional Billy Mack’s (played by Bill Nighy) Christmas Is All Around, White Christmas (Otis Redding) and All I Want for Christmas Is You (Olivia Olson).
The last decade has witnessed a resurgence of interest from contemporary artists with reissues of modern classics, such as the albums from Mariah, Celine, Harry and Kenny. Josh Groban added Noel (first released 2007) to our collection and in its wake came perhaps the most significant Christmas album of the contemporary era, Christmas from Michael Buble (2011), a blend of seasonal songs and Christmas whimsy. Even The Seekers have dusted off Morningtown Ride to Christmas and re-released it under the title We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
Voice of Christmas
Bing Crosby’s name is synonymous with Christmas. His 1986 album White Christmas is one of the most successful (and most loved) Christmas albums of all time. The title song by Irving Berlin dates from 1942, a reminiscence about the olden days of Christmas where “the treetops glisten and children listen / to hear sleigh bells in the snow.“
Crosby’s version of the song became legendary, but so too did a duet between Crosby and British pop star David Bowie, recorded on September 11, 1977 for Crosby’s television special Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas. The song – Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy – was imagined as a kind of clash of generations, Crosby solemnly singing the latter, while Bowie sang the former as a lyrical counterpoint.
Crosby’s daughter, the actress Mary Crosby, who with her mother Kathryn is a custodian of her father’s artistic legacy, was in the studio the day it was taped. There was little preparation, she recalls; indeed the mood was one of wondering what the two very different men would make of each other.
“My brother and I were standing in the wings knowing he was going to come onto the soundstage [and] Bowie blasted in with his wife, they both have inch-long bright red hair, full makeup, and full-length mink coats,” Mary tells Spectrum. “We’re looking at each other, and Dad’s over there, and we’re thinking, how is this going to work? Oh, my God. Then when they were sitting next to each other David was a little nervous. He was like ‘I can only do it in this key’ and Dad said, don’t worry, I’ll get in there somehow.”
And then they made music. “When they started to play you could see them both literally relax because it was clear to everybody that they were making music,” Mary says. “Music crosses all countries, all boundaries. It’s universal. Even as a young teenager, in watching them, it was very clear that they were making magic. That this was going to be an extraordinary moment and it was. Two wildly different men, two wildly different generations and styles of music. None of that matters when you’re making music. It was so clear.”
Crosby’s longtime record label Decca has released a remastered album of his work, Bing at Christmas, set to newly-recorded orchestral arrangements performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. In addition to both the iconic White Christmas recording, and the Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy duet with Bowie, the album features new digital collaborations with Pentatonix, the Puppini Sisters and The Tenors.
I love that he’s still being played. He’s still the voice of Christmas and now it only makes me happy.
Mary Crosby on her father Bing
The project of remastering the album began with the cataloguing of Crosby’s personal archive, which had been stored in the basement of the family’s California home. Crosby had recorded from 1926 to 1977 and consequently had an archive in a raft of formats, from lacquers and acetates to half-inch, one-inch and two-inch tape, 3-track, 4-track, 12-track and 16-track.
Crosby says that the power of her father’s fame is in part because of his authenticity. “What people saw of my dad was who he was,” she says. “He wasn’t putting on a show or being somebody else. He was who he was and the truth of that connected with people. When we came along [Mary is Crosby’s daughter from his second marriage] he was fairly retired. So we got an incredible amount of time with him. And as you can tell from the Christmas shows, clearly it wasn’t for our talent that we were on with him. It was because he wanted to hang with his family. I knew that to the rest of the world he was a very important person, but to me he was just Dad.”
Aside from her famous father, Mary Crosby has her own peculiar claim on pop cultural fame: she shot J.R. in the now iconic television cliffhanger of 1980s primetime soap opera Dallas. Crosby played the sister of dastardly J.R.’s wife Sue Ellen and had, after being jilted by the most hated man on TV, pulled the trigger that set up one of the highest-rating television “reveals” in history. Crosby says the role was a gift, particularly because she became lifelong friends with Hagman and his wife Maj.
“I used to tease him because he walked me down the aisle and I said, you ruined my reputation and you made me an honourable woman,” Mary says. “They were godparents to our children, they were very much a part of our family. So the best thing about Dallas isn’t that I’m a trivia question or that it kept me working for a couple of decades, it’s that I had this deep relationship with Larry and his wife, Maj. That was the greatest gift.”
An extensive film archive also survives of Crosby’s work, including his various television programs and specials. Few are as precious, however, as Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, his last. It is memorable because it includes the Bowie duet and also because it was filmed just five weeks before Crosby died. For its first US broadcast it was introduced by his widow.
“We have really good home movies,” Mary says. “They make me laugh when I see them. They make me laugh and smile and it’s incredibly sweet. It’s also somewhat mortifying because none of us were particularly good at anything, but Dad wanted to be with his family and he included us anyway, for which we’re very grateful. So it’s really sweet. It’s really sweet.”
Because of Crosby’s association with the Christmas holiday, his death left his family unable to deal with Christmas for a decade or so. “When he died, I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing him, which was incredibly bittersweet because I loved that I could hear him and it only made me want to cry,” she says.
“He was the heart of Christmas for our family and we literally didn’t celebrate for years. And then we’ve gradually come together and it’s now grandkids and siblings and Mum and my aunt and my cousins,” Mary says. “I love that he’s still being played. He’s still the voice of Christmas and now it only makes me happy.”
Bing at Christmas is available via Decca Records/Universal Music.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.