SoundTreks | The Top Six Christmas Songs from Film and Television

It’s Christmastime, in case you hadn’t noticed, and it’s the time of year when you can’t enter any store, coffee shop, public square, or doctor’s office without hearing a deluge of Christmas standards. We all have our favorites, and most of the most famous Christmas standards (like, say, “Jingle Bells”), go back almost a century. But some Christmas standards have a more striking modern origin, having been introduced by, of all things, feature films and TV specials. Most of the songs on the following list began in such a fashion, but to most people, they feel immortal (it helps that the newest one on the list is still over 20 years old). 

Related: Why is Christmas Music Trapped in the Post-WWII Era?

SoundTreks has delved through the various origins of well-known Christmas standards to find those that began their lives on the screen, and we found that a few of the most-performed songs of all time started this way. Indeed, one of the songs has the (possible) distinction of being the best-selling song of all time. If you know the song, but not the movie, perhaps this year you can finally make the connection. 

 


“White Christmas” – Holiday Inn (1942)

Although this hasn’t been offically confirmed (at least not as far as I’ve been able to discover), Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas,” originally published as part of the soundtrack for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, is supposedly the best selling single in history. Written by Irving Berlin, “White Christmas” was first sung on the radio by Bing Crosby, who thought the song was something of a trifle, but didn’t take off as a Christmas standard until Holiday Inn

Why did this one catch on? I think it’s little more than how hummable it is. It’s sweet, appropriately corny, and sounds like a long-ago lullaby. Also, once you’ve heard it you can essentially sing the whole thing from memory. “White Christmas” is an earworm. It also has a small vocal range, so anyone with even the slightest sense of musicality can pose as a great ’40s crooner. The phrase “White Christmas” has entered the common lexicon thanks to this song; it’s an evocative title. I have a simple affection for “White Christmas,” as do many. 

Holiday Inn was given a sequel(-ish) in 1954 called White Christmas, which also featured the song. This song became its own movie. 


“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

This is perhaps one of the most fun Christmas songs ever written, as it’s about nastiness, filth, and seasick crocodiles. The delicious lyrics (example: “your brain in full of spiders, you’ve got garlic in your soul”) were written by Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel himself, with music by Albert Hague. 

The 1966 version of the song, sung by the immortal (and amazingly monickered) Thurl Ravenscroft, is the lasting standard of the song, and does occasionally make its way onto the radio during the Christmas season. Others have sung it (most notably, Jim Carrey for the repellant live-action feature Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas), but no one can match the attitude and gorgeous basso profundo of Ravenscroft. 

Here’s the weirdest-slash-most enjoyable detail about “You’re a Mean One.” It makes no reference to Christmas at all. No reference to snowy weather, celebration, or the Holiday season. It’s just a litany of awful character traits (“Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk”) possessed by The Grinch. The Grinch, however, has rarely been seen apart from Christmas, so he has become a de facto anti-Christmas figure. He’s taken his place next to other literary anti-Christmas figures like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Krampus. So this song still counts as a Christmas anthem. 


“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Like “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is, according to the people who keep track of these sorts of things, one of the most performed Christmas songs of all time. It was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, and it wasn’t heard until Meet Me in St. Louis, where it was sung – quite beautifully, natch – by the legendary Judy Garland. 

This song is, compared to most Christmas songs – even ancient Christian hymns – somewhat melancholy. Not only do its lyrics refer to times long past (“Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore”), but the melody feels like a memory. It’s a song that seems to lament the present, and longs for the past. It’s a nostalgia song. Please, “Merry Little Christmas” asks, please return to us, happy golden days of yore. Which implies a fall from grace. You’ll be forgiven for crying. 


“Christmas Time is Here” – A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack album for A Charlie Brown Christmas has become a seminal Christmas record, and I came awfully close to reviewing it in its entirety for SoundTreks. The problem with that is that I would have nothing to say beyond how wonderful each track is. Guaraldi’s music is sweet, jazzy, and genuine. Most people don’t sing along to “Christmas Time is Here,” but the gentle opening piano riff speaks a pure Christmas mood better than most songs, and some people even tear up just at the first chord. A Charlie Brown Christmas – along with the Peanuts universe in general – is very good about balancing the joys and the grey emotional perils of childhood. And I think a lot of people hang their nostalgia on this special for that very reason. It points out how much joy there can be had in simple, shabby Christmas trees, and that the spirit of the season can transcend. 

In short, this music has somehow become the perfect Christmas music. If you don’t own the Vince Guaraldi record, your Christmas music collection is still incomplete. If you have only this record, it could be complete.


“Silver Bells” – The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

Unlike Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday Inn, few people actually know – or have seen – the relatively obscure 1951 comedy The Lemon Drop Kid, starring Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. I haven’t seen it either, although I know that Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin may have co-directed it (he’s not actually credited). So few are familiar with this flick. But we all know “Silver Bells,” a song that has escaped its cinematic origin, and taken up lodging inside Christmas records. 

It was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and was originally called “Tinkle Bells,” which was changed after the songwriters recognized the urination slang. The song itself is pretty simple and approachable, and like “White Christmas” can be easily hummed and sung by those without much musical skill. It’s about Christmas time in the city, and not much else. As someone who lives in a big city, I appreciate the sentiment. Although that big city is L.A., so I don’t ever relate to the crunchy snow or white Christmases. This is my own loss. 


“What’s This?” – The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

“What’s This?,” written and performed by Danny Elfman, is only now barely breaking out of its cinematic origin, and may still be seen strictly bound to is film origin. But just this year, I did hear the original version of “What’s This?” playing in a mall, so it’s well on its way to being a standard. 

I encourage this movement, as it’s a more musically complicated Christmas song than we usually get, it’s more energetic than most standards (it’s more “Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You” than “Silver Bells”), and it’s delightfully odd. Indeed, the original song was sung by a rogue skeleton master escaped from Halloween, so there’s a lot of reference to ghouls and witches; not things one typically hears at Christmas. The song is owned by an evil overprotective octopus named Disney, so it’s unlikely “What’s This?” will makes its way heavily into the rotation, but should some enterprising songwriter change the lyrics to omit the monsters, “What’s This?” would invade the standards like a Martian task force. 

Photo: Warner Bros. Television

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The Robot’s Voice, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. 

 

Previously on SoundTreks: