Random Tracks: Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)

In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.

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Nat King Cole- “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)”

PEAK: #11 on January 5, 2019

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next

This review is at the request of reader Chris Pearson.

If you’re listening to any Christmas music in preparation for the holiday, one thing you’ve probably noticed is that a lot of these songs sound a lot older than most of the music you normally listen to. That’s not a coincidence. The financial news channel Cheddar just posted a video on their YouTube channel noting that the overwhelming number of Christmas classics have come from the 1940s and 1950s with previous and subsequent decades not even coming close to the number of big-time classics. A big reason they cite for our reliance on these old standards is nostalgia as we use these songs to remind ourselves of our childhoods and the ideal Christmas that we like to think about. 

Personally, my musical tastes don’t go much back further than the ‘60s but they are right about the appeal of these songs. They definitely give off a cozy and relaxing feeling about Christmas where all your troubles melt away and make you feel like a kid again looking forward to Christmas and the joy it brings. If there’s one song that greatly encapsulates that feeling then it would be Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You),” a song originally written and recorded in the ’40s but found its most well known version recorded in the ’60s.

One of the most recognizable Christmas songs ever came about as a way to beat the summer heat. Songwriter Mel Tormé one day drove to the California home of fellow songwriter Bob Wells on a hot July day when upon entering he found a notepad with the lines, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide Carols being sung by a choir, folks dressed up like Eskimos.” When Tormé and Wells about what he wrote, Wells explained that he wrote the lines as a way to mentally cool off and write about the winter season. Tormé convinced Wells that he had a song and together spend the next 35 minutes writing what would become “The Christmas Song.”

The song was brought to rising crooner Nat King Cole who recorded it in 1946 with his performing trio. Capitol Records was unhappy with their take shelving it leading to the trio re-recording the song with a proper string section. That version became a hit reaching #3 on Billboard’s pre-Hot 100 charts but there was still more to come. In 1953, Cole re-recorded the song again in Los Angeles with the famed big band arranger Nelson Riddle which didn’t make much impact. In 1961, Cole re-recorded “The Christmas Song” in New York for the fourth time and it was the fourth time that was the charm as that version has become the most definitive version of the song over the years.

The versions I listed, at least the three that have been released aren’t all that different from one another. They’re all in the same key, have the same type of string arrangement, and Nat King Cole sings similarly in each version. Much of the difference between the versions of “The Christmas Song” is with time as the original version has that ‘40s recording quality that instantly dates the song to modern ears. Personally, I think we made the right call with the 1961 version. While not all that different from the earlier versions, this version with its updated production gives a more timeless feel and warmth that wasn’t there before. 

Musically, “The Christmas Song” is sparse and quiet built around a liquid jazz guitar, twinkly piano, and strings that come in at the right moment to compliment the mood. As a singer, Nat King Cole is smooth as velvet as he paints a picture of the holiday season and the many fun traditions and happenings that you often see through its famous opening line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” doesn’t seem to be in much use today. It’s a song that’s heavily indebted to the holiday to where it ends with its subtitle “Merry Christmas To You” while acknowledging the overuse of it and the musicians ending with a snippet of the popular standard “Jingle Bells.” Though I wonder what the reason is for this line, “And so I’m offering this simple phrase/To kids from one to ninety-two.” (Are people over ninety-two not deserving of a Merry Christmas?)

All of these qualities amount to a song that you can easily put on in a dimly lit room while cozying over a roaring fireplace. Where most Christmas songs are often fast-paced with giddying anticipation or somber melancholic reflections, “The Christmas Song” is a song that’s rested and relaxed about the holiday. For me, it’s best played on the night of Christmas Eve or the entire Christmas Day when all your shopping is done and now it’s time to relax and enjoy the holiday with friends and family. 

On the Hot 100, “The Christmas Song” made its first appearance in December 1960 at #80. Once its famous version came out, it rebounded peaking higher at #65 in December 1962. You could say this chart appearance was a result of Nat King Cole’s larger career success in 1962 where he had his biggest-carting hit ever with “Ramblin’ Rose” which peaked at #2 the previous September. (It’s an 8.) And that was it for over five decades until Christmas 2015 when it re-appeared due to the same streaming activity that has allowed many other Christmas songs to make their long-overdue impact. It broke the Top 40 and has remained a chart presence each Christmas since almost making the Top 10 a couple of years back. This week, it’s at #16 so who knows maybe it’ll get higher this year. 

No matter what, “The Christmas Song” will forever remain a comforting presence each Christmas which we’ll need more this year.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s one of my personal favorite versions of “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” that the Vince Guaraldi Trio recorded for the 1965 soundtrack of the classic TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas:

(The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s highest-charting single, 1962’s “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” peaked at #22.) 

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s NSYNC’s glossy teen pop cover of “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” included on their 1998 album Home For Christmas:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Christina Aguilera recorded a sparse piano version of “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” for her 2000 album My Kind of Christmas. Here’s the video for her version:

(Aguilera’s version of “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” peaked at #18.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2002’s Catch Me If You Can where “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” soundtracks Leonardo DiCaprio’s character getting arrested:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The musical couple of Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello recently released their version of “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” with proceeds going toward Feeding America. Here’s the video for their version:

(Both Mendes and Cabello will eventually appear together in The Ones of the ‘10s.)