ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Each Christmas, the New Mexico Humanities Council puts on a series called “The History of Christmas Songs” at local libraries. Musicians guide participants through a history of favorite carols, explaining their origins and sharing fun trivia about each song.
The NMHC supports public programs in New Mexico communities, which aim to inspire inclusive conversations that strengthen civil society and celebrate diverse human experiences. To see what other events they have coming up in the new year, click here.
We Wish you a Merry Christmas
Written in 16th century England, “We Wish you a Merry Christmas” was originally sung by children who would go singing from door to door to request gifts. Nowadays, local musician Andy Mason says that would be about the equivalent of knocking on your neighbor’s door, singing them a song, and refusing to leave until you got a bean burrito.
The 12 Days of Christmas
The 12 Days of Christmas is also about 400 years old, but its origin is not clear, with historians arguing over whether it was written in England or France. However, the song is known to have been created as a game to play ahead of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day feast, which marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas, the period that marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the three wise men in Christian theology.
Jingle Bells is also a very old song, with the first copy being written in 1857. It also happens to be the first song ever broadcast from outer space. It was all thanks to Gemini VI astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra. On December 16, 1965, just before the spacecraft was set to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, Tom Stafford made a radio transmission:
“We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit.”Tom Stafford
At that point, according to the Smithsonian, the sound of a tiny harmonica, accompanied by small sleigh bells, could be heard playing the well-known holiday tune, “Jingle Bells.” Schirra played the harmonica, while Stafford jingled the bells.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie and was first sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. It became an instant hit, with orders for 500,000 copies of sheet music and more than 30,000 records sold within 24 hours.
Up on the Housetop
“Up on the Housetop” is a Christmas song written by Benjamin Hanby in 1864. It has been recorded by a multitude of singers, most notably Gene Autry in 1953. It is also considered the first Yuletide song to focus primarily on Santa Claus.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was written by Johnny Marks, who based the Christmas classic on the 1939 story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Before he was officially Rudolph though, the classic character was almost called Rollo, and then Reginald, before the author settled on the famous name. The song was recorded by Gene Autry, but only after some convincing from his wife.
On the week of Christmas in 1949, the recording hit No. 1 on the U.S. charts and became the first No. 1 hit of 1950, only to fall completely off the charts the following week.