12 Days of Christmas Music: 7th Day, “Silver Bells”

It’s Christmastime in the city!

Photo credit by Chris Ford

Before I moved to New York City, I didn’t identify this line with any particular city, but after living there I realized, even without doing any research, that NYC had certainly been the inspiration for the song. The “strings of street lights, even stoplights blink a bright red and green / As the shoppers rush home with their treasures” lines got the song into this year’s lineup and sound like the city. Different thoroughfares are lined with matching Christmas lights, and many shops and buildings along Fifth Avenue compete for attention with their light displays. That said, I’ll admit that any city with a lot of foot traffic could also qualify.

The song does, in fact, hail from NYC. Written by the songwriting pair Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who won three Academy Awards and have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the song “Silver Bells” was composed for the film The Lemon Drop Kid starring Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. The movie was filmed in the summer of 1950 and released in March 1951 and, although it wasn’t released at Christmas, it features what may have been one of the first iterations of a “Bad Santa.” Bob Hope plays a city swindler at a Florida racetrack who puts on a Santa costume to peddle for money and thereby get out of his tax problems.

After the filming, the song “Silver Bells” was first recorded by Bing Crosby and Carol Trotter in October 1950. It became so popular that Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell were called back to refilm an expanded version of the scene with the song before the film was released, shown below.

So that’s the origin of the song, but I always wondered what the silver bells were and why they signified Christmastime in the city. Turns out that it may not have had anything to do with specifically silver bells. I’ve seen Salvation Army bell ringers all my life, but the ones in NYC take it to another level. They’re plentiful and cheery and creative with their bell-ringing posts. (Watch the video I took below for an example. It’s fun.) With that as backdrop, the song was first written not as “silver bells” but as “tinkle bells.” Well, Ray Evans’ wife wisely put the kabosh on that lyric, but “tinkle bells” lead me to believe that those Salvation Army bell ringers were at least part of the original inspiration.

Soon it will be Christmas Day.





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