I often resist trends. I never read gossip magazines. I don’t really follow clothing trends. I pointedly avoided getting on the Serial podcast bandwagon until all the episodes were complete. But Hamilton? Hamilton is a trend I can get behind. Like most popular things I had been warily watching the hubbub about Hamilton from a comfortable distance. I’d even tried to get tickets once before it got to Broadway and gave up when all the shows in the next ten days were sold out.
But then near the end of September 2015 NPR hosted the entire soundtrack for free streaming. The day it came out, my brother-in-law, whose opinion in such matters has never steered me wrong, privately messaged me to say that I had to check it out. I had just happened to find myself stuck for at least an hour and a half at the budget airport in Frankfurt with nothing much to do and free wifi. So I figured I would give it chance at least for a few songs. Needless to say, I was happily blown away. After listening to less than 25% of the album, I knew I would finish the whole thing and listen several more times.
If you’re not into Hamilton, I first recommend that you listen to the entire thing in order before writing it off and second tell you that, although it helps, it’s really not necessary to know the show to enjoy today’s post. “Hamildolph” is a fun mashup of a few Hamilton songs with white guys (Eclipse 6) telling the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (The white guys really is a notable difference from the show where the only role played by a Caucasian was King George III.) Rudolph’s nose vies with the star marking the Christchild’s birth for the most famous light of Christmas. So enjoy, and take away this lesson from Hamilton that every once in a while something gets popular for good reason.
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.
Today’s song is a little different musically from what I normally post (largely in that it is more sentimental), but it holds a personal and sentimental place for me. In my family we’ve grown up making music all our lives. We would gather around the piano and sing, and as we got older, we added voice parts and different instruments. I don’t know where she got it, but years ago my mom got several copies of the choral arrangement of today’s song, and it always made its appearance in our Christmas music rotation singalongs. In addition to this song’s place in our impromptu living room performances, many times my brother and I sang it for church services. We worked out when we would take solos and who would sing which parts.
The song has a lovely melody and, for a Christmas song, a somewhat unusual approach in its message. It’s a spiritual retrospective; it’s not just nostalgia but a recognition that time changes our perspective and is not always kind. Is a symbol, in this case, a star still significant or relevant as it was years earlier? The composer, Dan Carter, talks about this in relation to this song. Originally he had written the tune for a stage musical, but it was never used in the show. Somehow he got the idea of remaking it into a Christmas song and mentioned it to a college friend, Sherri Otteson Bird. She wanted to try writing lyrics for the song, took it, but then Carter didn’t hear from her for several months. Suddenly she and her husband called one night with the news that she had finished writing the lyrics. They dropped what they were doing around 10PM, got together, tried it out around the piano, and felt like it was the right fit.
I like the idea that symbols and songs can shift in their purpose and can still feed us.
This year Hanukkah falls on the same day as Christmas! (It starts at sunset on Christmas Eve.) Given that Hanukkah is the celebration of light, and since the theme this year is light, I couldn’t pass up the chance to do a Hanukkah shoutout. The Maccabeats make it easy: this spoof on Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” gives a condensed history of the origin of Hanukkah, and it also features my neighborhood! I was watching along and thought, “Hey… hey, I know exactly where that is! Yep, there’s the George Washington Bridge, and there are the Cloisters, and yep, there’s the Hudson Parkway.” I walked home through the park you can see just days ago.
Just about every line in this song captures a standard Christmas image or feeling, but the simplicity and brevity of the song as well as the choice of electronic distortion over syrupy bells makes this song really satisfying for me. Plus, it a favorite of my favorite person. “All the lights are comin’ on now.”
Just a short and sweet post for today, as I’m starting my traveling for the holidays. Enjoy this song from the Danish duo, the Raveonettes.
“… put up the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen!”
I thought the above photo by Bill Gracey captured the thrill of Christmas lights and the urgency of today’s song from the 1966 hit musical, Mame. Starring Angela Lansbury on Broadway, Mame is, at least partially, a gender inversion of the musical Annie: wealthy New Yorker Mame Dennis lives a carefree lifestyle with her eccentric rich friends and colleagues, and then her newly orphaned nephew comes to live with her, right around the time of the Great Depression. But, whereas Annie seems to soften Daddy Warbucks, Auntie Mame is not so reformed; rather, she scoops her nephew Patrick into her freewheeling lifestyle.
I’ve always found this song infectious but learning that in the musical it comes just after the October 1929 stock market crash makes me like it more. Mame is decorating, filling stockings, eating fruitcake (my grandpa actually makes a really good one, so this counts as celebrating in my book), and insisting on holiday cheer and spirit in spite of just losing her fortune. A note about the timing–in this version they sing that it’s only a week past Thanksgiving. Here’s your cultural artifact to show that the Christmas creep starting earlier and earlier is actually a thing. By the time Lucille Ball starred in the 1974 film version, the lyrics were changed to say, “But Auntie Mame, it’s one week from Thanksgiving Day now!” We may be rushing things, indeed.
I found myself wondering if hanging Christmas lights in 1929 was a thing, and turns out that decorating with Christmas lights has enough of a history that I’ll break it up across a few days of this countdown. For today, yes, it seems possible that they were used in 1929, although it’s hard to tell how commonly they were used anywhere other than on a tree, and initially they seemed to be a feature of wealthy households in particular. Christmas lights go by several different names including fairy lights (in the UK), twinkle lights, holiday lights, mini lights, and Italian lights (but this name is mostly just in Chicago–random, I know).
I agree with Mame about the lights: I’ve felt much more spirited ever since we put a string up about a week ago.
Following this year’s theme of light, a song with the injunction to bring a torch was a natural fit. Some version of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” likely has been around since the 1300s, not as a Christmas song but as a dance. You can picture the twirling and skipping and footwork in this tune. Then it seems it was first published in France in a collection of Christmas songs in the early 1500s. In the Provence region kids may still dress up and carry lights to Christmas Midnight mass while singing this song. Some have speculated that this song served as a way of physically performing the assemblage of a creche scene. As everyone meets with their torches and candles, they gather around the Christchild, and, in the song, they must be quiet and careful not to wake him.
To be honest, I had a hard time knowing what song to choose for today. Last night as I prepared for bed, I saw more breaking headlines about the crisis in Aleppo, and I remembered four years ago today when we heard the terrifying news about the shooting at Sandy Hook. Then in 2012 it seemed that posting festive Christmas music was perhaps a bit tone deaf during the next few days, and I thought of those same feelings again today. Although the Robert Shaw recording may not evoke this interpretation, I found myself reflecting on the words of the second verse:
It is wrong when the Child is sleeping It is wrong to speak so loud; Silence, now as you come to the cradle, Lest you awaken little Jesus…
And that seemed to get at some of the feelings I was thinking through. Then, as I rummaged for pictures to use, looking for something with torch, I saw one of the Statue of Liberty and thought about how it had been gifted to the United States from France in 1886. Lady Liberty also lights a torch and looks to bless the weak and the poor.