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.





The 12 Days of Christmas Music in 2015, Day 8: “We Three Kings”

Today’s carol is sometimes described as sounding like medieval or Middle Eastern music, or that it’s “exotic.” But here is where the music teacher in me shakes her head and says that these designations are simply not knowing how or why the music doesn’t sound “normal.” Much of our western music now is organized on certain patterns of notes or scales, and the two most common scales are major and minor. At a basic level major scales or modes are described as sounding happy and minor as sad.

But “We Three Kings” shakes it up and uses both major and minor modes. Listen closely–the verse is minor, and the refrain is major. Here’s the opening verse in minor:

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

And here’s the refrain in major:

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

The carol was written in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., a Renaissance man of sorts, who considered being a lawyer, worked for a while as a journalist, and then went into the ministry and was a deacon and music teacher who also worked as an illustrator and designer. From 1850-1857 he was the first music teacher at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in Chelsea in New York City, and he may have written “We Three Kings” for a pageant at the seminary in 1857. But other sources say the carol was for his nieces and nephews at the family’s home celebration in Vermont.

In either case, it was very well-liked by its initial audience prompting Hopkins to print it five years later (and perhaps sooner) in Hymns, Carols, and Songs. The collection was popular enough that it was reprinted a few different times, and you can see the 1863 printing here, if you like.

This carol has probably helped solidify the non-Biblical convention of having three wise men who were kings, and it perpetuates the tradition of their names as Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthazar. Hopkins wrote three verses, the first and last to be sung all together, but each individual verse to be sung by one of the three kings as a solo. The Kings College Cambridge setting linked above follows this convention although several modern arrangements do not. Incidentally, I met the first soloist, a tenor, last month when I sang at a masterclass by Tenebrae, a fantastic group of singers from England led by Nigel Short, formerly of the King’s Singers. I highly recommend you check them out. The tenor’s name is, I think, Robbie, and he’s very friendly and nice. It was a pleasant surprise to scroll through possible versions, have him pop up, and realize, “Hey! I know him!”

The Claymation Christmas Special also follows the soloist/chorus arrangement of the song, but it is special. Why? Because camels.



Day 8, 2014

Day 8, 2013

Day 8, 2012


Day 12: 12 Days of Christmas Music 2012

[As with Day 11, this is not the original version I used, but I haven’t found that version that I can link to online. This is a nice version as well, but I prefer the original one I used.]
Merry Christmas Eve! I hope you’re looking forward to tomorrow and feeling cheered by the season. Thank you, all, so much for enjoying this countdown with me! Thank you for your replies, for sharing songs with me. This little project has put me in the Christmas spirit perhaps more than anything else this year.
I debated whether or not to end with a less familiar carol, but the lyrics to this one and the feeling the song captures seemed to be exactly what I wanted to end with. “If You Would Hear the Angels Sing” is, I believe, a Dutch carol. These lyrics seem to have been written/adapted by Dora Greenwell in the 1800s.
The song describes various trappings of Christmas: a warm fire, the food, Christmas bread. And it acknowledges that the world is dark with want and care, but Christmas comes in the morning — that time is weary and worn and cold, but Christmas comes in the morning. The part that made my heart soar when I sang it, however, was the ending, calling people to rise and welcome Christmas and then suddenly remembering that “many there be that stand outside.” I think of those who fit that description every time I hear it.
This Christmas and at any time, if you would hear the angels sing, “people, see [that] you let each door stand wider than e’er it stood before.” The world is wide, and Christmas comes in the morning.
A very merry Christmas to each of you!
If You Would Hear the Angels Sing

If you would hear the angels sing
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
Think of him who was once a child
On Christmas day in the morning.

If you would hear the angels sing,
Rise and spread your Christmas fare.
‘Tis merrier still the more that share
On Christmas day in the morning.

Rise, and bake your Christmas bread.
People, rise, the world is bare
and blank and dark with want and care,
Yet Christmas comes in the morning.

If you would hear the angels sing,
Rise, and light your Christmas fire,
And see that you pile the logs still higher,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

Rise, and light your Christmas fire.
People, rise! The world is old,
And time is weary, worn, and cold,
Yet, Christmas comes in the morning!

If you would hear the angels sing,
People, see you let each door
Stand wider than e’er it stood before,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

Rise, and open! People rise! The world is wide,
And many there be that stand outside.
Yet Christmas comes in the morning.

Day 11: 12 Days of Christmas Music 2012

[These are archived posts from when this lil’ project was in email form, and I can’t find an online version of the song I emailed out, so here is a worthy substitute version instead.]

Like a lot of people I’ve loved “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” for a long time. I love how it is contemplative and earnest. I love that it beckons and rejoices.

“O come desire of nations bind in one the hearts of all mankind. Bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself the king of peace. Rejoice!”

Day 10: 12 Days of Christmas Music 2012

There was a moment while I was growing up some time in the week before Christmas when the house was decorated, and we were making yummy cookies, wrapping presents, and planning to doorbell ditch a surprise for someone, and I remember feeling so overwhelmingly excited about Christmas. Then this song came on our stereo (record player? my dad had the record), and I felt like shouting, “YES, Andy Williams!! It is The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!” He spoke (sang) to my heart. This video even has wonderfully kitschy dissolves to help you get in the spirit.

Have a delightful Saturday!

Day 9: 12 Days of Christmas Music 2012


I decided I needed to put one sad song on the list.

Maybe you’re sad that tonight is the longest night of the year. Maybe you’re sad that so far today’s apocalypse has been a major disappointment. Maybe, like many of us, you’ve got much more legitimate reasons for being sad. Or maybe you’re not sad at all, but you can appreciate a performance that kinda puts it all out there. In any case, I think you’ll really like Over the Rhine’s “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue.”
At its heart, Over the Rhine (also known as OTR) is a husband-wife team, Linford and Karin. She’s the vocalist, and he’s on keyboards in this song. My impression from interviews and things I’ve read is that they’re really lovely people. Recently he wrote a letter to the NRA about reevaluating the nation’s policy on gun control, even though they own two guns themselves. They’ve received some backlash about that, some threats to boycott theirmusic, and some harsh criticism. Her response was that those who disagreed and didn’t want to have a respectful conversation about it were “still welcome to come to the table.” Pretty generous.
Enjoy Over the Rhine.

Day 8: 12 Days of Christmas Music 2012

Time for another classic, I think. For whatever reason, jazz really works for me for Christmas, a certain kind of jazz at least. It’s warm, inviting, laid-back, and you can have it on while you wrap gifts, bake goodies, or just sit and enjoy the tree lights. So take all of that and add classic Charlie Brown, and you get the Vince Guaraldi trio playing “O Tannenbaum.” Have a feel-good Thursday!