James “Haven” Gillespie got the call to write a Christmas tune for Eddie Cantor’s radio show just after learning his brother had died. Initially, he said no. He understandably was too deep in grief to even consider writing a happy-go-lucky Christmas song. But, according to historian Ace Collins, he changed his mind after a subway ride recollecting his childhood with his brother and his mother’s warnings that Santa was watching. He had the lyrics in 15 minutes, then called in composer John Coots to make up the music that would become a hit within 24 hours of its debut.
Irving Berlin was assigned to write one song for each holiday of the year for the 1942 film Holiday Inn. Because Berlin is Jewish, he found writing a Christmas song to be particularly difficult. In order to find inspiration, Berlin looked at paintings and postcards depicting the holiday, and came up with his incredible hit White Christmas.
“It has often been noted that the mix of melancholy — “just like the ones I used to know” — with comforting images of home — “where the treetops glisten” — resonated especially strongly with listeners during World War II.”
From Mental Floss: In 1944, grade school teacher Donald Yetter Gardner and his wife Doris sat down with a group of second-graders in Smithtown, New York, to help them compose a song for Christmas. Gardner was charmed by their Christmas wishes hindered by toothless lisping. As Gardner told it, he went home that night and in just 30 minutes penned the Christmas tune that would earn him royalties until his death in the fall of 2004. A performance at his school of the song led to a meeting with Witmark music company, and ultimately to Spike Jones and his City Slickers recording the ditty in 1948.
This song was written by Hugh Martin originally for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland. In the movie, the song is sung by Garland to her sister and is supposed to cheer her up in light of their impending move away from their hometown. However, initial drafts of the song were laughingly rejected by both Garland and the film’s director for being much too melancholy. Original lines included “‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last” and “Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more.” The tune was eventually revised to have a more hopeful tone.
This song was originally for charity, with proceeds going to famine relief in Ethiopia. Apart from “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which prevented this from reaching #1, it is the biggest selling Christmas song in the UK.
The songwriters of Barry Manilow’s hit single “Can’t Smile Without You” sued George Michael for plagiarism in the mid-’80s, claiming that this song lifted its melody from their tune. The case was settled out of court with Michael giving his first year’s royalties to Band Aid.