Weird But True Facts You Didn't Know About Your Favorite Christmas Carols

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Records.
At this point in the holiday season, you probably fall in one of two categories. Either you feel like you might crack and start screaming old Britney Spears lyrics if you hear. One. More. Santa. Claus. Song. Or, you're trying to rally all your friends to go caroling with you this weekend and have all the Christmas specials on your DVR. This story is for both groups of people.

Unlike, say, the offerings for Hanukkah, the sheer variety of Christmas songs written through the ages is staggering. And the stories behind many of them aren't just heartwarming tales of faith and family. Some of these tunes started off as raunchy odes to ladies or drag racing, while others were unapologetic commercial grabs for shoppers' dollars. They've also been proven useful beyond spreading yuletide cheer, too: Just ask the Americans fleeing Vietnam in 1975, or a goat farmer in Yorkshire, England. Here are a few of our favorite weird and curious stories about the Christmas songs we love (and hate).
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"O Tannenbaum" Is About Faithfulness

A Tannenbaum is actually a fir tree, and organist Ernst Anschütz set his German lyrics to the 16th century folk tune following a tradition of songs praising the trees for faithfully remaining green — unlike, you know, fickle humans, or ... maples? The literal translation (not the English lyrics), celebrate "loyal" needles that teach the singer about "hope and durability." That's a pretty good thing to have during a long winter.
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"The 12 Days of Christmas" Is A Memory Game

If you have a hard time remembering the order of milkmaids, ladies dancing, and lords a-leaping, there's a reason for that. It's actually a rendition of a memory game played on the 12th night of Christmas in which players had to sing a verse and remember all the verses before it. If they forgot one of the lines, they paid a penalty in the form of a gift or a kiss. Several sites like Snopes have spent much virtual ink debunking the rumor that this song was some sort of code for Catholics when their religion was banned in England.
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The Original "Deck The Halls" Was Pretty Racy

The 1794 lyrics to the Welsh song "Nos Galan" ("New Year's Night") were, "Oh! how soft my fair one's bosom/ fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la/ Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom,/ fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la/ Oh! how blessed are the blisses,/ Words of love, and mutual kisses, lal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la."
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"Jingle Bells" Is A Song About Drag Racing

James Lord Pierpont wrote this song — either in his hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, or in Savannah, Georgia, depending on whom you ask — about Medford's drag racing tradition in the early 19th century. When he moved to Georgia in the 1850s, he led a church in singing the song for Thanksgiving, and it was so popular, they brought it back for Christmas. The son of an abolitionist preacher, he wound up living in the South and promoting the Confederacy later in life. Another fun fact: His nephew was big-time banker J.P. Morgan.
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"Silent Night" Inspired A Truce During World War I

On Christmas Eve 1914 — not even half a year into the war — British troops spotted the very strange sight of Christmas trees on the German side of the fight in northern France. Then they heard soldiers singing "Stille Nacht." They responded by singing the English lyrics. Eventually, the troops emerged from the trenches to meet, exchange gifts, and even play soccer together. Fighting resumed on December 26.
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Rudolph Was A Department Store Gimmick

Copywriter Robert May wrote the 89 rhyming couplets of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer for a free coloring book given out to kids at Montgomery Ward department stores in 1939. The story was a huge hit, long before May let his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, set it to music. By the way, May also considered the names Rollo, Reginald, Rodney, and Romeo for his misfit reindeer.
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Jews For Jesus ... Or At Least His Birthday

Every year, the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) puts out a list of the 25 most popular holiday songs, according to radio airplay, and almost every year, about half of those songs were written or co-written by Jews. The reality is that a whole lot of the songwriters of the mid-20th century were Jewish, and when the market was big for carols, they were up for the task.

Here's a rough list, extensively researched by
"Winter Wonderland" (Felix Bernard); "The Christmas Song (Chesnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" (Mel Tormé and Robert Wells); "Sleigh Ride" (lyricist Mitchell Parish); "White Christmas" (Irving Berlin); "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne); "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer," "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," and "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" (composer Johnny Marks); "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" (composer George Wyle); " I'll Be Home For Christmas" (Walter Kent and Buck Ram); and "Silver Bells" (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans).
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"Silver Bells" Was Almost "Tinkle Bells"

Writers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston had a way with words and music, but maybe weren't as up on contemporary slang as they thought they were. According to the book America's Songs, by Philip Furia and Michael Lasser, while they were writing the tune for the 1951 Bob Hope movie The Lemon Drop Kid, Livingston mentioned the name of it, "Tinkle Bells," to his wife. "Are you out of your mind?" she asked him. Close call!
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"White Christmas" In Saigon

On April 29, 1975, American Forces Radio played the noticeably out-of-season tune as a signal to all Americans in Saigon that it was time to evacuate the city. After a long-held ceasefire, North Vietnam had destroyed the airport, and upon hearing the song, Americans and select Vietnamese allies, had to gather on predetermined rooftops to board helicopters, which took them to Navy ships.
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David Bowie Hated "The Little Drummer Boy"

To this day, the duet between Bing Crosby and glam rock god Bowie remains one of the weirdest, most wonderful collaborations ever televised. In September 1977, hours before taping the segment for Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas TV special, Bowie showed up and told the writers, "I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?" Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman, and Buz Kohan got to work on a piano in the studio and wrote that whole "Peace on Earth" counterpart in 75 minutes, Fraser told the Washington Post. With less than an hour of rehearsal, Bowie and Crosby nailed the thing. Crosby died of a heart attack a month later, making this the last of his holiday hits.
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"Do They Know It's Christmas?" Had American Infiltrators

Bob Geldof gathered every British superstar act he could for the first Band Aid recording in 1984. However, a couple of Americans got in on the charity single: Kool & the Gang were signed to the same label as Geldof's Boomtown Rats, and the label was interested in singer Jody Watley after she left her group Shalamar. Oh, and in answer to the song's question, yes, most Ethiopians (the country suffering from the famine Band Aid was hoping to end) are actually Christian and know when Christmas is.
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"All I Want For Christmas" Is A Good Chevre

In 2010, a goat farmer in the U.K. told the Daily Express that when he plays Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," his goats produce an extra pint of milk. Should she get royalties for that? Or at least some cheese?