José Feliciano Reflects on 44 Years of 'Feliz Navidad'

Jose Feliciano
Courtesy Jose Feliciano

Jose Feliciano

The bilingual evergreen rises again while Feliciano plays seasonal shows and plans a new holiday album.

It’s December, which means it’s a busy month for the man who taught the world to say Merry Christmas in Spanish.

“Every year, it becomes bigger and bigger,” says José Feliciano, who will perform at New York’s B.B. King’s tonight (Dec. 5), where the holiday audience will no doubt be impatient to hear “Feliz Navidad.” “Usually songs fade away after a while. But this song, every December, there it is.”

“Feliz Navidad” is currenly No.2 on Billboard’s Latin Digital Songs, where it reached the top position in December 2013. It stands at no. 4 on this week's Holiday Airplay chart.

“I never would have thought that I would have created a monster with this song,” Feliciano says, on the phone from his home in Connecticut. He’ll spend Christmas Eve performing with the choir at a local church, a personal holiday tradition. “I wish it was as busy at other times as it is now, but I enjoy it.”

"'Feliz Navidad' happens to be one of those songs that is not exclusively for Latinos -- it’s in both English and Spanish and I think that’s an advantage,” comments the Puerto Rican artist, who wrote the song for his 1970 Christmas album of the same name, which he calls “the best Christmas album ever.”

“I wanted to do a record of instrumentals for Christmas without the syrupy choirs,” he recalls.

At the time, the singer-songwriter was already known as something of a musical revolutionary. He scored a crossover hit with his Latin-tinged version of “Light My Fire,” and creating controversy when he performed his own groovy guitar version of the National Anthem at a 1968 World Series game in Detroit, which resulted in his songs being dropped from radio stations.  

When he wrote “Feliz Navidad” soon after, he knew that a Christmas song with Spanish lyrics could also alienate American radio programmers, so he made the song bilingual.

“If I had left in Spanish only, then I knew the English stations might not play it, so I decided to write an English lyric, ‘I want to wish you a merry Christmas.’ And then there was no way the stations could lock that song out of the programming.”

“Feliz Navidad” has been covered by artists including Michael Buble and Celine Dion and, in Feliciano’s favorite version, by The Three Tenors. It was performed on Glee. It’s been used in commercials for Hyundai and JC Penny, among others.

 “Everyone wants a piece of ‘Feliz Navidad’ in one way or another,” Feliciano says.

Over the next few weeks, Feliciano will perform in Salzburg, Austria on a TV special, play a concert in Florida, and participate in Christmas at Jackson Square in New Orleans, to be taped for a later PBS show. He’ll take part in Spanish-language network Telemundo’s Christmas broadcast, and then appear on Live From Daryl’s House, Daryl Hall’s web series.

Feliciano’s output since “Feliz Navidad,” of course, has been prolific and wide ranging. His last album, 2012’s The King, features covers of his favorite Elvis Presley songs. He’s just come back from Vienna, where he recorded an unexpected set of Mozart arias for castrati, which he transcribed and performed on guitar for an album due out in 2015.

Feliciano reveals he’d like to record a new holiday album in time for next year’s Christmas, although he doesn’t say whether it will include a new version of “Feliz Navidad.”

“The most important thing is that people care about it; children sing it in schools. I never thought one of my songs would get that kind of acclaim. It’s in the Grammy Hall of Fame, which I’m very thrilled about.

“If it brings joy to your heart, the song has done what it is supposed to do,” Feliciano adds.