Christmas Songwriting All-Stars: The (Mostly) Hidden Heroes of the Holidays
They are the indelible masterminds behind the soundtrack for the holiday season and the sweet irony is most revelers, carolers and jolly good fellows don’t even know who wrote their favorite holiday hits. Lurking in the shadows behind Christmas trees and snowmen are the songwriters who’ve helped concoct the anthems that have provided the most important aspect of any party, dinner, function, shopping trip or car ride (and all other aspects of human life) throughout the merry season.
From long-gone icons to one very seasonal diva, here are five of the unsung songwriter heroes behind the Christmas songs that are probably stuck in your head right now.
Known for: “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Run, Run Rudolph"
A songwriter so synonymous with Christmas music he named his publishing company St. Nicholas Music Inc., Johnny Marks will go down in history as one of the titans of the genre by delivering more Christmas treats than Santa himself. After growing up in upstate New York idolizing fellow seasonal scribe Irving Berlin, Marks fought in World War II under Patton’s army and was a part of the infamous invasion of Normandy. With a penchant for the piano, it was in 1948 when Marks found the moniker “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” scribbled in his notebook (taken from a '30s-era holiday promotion produced by the Montgomery Ward department store chain) and promptly wrote a song that was subsequently rejected by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Gene Autry wound up cutting the track, and from there a legend was born. Despite making almost a cool million dollars per year from Rudolph royalties until his death in 1985 and also penning Brenda Lee’s classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Marks wasn’t totally holly jolly about becoming known for Christmas music. “This is not exactly what I hoped to be remembered for,” he told People Magazine in December 1980, with the publication noting he never even puts up a tree or sends Christmas cards. He was Jewish, after all.
Known for: “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “Where Are You, Christmas?,” “Oh! Santa”
No worthy list of unsung holiday songwriters is complete without the modern queen of Christmas herself, Mariah Carey. Naturally, she's celebrated as a seasonal singer, but her yuletide songwriting bona fides are sorely underappreciated. You can’t help but perk up when the anthemic beginning (“I don’t want a lot of Christmas…") of her smash kicks in. It's a modern classic that consistently ranks No. 1 on Billboard’s holiday charts, and recently jumped to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the biggest holiday Hot 100 hit in 60 years. Concocted for her now-landmark and simply-titled holiday album Merry Christmas, Carey told Billboard last year that she wasn’t even totally enthused about making a yuletide record at first. “I felt like it was a little bit too early in my career to be doing a Christmas album,” she explained. “And then — I decided to do it.” Co-written and produced by Walter Afanasieff (who also teamed up with Carey on her track “Hero” and would later collaborate with Celine Dion on her smash Titanic theme “My Heart Will Go On”), he described the birth of the song in a 2014 Billboard interview:
“I started playing some rock 'n' roll piano and started boogie woogie-ing my left hand, and that inspired Mariah to come up with the melodic [Sings] 'I don't want a lot for Christmas.' And then we started singing and playing around with this rock 'n' roll boogie song, which immediately came out to be the nucleus of what would end up being 'All I Want For Christmas Is You.' That one went very quickly: It was an easier song to write than some of the other ones. It was very formulaic, not a lot of chord changes. I tried to make it a little more unique, putting in some special chords that you really don't hear a lot of, which made it unique and special. Then for the next week or two Mariah would call me and say, 'What do you think about this bit?' We would talk a little bit until she got the lyrics all nicely coordinated and done.”
“All I Want for Christmas is You” is far from the only holiday offering the diva wrote, also recording holiday hits including 2010’s “Oh Santa!” and the R&B jam “When Christmas Comes.” Carey even penned the 2000 ballad “Where Are You, Christmas?” for the 2000 flick Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas which Faith Hill subsequently recorded and made a hit. According to People, Carey's ex-husband Tommy Mottola, who was CEO of Sony Music at the time, blocked her from recording the track for rival label MCA/Universal.
Known for: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” “The Christmas Waltz,” “I Wouldn’t Trade Christmas”
Cahn would have turned 105 this year, and if he had survived past his 1993 death he would have found a multitude of his hits still in steady rotation. One of Frank Sinatra’s most frequent collaborators, the New York City native penned a variety of the Chairman of the Board’s standards (among them, “Come Fly with Me” and “Love and Marriage”). Despite his Jewish background, Cahn birthed a plethora of yuletide offerings, many of which were originally written for Sinatra himself. For “The Christmas Waltz,” Sinatra saw the success of Bing Crosby’s monster hit “White Christmas” and wanted to get in on the action. Cahn explained:
“(Co-writer) Jule Styne said to me one day, ‘Frank wants a Christmas song.’ I said, ‘A Christmas song after ‘White Christmas?’ What’s the point?’ We’re not writing a Christmas song.’ He said, ‘Don’t you understand - Frank WANTS a Christmas song.’”
With that, Old Blue Eyes got his wish and was gifted "The Christmas Waltz," a song that muses about “Frosted window panes, candles gleaming inside…” It was also with Styne that Cahn wrote the whimsical winter theme “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” on what was blistering hot day in Los Angeles; the two headed to the beach and Cahn tried to cool down by thinking of now-famous chilly descriptors, “Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.”
Known for: “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” multiple album productions
As one of the most prolific songwriters and producers of the modern era, Foster’s immense output naturally overlaps to some of the most recognizable Christmas earworms known today. As a songwriter, Foster is credited with penning the deeply melancholy ballad “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” originally written for Natalie Cole and subsequently recorded by artists including Aretha Franklin, Amy Grant, Pentatonix and (perhaps most famously) Kelly Clarkson. However, Foster earns a spot on this breakdown due to his penchant for producing a majority of the most successful holiday albums of the past two decades. Starting with Celine Dion’s holiday album These Are Special Times in 1998, Foster also produced Josh Groban’s Noel in 2007, Andrea Bocelli's My Christmas in 2009, Michael Buble’s Christmas in 2011, Rod Stewart’s Merry Christmas, Baby a year later in 2012, Mary J. Blige’s A Mary Christmas a year after that, and Jordan Smith’s ‘Tis The Season in 2016. All of that means that over the course of two decades, a Christmas album courtesy of Foster was the No. 1 Christmas album of the year a whopping six times.
“I think I just know how to make them work,” he said in a 2010 interview. “I do the music that I would want to hear at Christmas and the arrangements that I would want to hear with the right lifts and the right soft places and the right big places, and I just imagine that millions of people will like it too.” And with all of those albums of covers, there’s a reason why 1992 was the last time he himself wrote an original Christmas song. “I don’t care who you are, how hardcore you are. If you’re a rocker, if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, at Christmastime, people want to hear the familiar stuff. If somebody says to me: ‘I want to do a Christmas album, but I want to do new Christmas songs,’ I am not interested. People do not want to hear new Christmas songs. There’s just no interest.”
Known for: “White Christmas,” “Happy Holiday,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”
Regarded as one of the most iconic American composers of all time (he wrote “God Bless America” after all), Irving Berlin is the mastermind behind not only the most successful Christmas song of all time, but one of the most successful songs in music history, period. “White Christmas” originally appeared in the 1942 flick Holiday Inn, the success of which spawned the film version of White Christmas starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney in 1954. Much like Cahn’s “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “White Christmas” was penned in a warm day in La Quinta Resort in Palm Springs, California and according to lore, Berlin knew the importance of what he just created, telling his secretary: “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote!”
Despite being the force behind a sleigh full of merry hits (also including “Happy Holiday” and the sultry “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”), Berlin’s real-life association with Christmas was different. The songwriter was Jewish and throughout his life regarded remembered Christmas as a solemn time: his first son, Irving Berlin Jr., died a month after birth on Christmas Eve 1928, which led Berlin to visit his grave every Christmas.