Songs of Christmas…The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

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This is part 19 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

When one hears the baritone crooning of the late Nat King Cole belting out “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose. Yuletide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up like Eskimos…” one thing you probably are not thinking about is a 90 plus degree July day. That is as it should be. Christmas carols shouldn’t remind us of summer. But in truth, as I have researched for this series, I continually find it is not an uncommon discovery to find some of our favorite Christmas songs were actually written during the summer.

“The Christmas Song” also commonly known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is the “poster child” of Christmas songs written in July. In fact, those opening lines of the song were an effort of one man, trying to get inside his own head, in an effort to cool off on one of the hottest days in Los Angeles history. Such efforts were one of the few ways to beat the heat in 1945, long before most places had anything resembling air conditioning.

The late jazz musician, also known as “The Velvet Fog,” Mel Torme (also an accomplished song writer, actor, script writer and pilot) was to meet with fellow songwriter, the late Bob Wells, to work on the music for two upcoming movies. When Torme arrived he saw a spiral notebook laying on top of Wells’ piano. Scribbled on the exposed page of the note book were, “Chestnuts roasting…Jack Frost nipping…Yuletide carols…Folks dressed like Eskimos.”

When Torme saw the words he questioned Wells. Wells didn’t see them as song lyrics. He was just attempting to cool off from the brutal heat. It really didn’t work but what did work was what was going on in Torme’s mind. They pushed aside the music for the two movies and started working on both the lyrics and music for this new song. In forty minutes time the song was written.

Excited about what they had, they jumped in the car and drove to the home of Nat King Cole. Cole and Torme were good friends, and unannounced visits to the homes of his friends was not uncommon and even during the days of segregation, Torme never let a little thing like skin color bother him.

Upon entering Cole’s home, Torme went straight to Cole’s piano and played-sang the song. Cole was impressed and wanted the opportunity to record the song before anyone else did. Cole sensed a Christmas classic. He was right.

After the initial recording, Cole recorded the song a second time with a full orchestra within a matter of weeks. The second version was released in October of 1946. Ironically, the first recording was never released until 1989 when it was (accidentally) included on the various-artists compilation Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits (1935–1954). Cole went on to record the song again in 1953 and in 1961. It is the 1961 version we hear most often today.

Many others have recorded the song over the years. The unofficial count is, there have been at least 122 recordings (by top line musical performers) of “The Christmas Song” since it was written in 1945. From Andy Williams to Randy Travis to Hottie and Blow Fish to Big Bird and the Swedish Chef (of Muppet fame) and many more. I know I cannot forget the inspired version of the song the late Natalie Cole sang with her (even at that time) late father through some inspired technical magic. It is my favorite rendition of the song.

It all started by a guy just trying to figure out a way to cool off. Though not his intention, he inspired someone else. Together, in the heat of July they shared the song with an unlikely, but popular singer and together they created a Christmas classic. The song also helped clear the way for African-American performers to move into the mainstream of Christmas music.

Have you ever, unknowingly at least at the time, done something that inspired someone else? If so, what was it? Share your times in the comments below.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

http://performingsongwriter.com/christmas-song/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Christmas_Song

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Wells_(songwriter)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mel_Tormé

Author:

Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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