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Nostalgia keeps Christmas carols alive

This month marks the 71st holiday season we’ve shared Bing Crosby’s nostalgia for a “White Christmas.”

It’s also a safe assumption none of us remembers a time when we didn’t hear Christmas carolers merrily belt out “Jingle Bells.” The song was first published four years before the Civil War.

So how is it that these two songs and so many other decades-old holiday classics remain cherished favorites and so ingrained in our traditions?

Cultural historian Ronald Lankford wondered the same thing as he began collecting Christmas songs a few years ago.

Why do we listen to these songs today, especially in this era of popular culture with quick expiration dates? And why were Americans drawn to these songs in the first place during the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s?

The research into those answers and more prompted him to write his recently published book “Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs” ($21.95, University Press of Florida).

“Most of the pop music we listen to is basically disposable – we listen to it for a short time and then replace it with something new,” Lankford said.

“Our favorite Christmas songs – ‘The Christmas Song,’ ‘Let It Snow’ – however, keep coming back year after year.

“Most of our Christmas favorites (‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,’ ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’) have been around for 60 years or more. … How many non-Christmas songs do we remember from the 1940s? How many non-Christmas songs resonate across the boundaries of age, class and musical genres?

“We know these songs as well as we know patriotic favorites like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘America the Beautiful.’ ”

Lankford said we still love these songs on one level because they are familiar, comfortable rituals.

“They remind us of Christmases gone by, filling us with misty-eyed nostalgia. We listen to the albums our parents played, and it’s important to us to pass our favorite Christmas albums along to our children (or nephews and nieces).”

But on a deeper and almost spiritual level, these songs resonate with us like our patriotic songs, he said, and they remind us of what’s most important about Christmas.

“They reflect our values, desires and hopes,” Lankford said. “While we may not be able to live up to these ideals, we very much believe that we should return home at Christmas, spend quality time with family and friends, and that we should remember those who are alone or less fortunate.”

Born in Norfolk, Va., in September 1962, Lanksford’s formative Christmas years were the late ’60s and early ’70s, “so I grew up watching ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas,’ ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and listening to Chet Atkins, the Lennon Sisters, Johnny Mathis and Gene Autry.”

Lanksford spent more than three years researching “Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, Silent Nights” and had to often break his own rule about not playing Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. He also learned some interesting stories about some of our holiday chestnuts.

For instance, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a song usually associated with Christmas, became a hit in late spring 1949 when it debuted in the Esther Williams movie “Neptune’s Daughter.” The song is typically performed as a duet: the man trying to convince the woman it’s too cold outside for her to leave, while she protests that she needs to go home, though she’s rather slow in her efforts to leave.

In “Neptune’s Daughter,” one version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is sung by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett, the movie’s two comics.

However, Garrett takes the man’s part and tries to convince Skelton to stay.

The song also won an Oscar for best original song for its composer, Frank Loesser.

Although the following nugget about an additional verse to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” wasn’t included in “Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, Silent Nights,” it’s worth sharing.

Lanksford had heard a story that Haven Gillespie, the lyricist for “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” had written this famous song in a bar, and recently traced the story in a book, “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

“The version of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town’ was written in 1932-33 by Gillespie while riding on a train,” he said. “Fred Coots added music and asked his current boss – singer-performer Eddie Cantor – to sing it on his radio program. Cantor agreed but made one request: He wanted a new verse with lyrics about the Depression.

“Gillespie retired to a nearby bar, wrote the extra lyrics, and Cantor performed it, as promised, on his radio show on Thanksgiving in 1934.

“And what happened to the extra verse about the Depression?

“No one knows.”

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