The Christmas Song: A Brief Overview

Updated May 25, 2021
The Christmas Song

From the first moment its descending chords hit your ears, Mel Tormé's, The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You), wraps you up in a warm and cozy hug, creating the perfect atmosphere to enjoy the winter holidays. There's something about this smooth, jazzy Christmas tune that never fails to evoke feelings of nostalgia for childhood winters that've long since passed. So, while you're waiting on your chestnuts to finish roasting by the open fire, check out how two men's summertime single turned into one of the most famous Christmas songs in history.

Christmas in July: The Christmas Song's Beginnings

In the summer months of 1945 as World War II drew to a close, songwriter and performer Mel Tormé went to meet his songwriting partner, Bob Wells, at Wells' house, according to Tormé's son, James. Instead of finding his partner there, Tormé stumbled across an empty room and a notepad with a few lyrics to an unfinished song written on it, resting on the nearby piano. These fours lines were: 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.

Once Wells returned, he explained to Tormé that he had hoped thinking about winter would help him cool down from the unbearably hot summer weather. Tormé joined him in his experiment, and about forty-five minutes later, the infamous The Christmas Song was complete.

Nat King Cole Races to the Recording Studio

Nat King Cole was one of a few performers that The Christmas Song was pitched to, and he immediately fell in love with it, racing to the recording studio to put his own touch on the song and lay down a track before anyone else could. Cole petitioned the recording company Capitol Records to add a large string accompaniment to the song, but they refused. So, the first recording session involved only the three members of the King Cole Trio (Vocalist Nat King Cole, Guitarist Oscar Moore, and Bassist Johnny Miller) in June 1946. Just a month later, Cole recorded the version he'd first envisioned with the small string orchestra, and he was much happier with this recording. Initially, Capitol Records rejected releasing the single in a blatant reflection of the racism apparent in the music industry, and society at large, at the time. However, Cole's massive crossover success with I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons) a few weeks prior to the Christmas season gave the recording studio enough financial security to release Cole's Christmas track.

The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) Enters the Charts

In November 1946, the King Cole Trio's song The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) was released, peaking at no. 3 on both the Pop and R&B music charts, as well as no. 10 on the United States Billboard Singles charts. This recording continued to re-enter the charts every few years after its release; but despite its success, Nat King Cole wasn't quite ready to give up on The Christmas Song just yet.

Nat King Cole Outdoes Himself

Having already recorded two separate versions of the Christmas tune in the 1940s, and then recording it again with a larger accompaniment conducted by Nelson Riddle in August 1953, Nat King Cole still felt like the song wasn't quite right just yet. So, on March 30, 1961, Cole released a stereo recording, conducted by Ralph Carmichael, featuring a bigger orchestra and richer vocals. This song outperformed his original version and has come to be known as the preeminent version of the song that has been played every Christmas since. The song is considered to be so beloved, in fact, that it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.

The Covers Keep Coming

Unsurprisingly, it's inevitable that a timeless tune like The Christmas Song would be covered by interested artists. While none of these artists' renditions have reached the level of success that Nat King Cole's has, they stand as testaments to the song's power and longevity. Here are a few of the most notable musicians and vocalists who've recorded their own versions of Tormé and Wells' The Christmas Song.

  • Frank Sinatra (1957)
  • Ella Fitzgerald (1959)
  • Aretha Franklin (1964)
  • Doris Day (1964)
  • Julie Andrews (1965)
  • Barbra Streisand (1967)
  • Jackson 5 (1970)
  • Carpenters (1978)
  • Reba McEntire (1987)
  • Celine Dion (1993)
  • Diana Ross (1994)
  • Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole (1999)
  • Christina Aguilera (2000)
  • Whitney Houston (2003)
  • Michael Bublé (2011)

Merry Christmas to You

The Christmas Song is such an incredibly special piece of Christmas music that it doesn't feel anachronistic to listen to outside of the holiday season. Perhaps it's Cole's velvety voice or the orchestra's lulling undulations; either way, The Christmas Song can bring you delight on both the coldest and hottest days of the year, as its brilliant songwriters intended it to do.

The Christmas Song: A Brief Overview