It’s no big secret that I am not a fan of Christmas music. You probably just chalk that up to me being a regular ol’ Scrooge, but the truth is that my main complaint against modern Christmas songs is that they have been so Americanized or edited for maximum ‘consumer appeal’ that they’ve lost most of their original charm.
The songs we know today have been so engrained in our culture that you probably don’t even realize there were ever different versions.
There are a couple songs you likely know about. Most everybody is aware that ‘O Christmas Tree’ was originally the German carol, ‘O Tannenbaum’, with lyrics such as:
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
As you can clearly see, the German version was a bit more bawdy, with references to ‘my damn bladder’ and the line, ‘now, it is winter, when it’s just shit.’ A very different sentiment than the English version.
And then there’s of course ‘Carol of the Bells’ which didn’t actually have any words until the movie director Chris Columbus had some written for inclusion in the classic Christmas film, “Home Alone.” He thought having an all boys choir sing words over the already ominous music would be ‘much creepier.’ And he was, of course, correct.
But these are well-known changes with which even the Christmas layman is probably familiar. What the average listener is probably unaware of is that most, if not all, of their favorite carols had different lyrics altogether.
Below are just a few examples of the changes made over the years for various reasons.
We Three Kings
Like most popular Christmas songs, ‘We Three Kings’ has been recorded countless times by countless artists. Interestingly, though, despite how many times this song has been sung, there are no known recordings of the original lyrics which told of a decidedly more skeptical group of wise men traveling to see the newborn child:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Whose idea was it to follow a star,
Stars don’t even fucking move.
Rumor is, the Beach Boys actually did record this version of the song, but Brian Wilson could never get the lamb to bleat how he liked, so they scraped it.
Some may know that the version of the song made popular by Frank Sinatra wasn’t the original. Judy Garland famously recorded it first for the movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Even the version Garland recorded wasn’t the original, as a lyric was changed before she sang it. However, what is even less known was that the somewhat somber version the songwriters presented to Garland was actually their second draft. Apparently even they recognized that their first draft, a throwback to Depression-era anxiety, pushed the boundaries too far.
Here’s a sample lyric from the first draft:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, even if you’re poor,
It is times like this which God made liquor for
Not quite the sentiment the modern version has come to represent, but it certainly puts things in perspective.
Few realize that this perennial favorite actually started out as a feminist screed against the institution of marriage, which was seen as enforcing gender roles, specifically the idea of the wife being subjugated to her husband. Even more surprising, the original lyrics were changed not because the message caused controversy, but because it just wasn’t “catchy enough.”
Sample of an original lyric:
In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He’ll say: Are you married?
We’ll say: Hell no, we don’t buy into your bourgeois, heteronormative forms of gender oppression, man.
Definitely an example where the original lyric just has more punch, but the change makes sense.
O Holy Night
This popular Christmas carol is arguably the most Christian-focused of all the holiday songs, with lyrics that speak of oppression under sin and the redemption brought by Jesus Christ’s death.
What may surprise even the most devout is that the well-known version of this song was, in fact, tempered from the first, more zealous version of the song. While the original was actually translated from the French, one undeniably sees the influence of Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God” sermon in the message and tone.
Here is the original final verse:
Truly He taught us to love one another
Or else the wrath of eternal fire looms
Chains shall His break for the slave is our brother
And don’t you forget it or you’ll be doomed
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise us
Or else, you goddamn filthy sinners
For obvious reasons, this version didn’t go over as well with Christmas carolers. But the conversion rate was much higher.
My Favorite Things
While technically not a Christmas song, this popular number has become associated with the holiday over the years. What’s interesting is that this song, from the World War II set musical, “The Sound of Music,” had originally been more overtly political with lyrics that ever so slightly changed the meaning. See if you can notice the difference:
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
DESE ARE DE DINGS DAT MEIN FüRHER APPROVES OF
Subtle, but an important distinction.
I hope you enjoy your holiday season and think of these original versions the next time you’re having hot chocolate and Christmas merriment around the hearth.