We hear the same handful of holiday songs on repeat around this time every year, but the vast majority of people have no idea how those popular tunes came to be. So, to celebrate the holidays – and learn a little songwriting trivia while you’re at it – we’ve hunted down who the songwriters behind these 11 famous songs are. You might be surprised by what you find out!
1. “The Little Drummer Boy” by Katherine Kennicott Davis
A native of St. Joseph, Missouri, Katherine K. Davis wrote her first song at age 15. She eventually studied in Boston, and later in Paris, before settling down as a music teacher at Concord Academy in Massachusetts. Davis wrote “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1941, though there is some mystery surrounding the song. Some say she translated a Czech carol called “The Carol of the Drum,” whereas others claim she wrote the song while trying to nap.
2. “Frosty the Snowman” by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson
This tune was first recorded by Gene Autry & The Cass County Boys in 1950, but the song was actually written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson. The two were a songwriting team responsible for “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and the “Smokey the Bear” PSA song. Though not as cool as preventing forest fires, Autry previously recorded “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in a string of Christmas hits lasting several seasons.
3. “Silver Bells” by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
“Silver Bells” was written for the movie The Lemon Drop Kid by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1950. The duo had been collaborators on songs for hit films since 1937, with Evans writing the lyrics and Livingston creating the music. Originally, they had titled the song “Tinkle Bell,” but Livingston’s wife told the songwriters what the slang for tinkle meant, and they changed the title. In a unique turn of events, and in large part due Livingston’s wife, this song rejuvenated Evans’ and Livingston’s careers, which were in a bit of a slump at the time.
4. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne
Written in 1945 during a California heat wave, Sammy Cahn penned the lyrics, while Jule Styne wrote the melody of the song. Cahn was known for his romantic lyrics in films, as well as his Broadway songs and series of hit recordings for Frank Sinatra. Styne was a frequent collaborator of Cahn’s, who was known for his Broadway musicals, as well as hit songs such as “Three Coins in the Fountain.”
Like other holiday favorites, “Let It Snow!” has been rerecorded many times, one of the most popular being Dean Martin’s version. While the song title is commonly found on the covers of Christmas cards, there’s actually no reference to Christmas in this particular song.
5. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” by Robert Meredith Willson
Penned in 1951, the song was originally called “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas,” but “a lot like” ended up sounding catchier, and thus became part of the title. The song truly gained traction as a hit when it was recorded by Perry Como, and later, Bing Crosby. Alvin and the Chipmunks also took a stab at it in 1961. Robert Meredith Willson went on to create the hit Broadway musical The Music Man, as well as several other musicals, symphonies, popular songs, and film scores. In fact, his song “Till There Was You” was recorded by The Beatles for their albums With the Beatles and Meet the Beatles.
6. “Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith
In the early 1930s, as Richard Smith was trying to recover from tuberculosis in Pennsylvania, he took a walk and became inspired by the sight of Honesdale’s Central Park covered in snow. This inspired him to write the lyrics to what would become “Winter Wonderland.” Felix Bernard, who wrote music on everything from vaudeville to musical material for artists such as Eddie Cantor, composed the music. Recorded by over 200 artists, “Winter Wonderland” is one of the most popular Christmas songs, though the holiday is never actually mentioned in the song.
7. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Tommie Connor
One of the more provocative songs on our list, Jimmy Boyd, a small child of 12 years, originally recorded this song in 1952 and then went on to have a stellar film career. The song was an immediate hit, selling 2.5 million copies within several weeks. British songwriter Tommie Connor penned this hit and several more holiday tunes, including “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.” Not being relegated to only writing Christmas hits, Connors also wrote “The Story of a Soldier,” for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in 1966.
8. “I Wish You a Merry Christmas” by Bob Thompson, Peter Matz, and Jack Halloran
Perhaps inspired by the 1500s English folk song, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which was performed by carolers as a type of panhandling, this contemporary version was penned by Bob Thompson, Peter Matz, and Jack Halloran in conjunction with Warner Bros. for Bing Crosby in 1962.
Oddly enough, Thompson heralded “space age pop,” a style of experimental orchestral music that was popular in the ’50s and ’60s. Meanwhile, Matz had the honor of working on Barbara Streisand’s early albums, and Halloran led a male quartet called the Cadets on several Chicago radio shows, which catapulted him into the role of choral director. He eventually became a local president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which was dissolved in 2012.
9. “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” by Donald Yetter Gardner
Donald Gardner was substituting for his wife as a music teacher in 1944, when he asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas. They all responded with lisps and missing teeth, which inspired him to write “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” in about a half hour. The song was recorded by Spike Jones in 1948. Eventually, Gardner became a music consultant for a major music publisher in Boston and contributed songs to music textbooks.
10. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie
Written in 1933 by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie in a subway car on their way to a music publisher’s office, this is one of the older songs on our list. Though Coots was prolific (he penned over 700 songs and a dozen broadway plays), this particular holiday song would prove to be his and Gillespie’s biggest hit. A Tin Pan Alley artist, Gillespie was particularly skilled at writing children’s songs.
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was given to a comedian, Eddie Cantor, to sing in 1934. It became a hit on Cantor’s radio show and made Gillespie a millionaire. In the decades that followed, it was covered by the likes of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, and Bruce Springsteen.
11. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Dr. Seuss
Not only a favorite holiday movie, but also a classic 1966 song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was penned by Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel and Albert Hague. Dr. Seuss hardly needs an introduction, but he crafted a large collection of illustrated stories in anapestic tetrameter, meant to expand children’s vocabularies. Albert Hague was a famous songwriter and composer (however, he also played the overlooked role of the psychiatrist in the outrageous comedy, Space Jam). The deep voice singing the song is Thurl Ravencroft, famous for voicing Tony the Tiger, as well as various Disney characters.
What’s your favorite holiday song? Let us know in the comments below!