December 24, 2017
Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier. Already before Thanksgiving had arrived this year, the holiday lights were strung and the usual Yuletide songs had invaded every conceivable public space. Perhaps because I’m a musician, a shudder runs through me when I once again have to hear after a blissful year’s absence, the inane Winter Wonderland or Jingle Bells or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I have to wonder whether Jesus would have been happy to hear these songs blaring incessantly from seemingly every corner of America in celebration of His birthday.
As I mounted the subway stairs at New York City’s Penn Station the other day, I unexpectedly heard a flute amidst the jarring noise of rush hour trains. Accompanied by some kind of boom box, a young man was playing an instantly recognizable Christmas song. Oh no, I said to myself. Not even in the subterranean depths of the subway system can one escape this holiday hell. And yet, I could not help but stop to listen as the flutist began his next selection. Without the lush accompanying harmonies, the melody, with a rising octave followed by a simple downward scale, might have been the opening of a Bach Cello Suite.
With those few notes, a rush of pleasurable recognition followed. I was listening to “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” otherwise known as the “Christmas Song,” written by Mel Tormé with lyrics by Tormé and Bob Wells.
Mel Tormé, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was a musical child prodigy who played the drums, the piano, and eventually became a singer/songwriter. Tormé’s smooth, mellow tenor voice earned him the sobriquet “The Velvet Fog” from his admiring colleagues. He wrote over two hundred and fifty songs during his lifetime—including many that have become standards.
As I boarded the uptown #2 train, the song stuck with me. There was a kind of inevitable quality to its gentle twists and turns, a feeling of rightness to every note and phrase. And then the songs message: Roasting chestnuts over an open fire. What a nice idea.
As Tormé tells it, he arrived at the Los Angeles home of Bob Wells, his lyricist partner, for a work session on a sweltering hot day in 1945. Finding Wells not yet at home, Tormé wandered over to the piano and found a pad of paper resting on the music rack with four lines on it.
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
When Wells showed up, he offered Tormé the following explanation: “It’s so damned hot today. I thought I’d write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cool weather.” The opening line was a memory of Wells’s childhood in Boston where street vendors sold roasted chestnuts on street corners at Christmas time.
“I think you might have something there,” Tormé said to Wells.
The two of then sat down to work, and forty-five minutes later they had completed “The Christmas Song.”
I was wrong about Christmas songs, or at least about this one. There is something lovely and comforting about “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” especially amidst the usual commercial holiday juggernaut. And it has endured over the years—possibly the most performed Christmas song ever.
“My annuity,” Tormé once jokingly called it.
None other than Nat King Cole fell in love with the song and was the first one to record it in 1946. His mellifluous voice gives added meaning to the song’s closing lines:
And so, I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you.
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