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5 Classic Christmas Songs (and Other Songs Those Artists Recorded)

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has been on repeat in shopping malls since Thanksgiving, but that doesn't mean it's the only popular song Brenda Lee ever recorded. Here's a quick primer on the artists responsible for five of the 10 most-broadcast holiday songs of 2011.

1. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Brenda Lee was only 13 years old in 1958 when she recorded a new Christmas melody written by Johnny Marks, the composer whose resume included “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas.” The record only sold 5,000 copies that year but has since become a holiday staple. The pint-sized singer (she never grew taller than 4’9”) already had a small following in the South thanks to a couple of country record hits, but her career skyrocketed in 1960 when she recorded what would become her signature tune, “I’m Sorry.”

“Little Miss Dynamite” went on to have 10 consecutive Billboard 100 hits from 1960 to 1962, a record for a female artist at the time that remained unbroken until Madonna came along in the 1980s. Here’s Brenda belting out her #3 hit “Sweet Nothin’s”:

2. Feliz Navidad

José Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico and moved with his family to New York when he was five years old. Left blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma, he developed an ear for music at an early age and played both the guitar and accordion with virtuosity by the time he was nine years old. He grew up, moved to Los Angeles and became a professional songwriter and musician. In 1968 his Latin-flavored version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” hit number three on the Billboard chart and sold over a million copies. In 1970 he wrote and recorded “Feliz Navidad” in which he purposely sang in both Spanish and English in order to bridge “two wonderful cultures” during a time of year that traditionally inspired good will toward all.

“Feliz Navidad” went on to become one of the Top 25 most-played holiday songs, but there was a period of time when many radio stations refused to play anything by Feliciano. His crime? Singing the very first stylized version of the National Anthem. It happened prior to Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. Beloved play-by-play announcer Ernie Harwell, who’d arranged for Feliciano to perform, later noted that apparently many baseball fans were offended by Feliciano’s long hair and dark glasses (apparently not realizing that he was blind) and his guitar and immediately assumed he was one of those hippy anti-Establishment draft-dodging war protestors. That he dared to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” in such a non-traditional way provided the additional fuel necessary to light a fire of outrage from the American Legion and other veterans organizations, and the Tiger Stadium switchboard almost blew a fuse before José uttered the words “…and the home of the brave.”

3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Gene Autry may not have burned up the Billboard Pop Chart, but he was well-known as a cowboy crooner with several best-selling records about tumbleweeds and little dogs and the lone prairie. He was also something of a Renaissance Man: he founded Challenge Records, on which the Champs released their Number One hit “Tequila,” he starred in a passel of Western-themed films, and he owned the California Angels Major League Baseball team from 1961 until 1997. He is the only person to have five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame (for Motion Pictures, Television, Radio, Recording and Live Performance/Theater). Despite the huge success of “Rudolph,” Autry’s signature tune was considered to be “Back in the Saddle Again.”

4. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Crooner Andy Williams hosted his own TV variety show from 1962 to 1971, and for a time his annual Christmas special was a huge ratings hit. But then marital strife struck after 14 years and he and Claudine Longet divorced. One year later Longet was charged with the shooting murder of her boyfriend (alpine ski racer Spider Sabich), and Williams personally escorted her to court every day of her trial. She was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Besides his Christmas hits, Williams is most often associated with the song “Moon River,” and he had several Top 10 hits in the late 1950s. But his one hit that gets the most retroactive airplay is his rendition of the theme song from one of filmdom’s first “chick flicks,” Love Story.

5. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

Nat “King” Cole was an internationally known jazz pianist and vocalist when NBC offered him the opportunity to host his own TV variety show in 1956. When Cole accepted he did so as a reluctant trailblazer; he wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a crusader, but as the first African-American to host such a prime time show, he saw the opportunity to be the Jackie Robinson of television and perhaps open up the medium to other black performers. Unfortunately in those pre-Civil Rights days most national advertisers refused to sponsor the show, fearful of a possible boycott (especially by folks in the South). A representative from Max Factor Cosmetics explained why his company declined its support: “Negroes don’t sell lipstick.” (Cole’s response: “What do they think we use – chalk?!”) To its credit, NBC believed in the program and supported it without a national sponsor for 42 episodes until Cole himself pulled the plug. He was losing an estimated $500,000 annually in personal appearances by concentrating on the stressful uphill battle that his weekly TV show had become. He returned to the concert circuit and the recording studio where the audiences tended to be a bit more colorblind. Cole had many Top 10 hits, including “Ramblin’ Rose,” which was his highest charting pop single (#2) and sold over a million copies.

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Animals
Want to Recycle Your Christmas Tree? Feed It to an Elephant
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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When the holiday season finally comes to a close, people get creative with the surplus of dead Christmas trees. One San Francisco-based artist transformed brittle shrubs into hanging installation pieces. Others use pine needles for mulch, or repurpose trees into bird sanctuaries. For the average person, sticking it into a wood chipper or "treecycling" it as part of a community program are all eco-friendly ways to say goodbye to this year's Douglas fir. None of these solutions, however, are as cute as the waste-cutting strategy employed by some zoos around the world: giving them to elephants.

Each year, zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin—a facility that bills itself as “Europe’s largest adventure animal park”—feed the elephants unsold pine trees. The plants are reportedly pesticide-free, and they serve as a good (albeit prickly) supplement to the pachyderms' usual winter diets.

A bit closer to home, the residents of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee rely on local residents to take part in their annual Christmas Tree Drive. In addition to being nutrient-rich, the tree's needles are said to help aid in an elephant's digestion. But beyond all that, it's pretty adorable to watch.

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5 Eco-Friendly Ways to Dispose of Your Christmas Tree
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What’s the environmentally safest way to dispose of your Christmas tree? It’s hard to say. Grown, managed, transported, and recycled efficiently, a real Christmas tree’s environmental impact should be near neutral. Unfortunately, not all Christmas tree plantations are equal in their environmental impact.

The most eco-friendly way is to leave the tree in the ground, where it belongs, so you never have to dispose of it. But then you don't have a Christmas tree in your house to bring festive cheer. One thing you can do is be environmentally smart when it comes to the tree's disposal. After this festive season, why not try one of these eco-friendly methods.

1. CHIP IT.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to a big wood-chipper, you may be able to chip the entire tree. Wood-chip is great as a decorative landscaping material. But if you really want to do great things for the environment (and if you have access to a lot of Christmas trees), you could make a bioreactor to denitrify water. Nitrates are put on farms across the world to help increase crop output, but a considerable amount is washed away into lakes and rivers where it’s disastrous for fish and potentially toxic for people. A wood chip bioreactor encourages the growth of bacteria that break down the nitrates in the drainage water, reducing the amount that gets into the water supply. It's not a simple project, however. To make one, you have to dig a big trench, get the water to flow through said trench, and fill it with wood chips. More info can be found here [PDF].

2. CRAFT IT.


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If your tree hasn’t yet let go of its needles—and you haven’t yet let go of Christmas, get crafty with it. Cut off small branches and bind them around a circle of wire to make an attractive wreath. This looks even better if some of the cones are still attached. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could set up an essential oil extractor to get a supercharged Christmas scent. If you are already distilling alcohol, you have everything you need (here's how to do it). With a little less effort and equipment, you can make a weaker liquid called hydrosol, which is a fragrant condensate water containing water-soluble parts of the needles.

3. STICK IT.

Many legumes, such as garden peas, are thigmotropic, meaning that they respond to objects they touch, growing in coils along or up them. Needle-free Christmas tree branches have lots of twigs, texture, and knobby protrusions for peas and beans to get a grip on. This allows them to grow upwards strongly toward light. Simply stick a small tree branch in the soil next to each new shoot for a free, effective legume-climbing frame. Another advantage of this technique is that it makes grazing animals less likely to munch those tender green shoots, as they tend to avoid getting Christmas tree twigs spiked up their noses.

4. TREECYCLE IT.


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Come January, it’s cold, the festivities are over, work looms, and you’ve got too much on your mind to be thinking about dead Christmas tree horticulture or crafts. Fortunately, a simple solution is at hand: Most counties and municipalities now provide Christmas tree recycling points where you can take your tree for chipping. Some “TreeCycle” points will even exchange your tree for a bag of wood-chip or chip mulch. OK, this probably means that you’ll have to jam that Christmas tree into your car once more, but as long as you don’t have to drive too many miles out of your way, Christmas tree recycling is a quick and easy environmentally-friendly option.

5. DONATE IT.

After you’ve had your Christmas cheer, why shouldn’t fish have some fun? Several communities have programs in place where they’ll take your old Christmas tree, drill a hole in the base, tie a brick to it, and throw it in a lake. When humans create artificial lakes, they tend to be relatively featureless on the bottom for easy dredging. That’s great for us, but it means baby fish have nowhere to escape predators. Christmas trees provide a nice, temporary place for the fish to hide out and explore.

If, on the other hand, you’d like to see your Christmas tree mauled by a pride of lions, that’s OK too! Some zoos around the world take Christmas tree donations (but please remove all the tinsel first) and allow the animals to play with them.

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