31 Things You Didn't Know about Holiday Songs

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1. Hi, I'm Mike, this is mental_floss on YouTube, and did you know that in the '50s the Catholic church condemned the song "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus?" So the record label flew the 13 year old Singer, Jimmy Boyd, out to Boston to meet with the archdiocese. Afterwards, they determined that the song was okay after all.

And that is the first of many facts about holiday songs that I'm gonna share with you today. Sorry, it's gonna get pretty Christmas-y up in here, but don't worry, we'll be back to our secular ways soon enough.

2. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," "A Holly Jolly Christmas," and "Run, Rudolph, Run" were all written by the same man, Johnny Marks, who was Jewish.

3. "The Little Drummer Boy" was originally known as "The Carol of the Drums." The von Trapp singers are credited with popularizing the song—yes, those von Trapps.

4. "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," from The Nutcracker, was written in 1891 for the celesta, an instrument that was invented only five years earlier. Oh hi Nutcracker! This is a great outfit. Where do you shop?

5. In 1906, "O Holy Night" became the second song to ever be broadcast on radio.

6. The singer of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" might sound old, but that is Brenda Lee—who was 13 years old at the time.

7. The first Christmas song to mention Santa Clause was "Up on the House Top" in 1864. These guys are slightly younger than that.

8. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" was written by two people with the most Christmas-y sounding names of all time: Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne. It is also, as it turns out, about the Cuban Missile Crisis. So next time you listen to "Do You Hear What I Hear?" just keep that in the back of your mind.

9. "Joy to the World" was originally a song about Christ's resurrection and his second coming on Easter, not his birth.

10. And the popular New Year song, "Auld Lang Syne," was never supposed to be associated with the holiday at all. One live band in New York coincidentally played it just after midnight on the radio, then it became a tradition. Not long after it also became a tradition to turn to someone next to you at the New Year's party and say, "What does 'Auld Lang Syne' mean anyway, I don't even know."

11. The song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" mentions that there will be scary ghost stories, which doesn't seem Christmas-y—but in fact it was a holiday tradition that started in Victorian England and has since died out. Spending all of that uninterrupted time with your family is scary enough so there's no need for ghost stories. Just kidding, Mom and Dad, very excited to come home for Christmas.

12. Thurl Arthur Ravenscroft sang "You're a Mean One, Mr Grinch." He was also the voice of Tony the Tiger for 50 years. Not going to make a grrr-eat joke.

13. During World War I, there was a Christmas Truce, in which the French, English, and German troops sang "Silent Night."

14. On the other hand, the BBC would not play the song "I'll Be Home for Christmas" during World War II because they didn't want to lower the morale of their troops.

15. Songwriter Meredith Wilson wrote "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" in addition to the University of Iowa fight song and The Music Man. That guy had range.

16.The group recording of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" brought a feud between Boy George and George Michael to popular consciousness. Of George Michael's recording, Boy George said, "God, he sounded camp." But then, he is.

17. George Michael actually wrote the Wham song "Last Christmas." He also got sued for it because of its resemblance to the Barry Manilow song "Can't Smile Without You." It was settled out of court.

18. Irving Berlin, who wrote "White Christmas," hated Elvis's cover of his song. In the '50s, he started a campaign to ban Presley's version of the song from the radio, a process that proved akin to banning snow from falling.

19. And speaking of which, "Let It Snow" was written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne during a 1945 heat wave in California.

20. Another song that was written in the heat: "The Christmas Song," also known as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." Apparently songwriter Bob Wells was overheating, so he wrote a list of things that reminded him of cold weather. Chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping, yuletide carols, et cetera. And then, it became the star of a song.

21. The residents of Armonk, New York believe that the song "Frosty the Snowman" was written about their town. They even hold an annual parade in honor of it.

22. "We Three Kings" was originally written in 1857 for a Christmas pageant at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. I imagine that's a little bit different than the one that you would find in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

23. The original Yiddish version of "I Have a Little Dreidel," the dreidel is made out of bley, which means lead. It was translated to clay.

24. "Deck the Halls" started as a dance tune, the lyric "follow me in a merry measure" means "join me in dance."

25 "Silver Bells" was originally called "Tinkle Bells." Then the song writer Ray Evans told his wife about it, who responded "Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word tinkle is?"

26. There are three, count them, three separate music videos for the Mariah Carey song "All I Want for Christmas is You," and for some reason, I'm not surprised.

27. When "Winter Wonderland" was written in the '30s, some people were offended by the bit about Parson Brown marrying people on a whim. The line was replaced with "In the meadow we can build a snowman, and pretend that he's a circus clown."

28. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" was originally sung by Elmo Shropshire, a veterinarian, which I guess means that there's some kind of professional expertise supporting the described results of when grandmas and reindeers collide.

29. Paul McCartney wrote, sang, and played every instrument for "Wonderful Christmastime." He still earns between $400,000 and $600,000 every year in royalties for the song.

30. If you really received all of the gifts from "The 12 Days of Christmas," there would be 364 presents total. Someone did the math in 2013, and determined that it would cost around $114,651.18.

31. Finally, I return to the salon to tell you that "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was written for the Judy Garland film Meet Me in St. Louis, originally it contained lines like "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more," but Garland insisted that the songwriter change them, because she was supposed to sing it to a 7 year old and didn't want to seem like, I quote, "A monster."

Thanks for watching mental_floss on YouTube, which is made with the help of these nice people. My name is Mike Renetta, if you like my face, you can find more of it on YouTube at PBS Idea Channel, and if you like my voice, you can find it on my podcast, Reasonably Sound, links to those things in the Dooblydoo, and hey, DFTBA, and happy holidays!

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

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.


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].



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.


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.


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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.


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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