‘And So This Is Christmas . . .’

As regular readers know, we here at Echoes In The Wind don’t do much about Christmas. It’s generally been three posts and two songs since the blog marked its first Christmas in 2007. And that’s not going to change. We started Saturday with a salute to Darlene Love and her “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home),” and – as has been our habit – continue today with a cover version of my favorite Christmas song.

But before getting into the cover, I thought we’d dig a little deeper into the original record. I don’t know what John Lennon’s hopes were when he released “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” in December 1971. I doubt that he thought that he and Yoko Ono had released a holiday classic. (The record was actually credited to John & Yoko/The Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir.) At the time, it seemed to me that I heard the record enough that it would have made a sizable dent in the Billboard chart.

Not so. To my surprise, when I checked this morning, the record – according to both editions I have of the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits – did not reach the Top 40. I find the same information in Mark Wallgren’s The Beatles On Record. Wallgren notes, however, that “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” did reach No. 36 on the Cashbox chart, and on the very long-gone Record World chart, the record went to No. 28.

The Billboard results are surprising, as Wallgren notes, as “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” became “the very first Lennon single not to make the [Billboard] charts at all.”

Just in case Wallgren was referring only to the Top 40, I went this morning to my collection of week-by-week Billboard charts. And there is in fact no sign of the record even making the Hot 100. I checked a couple of other places, and another source, the Brit-centric The Great Rock Discography, also has the record not showing up on the American chart but shows the record reaching No. 4 in Britain.  Still, somehow, both All-Music Guide and Wikipedia have the record reaching No. 3! (I dearly want to know where those rankings came from; I suspect either a massive compounded error or a separate Christmas chart about which I know nothing.)

There are answers somewhere to all of those questions, but we’ll let them show up later.  (As I’d hoped, our pal Yah Shure has the answers; see the comments below.) I want to talk about the record, which was a Christmas song offered additionally as an anti-war anthem. (The Vietnam War was still going on as of Christmas 1971; an agreement for the U.S. to withdraw its combat troops came in January 1973, and the war ended with the defeat of South Vietnam in April 1975.) My sense of the time the record came out tells me that anyone who thought about it – citizens and civilian and military leadership alike – knew that the war was going to be ended; it was just a matter of how and when (and a matter of U.S. presidential politics, with an election set for 1972).

So the chorus of Lennon’s song wasn’t likely to change any minds, but it served as a reminder that even as public opinion had turned on the war, the war still went on.

And over the nearly forty years since the single was released, the song has become a holiday anthem as well, perhaps not as popular as some of the long-time December reliables that I’ve heard far too many times but still more than welcome when it rises from the speakers above the Christmas chaos. And it’s been covered many times since 1971. All-Music Guide lists more than 320 CDs that have a version of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” on it (many of those the Lennon/Ono version, of course), and we find another 134 CDs listed that present the song as “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).”

Among those listed as covering the song under either title are Placido Domingo, the Vienna Boys Choir, Acker Bilk, Rebecca St. James, the Alarm, Jessica Simpson, Delta Goodrem, the Bachelors, the Finnish singer Tarja Turunen, Sarah Brightman, Neil Diamond, Maroon 5, Randy Bachman, Sent By Ravens, Dorsey Dodd, the Moody Blues, Andy Williams, the Canadian Brass, Diana Ross, Darlene Love, Celine Dion, Yo-Yo Ma and many, many more. I’ve heard some of those, but most are unknown to me.

In years past, I’ve presented Sarah McLachlan’s version of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” from her Wintersong album. But I’m changing course this year and presenting a live version by Melissa Etheridge. Evidently from 1994, it was released on the 1999 CD VH1: Pop-Up Christmas. It’s a remarkable performance.

We’ll see you briefly on Christmas Day.


3 Responses to “‘And So This Is Christmas . . .’”

  1. Yah Shure says:

    Keeping track of charted Christmas singles was pretty confusing until recent years. “Happy Xmas” notched ten weeks on Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart in 1971, peaking at number three. The publication always seemed to struggle with where to where to place Christmas 45s. Some years it was on the Hot 100, others the Christmas Singles chart exclusively, and still others, on both. A little too much eggnog in the charts department, perhaps?

    Ditto for Joel Whitburn. Although Joel had previously published some books devoted exclusively to holiday singles, it wasn’t until the 1955-1990 Pop Singles Annual book that all of the Christmas Singles chart-only 45s were finally included, and even then, they were all lumped together in the back of the book. By the 1955-2002 Top Pop Singles edition, all of the Christmas Singles chart-only 45s had been accorded their rightful place among their Hot 100 brethren.

  2. Deadguy says:

    Lennon’s words are as profound today as they were in 1971.

    ” If everyone asked for peace instead of a new television, then there would be peace”
    ” (John Lennon) “

  3. Paco Malo says:

    Happy Christmas Eve

    After reading your post this morning, I dashed over to Wikipedia to read up on that part of the war. I knew covert invasion of Laos and Cambodia was still to come. ’71 was the year the Pentagon Papers were intentionally leaked, exposing government lies about the war.

    I couldn’t write. The juxtaposition of John’s beautiful song — with the first truly original way of singing about Christmas in my lifetime (“And So It’s Christmas ….”) smashing against the details of the war sucked all the air out of the room.

    The war in 1971 is not fun reading.

    Merry Christmas/Stop the War — what an idea.

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