Song of the Week #22- The Christmas Song

Mel_TormeWe almost finished the week without a song of the week post!  As we near the final few songs we get to the cream of the crop.  These last few songs are the best of them all (all opinion mostly).  This week we focus on THE Christmas Song.  You may know it better by its less formal title “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”.  This is the most performed Christmas song of them all.  It was written in 1944 by the Velvet Voice, Mel Torme and his writing partner Bob Wells.  They were suffering through a particularly hot summer.  Mel came upon Bob writing a list of things, not a song lyric.  The list was to get him thinking of winter things, hopefully to make him feel cooler.  Less than an hour later they were finished the lyrics and the song was born.  Mel was only 19 years old!

CHristmas SOngOriginally it was titled “Merry Christmas to You” before becoming simply The Christmas Song.  The first recording was made by the Nat King Cole Trio in 1946.  This recording was not to Cole’s liking- he wanted a new arrangement using a string section.  That first 1946 version was not released it landed on a 1989 compilation album by mistake.  The second 1946 recording featuring a small string section was the first to be released.  It was wildly popular.  Cole would go on to record it two additional times in 1953, with a full orchestra, and in 1961, in stereo with a full orchestra.  The lyrics paint a wonderful picture of the holidays.  Something for all in the family, “kids from one to ninety-two”, and many more references to white and wintry Christmas scenes.  This might be why hundreds and hundreds of singers, band, groups, and choirs have recorded and released the song.  Mel Torme himself recorded it four times, in 1954, 1961, 1966, and 1992.  Listen to some of the interesting version we found:

Nat King Cole– The original (well first released) recording on 78 rpm with a small string section.
Mel Torme– The writer singing it in 1963 with Judy Garland (see if you catch her little twist to the lyrics).
Vince Guaraldi– This instrumental version from A Charlie Brown Christmas might be my absolute favorite!
Target Commercials– In 2002 Target ran a series of commercials featuring India Arie & Stevie Wonder singing the song
Sesame Street– Big Bird and the Swedish Chef give it a whirl
Connie Francis– Recorded in 1959 at Abby Road Studios
Justin Beiber & Usher– Even the Biebs gets in the holiday spirit- lot more up-beat

 

Chestnuts roasting. . .at Costco

Seems like every aisle at Costco was featuring some Christmas related item, and nuts were on display.  I saw black walnuts, almonds, pecans, and peanuts in the shell, but the most striking display, just next to the cash registers, was this tower of roasted chestnuts.  Who isn’t familiar with Nat King Cole’s smooth opening, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. . ,” the start of “The Christmas Song.”

Have you ever roasted a chestnut?  I haven’t.  I did a little digging today to find out why those nuts in particular are part of the Christmas tradition.  I learned that chestnuts were a food staple grown even before rice in ancient countries. References to chestnuts appear twice in the King James version of the Bible.   In fact, in some places, it was ground as flour.  Chestnuts are the perfect food: lower calories than walnuts and almonds, no cholesterol, no gluten, comparable in carbohydrates to wheat.  Many a civilization has lived on chestnuts both during hard times and as part of a regular diet.  The nuts were so common, they were considered a poor man’s food.

It’s hard to imagine that just 100 years ago, one quarter of the Appalachian forest was made up of the majestic chestnut–a tall, fast-growing hardwood.  Most early American builders used the chestnut interchangeably with oak to build.  I wonder what that might have looked like?

While the various species of chestnut in Asia co-evolved with diseases, making those species resistant, the chestnut blight struck the American and European chestnut in the early 1900’s, wiping out four billion American chestnut trees.  Since the early twentieth century, growers have been working to establish a hybrid tree that can bring the chestnut back to its former glory.

Back to the chestnuts at Costco.  I read quite a few instructions about the tradition of roasting them on an open fire, and I’m linking directions here from Epicurious.com,  in the event you want to give it a try.

Here’s a great future Jeopardy! fact:  The Hundred Horse Chestnut tree in Italy is considered the world’s oldest chestnut tree, dating somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 years old.

Here’s an additional article about chestnuts published last year in the Times Union.