When I was a kid in single digits, I remember that one of the first longish pieces of literature I read about Christmas was “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Usually attributed to Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), the poem was first published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, an upstate New York newspaper. Moore first took credit for it in 1837. Some sources claim the poem was written by Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828), but that dispute, which has been ongoing for more than a century, is otherwise beyond the scope of today’s song.
Regardless who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the first time that parts of the poem were set to music was in 1942, and that version is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 24.
Even today, when a song can be recorded one day, mastered the next, and released the day after next, most Christmas music is recorded in either spring or summer, which can sometimes make it difficult to set the right mood. Adding to the challenge in 1942 was a looming strike by the American Federation of Musicians against the record companies, which was scheduled to begin on August 1. Most of the U.S. record labels remained skeptical that the recording ban would actually happen, but just in case, there was a flurry of activity in July 1942 so that the labels would have enough new masters to make it through a few months of inactivity.
It turns out that the ban lasted much longer than the industry expected. With smaller archives than Victor and Columbia, newer major labels Decca and Capitol, as well as some specialty labels, settled with the union in September and October 1943. The AFM didn’t end its strike against the big two until November 1944.
But that was still in the future.
Over a period of several days –July 15, 23, 29, and 31, 1942 – the aggregation of singers and musicians known collectively as Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians recorded eight sides for one of the first, if not the first, Christmas albums consisting of all newly recorded material. Saving the centerpiece of the album for last, they recorded “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” in two parts. Part 1 was waxed on July 29, and Part 2 was recorded on July 31, just before the strike deadline. Because of the technology of the time, the full song, which lasts close to seven minutes, had to be recorded in two separate segments.
Waring (1900-84) first made a name for himself musically when he was a student at Penn State. He formed a group of musicians, which he eventually named Waring’s Pennsylvanians, and they recorded extensively for the Victor label from 1922 through 1932. By this time, his group had expanded to include solo and choral singers. Waring abruptly stopped making records in 1932, fearing that discs would compete against his national radio show; the Pennsylvanians did not return to a label until 1942, when they signed with Decca Records.
In 1938, Waring brought on a young graduate of Pomona College in California named Robert Shaw (1916-99) to recruit and train his glee club. By 1941, Shaw would form his own group of singers and still later become conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. But by 1942, Waring still had some well-known talent to help out.
Ken Darby (1909-92) had formed a male quartet called The King’s Men in 1929. The would perform on radio for years, including on Paul Whiteman’s and Rudy Vallee’s shows and later as the vocal group on Fibber McGee and Molly. Darby’s group would serve as the off-screen voices of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939); Darby himself dubbed the voice of the Mayor of Munchkinland. Starting on December 22, 1942 and continuing well into the 1950s, the King’s Men and several members of the cast performed “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” on holiday episodes of Fibber McGee and Molly. They also recorded it for a Fibber McGee and Molly Christmas album in 1945.
The King’s Men evolved into the Ken Darby Singers for recording work; they appeared on both the 1942 and 1947 hit versions of “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.
Waring’s arranger in 1942 was Harry Simeone (1912-2005), who would later go on to fame as namesake of the Harry Simeone Chorale, who made “The Little Drummer Boy” famous in 1958. Simeone arranged the Darby composition for full choir and orchestra.
One of the interesting elements of this version of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was its extra verse, in which the singers noted not only the chaos of Christmas Eve, but the detritus of the day after: Broken presents, no more visions of sugar-plums, and Mama and Papa at last can settle down for their long winter’s nap.
Initially released over two sides of the same 78 rpm single in 1942, the two parts weren’t spliced together until 1949, when Decca released ’Twas the Night Before Christmas as a 10-inch LP. The album was a holiday best-seller in its early years, as it made the Billboard album charts every year from 1946 through 1951. It also was re-released on a box set of four 45s and later as two extended-play 45s, where once again “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was together uninterrupted.
In 1954, Waring and the Pennsylvanians re-recorded what was by then their signature song; it would appear on the 12-inch LP version of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, released on Decca in 1955 with a front cover drawn by Norman Rockwell. Once more, the Waring group would remake the song in 1961, in stereo for Capitol Records this time, for the album The Meaning of Christmas; this version, usually considered inferior to the other two, can be easily identified by the spoken introduction “To children of all ages, Christmas means Santa Claus.”
Regardless of version, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” remains a great listen after 80 years. It would be nice to hear it on the radio once in a while.
Here’s the 1942 version, which has never been on CD in the United States, but might be on a public-domain release elsewhere:
Here’s the 1955 rendition, which has been on CD, but still rarely:
Finally, here’s the 1961 version, which was used on the best-selling 1987 collection The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas and on a Capitol Christmas Cocktails compilation.
My own preference is the original, with the 1955 version close behind.
(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 26, 2014.)