In looking at the list of the songs I’ve highlighted as Christmas Song of the Day the past three seasons, I’m surprised I haven’t featured this one yet. Perhaps it’s because my choice for December 21 gets more airplay than it once did; when I first heard it in the 1970s, it was a wonderful obscurity.
After the success of the album Brain Salad Surgery and the following world tour, the prog-rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer took a hiatus. During that break, Greg Lake and frequent collaborator Pete Sinfield came up with a Christmas single that has the best of both worlds: It’s memorable, and it has a message.
“I Believe in Father Christmas” began with what Lake called a “Christmasy” chord progression. Sinfield began to write words around it, starting with memories of his own childhood Christmases and his eventual disillusionment once he found out almost everything he believed was contrived and phony. Rather than end on that note, he wrote a more upbeat third verse, which brings things to a nice resolution.
Between each verse, on Keith Emerson’s suggestion, is an instrumental passage lifted from the “Troika” portion of Serge Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé suite, which he wrote in 1933. (“I Believe in Father Christmas” isn’t the only popular song to use part of that suite; a different segment is in Sting’s 1985 single “Russians.”)
The 45, which was released in 1975, features a choir and orchestra. On the British charts, the song peaked at #2, failing only to get past Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the vaunted Christmas #1 spot. In the U.S., “I Believe in Father Christmas” was a rare charting Christmas song in the era; it peaked at #95 on Billboard and #92 on Cash Box.
In 1977, Emerson, Lake and Palmer put out two albums on three records consisting of both group and solo recordings. The second one, Works, Volume 2, featured “I Believe in Father Christmas,” but it wasn’t the same version as the 45. It featured the same basic track as the original single, but minus the “distant choir” and orchestra, and with an Emerson piano coda tacked on to the end. (If you listen closely, you can hear the original recording fading to nothing behind the coda.) For a long time, this was the only version that was played on American FM radio, because the Lake original was only on a 45 and had not been reissued on LP, and FM stations tended to play tracks from albums.
Still later, ELP did a new version in 1993 for its Return of the Manticore box set, and Lake did another solo version in 2002 for a various-artists CD called Classic Rock Christmas.
The song is easier to find on physical CD than it ever was on record, but it can be confusing: I’ve seen compilations that claim to have the “Emerson, Lake and Palmer” version but play the original version, and I’ve seen the reverse. Because four different versions are floating around, it’s best if you can listen to the CD before you buy it to know which version you’re getting. To me, the original ’75 version still resonates the most.