What Makes A Great Christmas Song? Ever since Jose Feliciano wrote and recorded "Feliz Navidad" in 1970, it has been a Christmas mainstay; nearly 40 years later, it remains one of the top 25 most-played Christmas songs around the world. Music expert Bill Adler weighs in on what makes a Christmas song successful.
NPR logo

What Makes A Great Christmas Song?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/98695311/98710810" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Makes A Great Christmas Song?

What Makes A Great Christmas Song?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/98695311/98710810" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro filling in for Neal Conan. It's been sounding a lot like Christmas for more than a month now. Christmas carols are everywhere. And frankly I think our brains are better off for it, I mean, really, how would we know the names of all eight reindeer if not for song about Rudolph? Or how would we know how to say Merry Christmas en espanol if not for...

(Soundbite song "Feliz Navidad")

Mr. JOSE FELICIANO: (Singing) Feliz Navidad Feliz Navidad Feliz Navidad Prospero Ano y Felicidad....

SHAPIRO: Jose Feliciano wrote and recorded "Feliz Navidad" in 1970. Since then the song has become one of the most played Christmas tunes around the world. Feliciano has topped album charts for more than five decades and this year, he won his first Latin Grammy for Best contemporary Tropical Album making a total of seven Grammies in his career. If you'd like to talk with him about "Feliz Navidad" or other Christmas songs that make your season bright, call us. The number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Later we'll talk to a music guru about quirkier Christmas tunes. Call in with your favorite Christmas oddities. But, first, what makes a Christmas song a classic? Jose Feliciano's latest album is called "Con Mexico En El Corazon," and he joins us by phone from Connecticut. Welcome to the program and Felix Navidad.

Mr. JOSE FELICIANO (Grammy Award-Winning Singer): Thank you, Ari. It's great to be with you, great to be with everybody at NPR. I would like to say this is not a solicited commercial.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FELICIANO: But I really hope that everybody has a Christmas gift, donates generously to NPR because...

SHAPIRO: Aw, that's very kind of you.

Mr. FELICIANO: It's kind of like our Radio Free Europe.

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you.


SHAPIRO: Listen. This song basically made Christmas bilingual back in 1970. Was that what you were setting out to do when you wrote this?

Mr. FELICIANO: Well, yes and no. Yes, I wanted people to know how to say Merry Christmas in English, but the real reason I did it in both languages was so that the radio stations couldn't give me any excuse why they wouldn't play the song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FELICIANO: However, I'm happy that it's turned out the way that it has, because I think in an era where immigration has come up and it's been so important, and in some ways a little bit destructive to our culture, because most of the immigrants have been Latinos. I'm really happy that I could bring both cultures together.

SHAPIRO: So, maybe this is more of a political song than people realize?

Mr. FELICIANO: Maybe so, but the truth is - that I love America. America has been wonderful to me. And as a Latino, I want Latinos to stop having fear of speaking English. I want them not to feel like they will lose their identity if they learn to speak English. And that's why I did "Feliz Navidad" in both languages.

SHAPIRO: So, it was as much about bringing Spanish to the English speakers as it was bringing English to the Spanish speakers.

Mr. FELICIANO: Most definitely.

SHAPIRO: Did you set for yourself as a goal that this would become an iconic Christmas song that would last through the decades or were you just trying to right another tune?

Mr. FELICIANO: Well, truthfully, what happened with me was my producer at that time, Rick Gerard(ph), whom I owe a lot to, because if it weren't for him I wouldn't have written a Christmas song. We were at my house in California and in July we were recording my Christmas album. So, Rick said to me, Jose, why don't you write a Christmas song? Because at the time "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" was the last Christmas song ever written for Christmas. And so I said, well, I don't know. You know, and then I thought about it and the melody came to being and then "Feliz Navidad" and the Spanish portion and then I thought, well let me write an English part too, and that was where I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas came in to be.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Now, I want to choose my words carefully here. But, I think there is a dark side to any catchy song which is that it might remain with someone day after day, whether they wanted to or not. And "Feliz Navidad" is beloved and it is iconic, and I wonder, does it ever get stuck in your head more than you might want it to?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FELICIANO: I'm very grateful, Ari. I'm grateful because of the fact that how wonderful it's been that God gave me this gift to share with everybody. Now the only people that might get tired of it are the atheists, but then who cares?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FELICIANO: They're not happy with anything anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FELICIANO: But, I'm so grateful and so blessed that this song came into being because - and let's face it, when I'm no longer on this earth, I'll still be here and of course my children will benefit from it and their children.

SHAPIRO: Well, what do you think makes a Christmas song successful through the generations? Not just "Feliz Navidad" but any Christmas song that becomes iconic?

Mr. FELICIANO: Well, my - you know, I love certain songs like "The Christmas Song," "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin, "Jingle Bell Rock."

SHAPIRO: Do you think a great Christmas song has to have something different from a great pop song?

Mr. FELICIANO: Well, I think what a Christmas song has to have is a catchy melody and a great message of Christmas. You know, it's like sometimes when I'm on tour on Christmas I include the Jewish people in my song by saying "Feliz Hanukkah."

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: It's the same number of syllables. It works perfectly.

Mr. FELICIANO: Yeah. Yeah. And let's face it, I hope everybody realizes that if it weren't for the Jewish people we wouldn't have Christmas. We wouldn't have Christianity. And so I say that Christian and Jews are brothers and we should try and unite even more and make each other strong in our beliefs.

SHAPIRO: You know, Christmas is one of the only times remaining in our contemporary society where people get together and sing. Do you think a great Christmas song has to be singable in a way that other songs don't?


SHAPIRO: And "Feliz Navidad" has such a catchy tune.

Mr. FELICIANO: I think all songs of Christmas have to be singable because Christmas is a family affair. Hanukkah is a family affair. I'd like to see for example, I would like to see or hear more songs of Hanukkah just like Christmas songs be brought out into the main stream, because you don't hear really much about Hanukkah except the couple of songs like...

Mr. FELICIANO: (Singing) Hanukkah, Hanukkah come light the Menorah.

I think somebody ought to - maybe it'll be me? Maybe I'll be the first Puerto Rican to try and write a new Hanukkah song. Wouldn't that be something?

SHAPIRO: When you do, give me a call, and I'll put you on the air.

Mr. FELICIANO: I will. I will.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a caller, OK?


SHAPIRO: This is Ralph from Des Moines, Iowa. Hi, Ralph.

RALPH (Caller): Hi. Mr. Feliciano.

Mr. FELICIANO: Yes, sir.

RALPH: I've a question for you. When you started talking about how "Feliz Navidad" has had some immigrant reception and that that was part of the, it's like this political overtone to it, and I already - I mean, my favorite song for Christmas has always been John Lennon's "Happy Christmas". And it gets criticism for being too political with the war is over chorus at the end of it and so I wondered what you thought about the Lennon tune and if you thought about this song and that sort of political overture. And I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: OK. Thanks for your call, Ralph.

RALPH: And Feliz Navidad to you.

SHAPIRO: Feliz Navidad to you, too.

RALPH: Thank you.

Mr. FELICIANO: No, I never - I mean, the only thing I thought about "Feliz Navidad" was that I said that it brought the two cultures together.


Mr. FELICIANO: Spanish and English and that's basically - I mean, I didn't think about really too many, you know anything political per se except that that I wanted - as I said, I wanted Latin people to be proud lets say if they were raised in America, to be Americans, to be Latin Americans.

SHAPIRO: Mm hmm.

Mr. FELICIANO: And that was the whole idea.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, let's take another caller. This is Victor from South Lyon, Minnesota?

VICTOR (Caller): Actually, it's Victor from South Lyon, Michigan.

SHAPIRO: Sorry about that, Victor.

VICTOR: No problem. Hello, Jose. I listen to your show, Ari. I appreciate what you're doing. Jose, I sing along with our family all the time and I've always wondered, I wanted to continue singing with actual words instead of humming, what's the second line in Spanish?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Well, before he tells you, I want to ask Victor, what are the words that you sing?

VICTOR: I just kind of stop and mumble and throw my hands up in the air and everybody looks...

Mr. FELICIANO: Well, it's very easy. Prospero Ano, which means prosperous New Year. Y Felicidad.

SHAPIRO: Do you want to repeat that, Victor?

VICTOR: Yeah, I'm actually writing this down so everybody...

Mr. FELICIANO: Prospero...

SHAPIRO: This is our Spanish lesson for the day.

VICTOR: Yes...

Mr. FELICIANO: Prospero Ano which means a prosperous New Year.

VICTOR: Prospero Ano.

Mr. FELICIANO: Y Felicidad.

VICTOR: Y Felicidad?

Mr. FELICIANO: Yes. A simple one, huh?

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Victor.

VICTOR: OK. Thank you.

Mr. FELICIANO: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Jose, do you notice that a lot of Christmas songs come from a place of sadness? I was thinking about "I'll Be Home For Christmas" which was released in World War II. "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," or "Meet Me In Saint Louis."

Mr. FELICIANO: "Blue Christmas" by Elvis.

SHAPIRO: Right and I understand it's...

Mr. FELICIANO: This one was not sad.

SHAPIRO: I read somewhere that you wrote this because you were feeling lonely.

Mr. FELICIANO: Well, that - and that part is true because I miss my family. My family were in Puerto Rico and I was in California. But "Feliz Navidad" really comes from a place of joy with me, celebrating my culture. I use Puerto Rican instrument, the cuatro in "Feliz Navidad." I used the gourd as well.

SHAPIRO: Mm hmm.

Mr. FELICIANO: And so it came from a place of seeing a roasted pig on a spit which is our culture in Puerto Rico.


Mr. FELICIANO: And so it really came - although I missed my family, it also came from a part of being very happy.

SHAPIRO: Well, I hope you have a very happy Christmas. Feliz Navidad, Jose Feliciano.

Mr. FELICIANO: Ari, I wish you the best, my brother. I thank you for having me on your show and I thank you for being my friend.

SHAPIRO: Thank you and call me when you got that bilingual Hanukkah song, OK?

Mr. FELICIANO: I will, sir. I will.

SHAPIRO: All right. Jose Feliciano is the winner of the 2008 Latin Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Tropical Album. His latest album is called "Con Mexico En El Corazon." He joined us by phone from Connecticut. When we come back, music guru Bill Adler answers our most pressing Christmas music questions like why is so much of the Christmas canon written by Jews? We're taking your calls at 1-800-989-8255. You can also send us an email at talk@npr.org. I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

SHAPIRO: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. We're talking about the music of the season this hour from the revered to the weird. Bill Adler is a music enthusiast who compiles a Christmas Jollies mix tape for family and friends every year. His tradition is now in its 25th year and it's not your average compilation. Adler digs deep into the Christmas music archives to find songs that are rarely heard or just downright odd. We'll hear from Adler and listen to some of his 2008 Christmas tunes in a moment. But first, we want to know what your favorite corky Christmas song is. "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" is done. But maybe, "I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas?" Call us with your unpredictable picks. And don't be afraid to sing a chorus or two but only one or two. We know you've been caroling all day and we don't want you to strain your voice. Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255 or you can send us an email at talk@npr.org. Now Bill Adler, he's a former music critic and founding director of publicity at Def Jam records. He's also co-author of "Definition: The Art and Design of Hip Hop." Mr. Adler joins us by phone from Ashby, Massachusetts. Thanks for coming on the program.

Mr. BILL ADLER (Former Critic, Founding Director of Publicity, Def Jam Records): Pleasure.

SHAPIRO: OK. So you're Jewish. How did you get into this?

Mr. ADLER: Well, you know, I'm an American as well. You know, it seems to me that Christmas is a national holiday, you know. If I'd wanted to escape, but I couldn't.

SHAPIRO: True and actually, you're in good company. So many Christmas songs are written by Jews. There's Mel Torme, "Chestnut Roasting On An Open Fire." There's Irving Berlin, "White Christmas." What's going on here?

Mr. ADLER: I don't know. I think they realize what I realize. I mean, you know, Irving Berlin was a writer for a given occasion. And you know, I think he must have seen, you know, he also wrote "Easter Parade."


Mr. ADLER: So there are those two things to consider. In other words, you know, these are giant holidays, and in what is still largely a Christian nation and you know, it just makes sense I guess.

SHAPIRO: So what do you look for when you're putting together your Christmas CD each year?

Mr. ADLER: Well, I look for music that's meaningful to me. I mean, you know I'm not the only person who does this kind of thing. There's a kind of a sub-culture of you know, of obsessives like myself who do this year after year. And I think a lot of folks you know are kind of motivated just to do the polar opposite of what's usually done in the way of Christmas music. And I think, you know, most of us, a lot of us find, you know, kind of a dominant tone of piety and sometimes it gets to saccharin and on and on and so, you know, too many of the folks that that do the kind of thing that I do go 180 degrees in the other direction, and it's just you know one novelty song after another. And you know I don't mind a novelty song but truthfully I believe that there's - you know, if you look hard enough, there is a vein of music made in the - you know, a vein of Christmas music that's deep and meaningful even if it's not you know well-known necessarily.

SHAPIRO: Well, we have an example here of something that may not fit the deep and meaningful description, but it was on your 2008 Christmas CD this year from what I understand and it kind of takes a traditional Christmas song in a different direction.

Mr. ADLER: Uh oh, which one?

SHAPIRO: You'll hear.


(Soundbite of "Silent Night")

BOOTSY: (Singing)

Silent night And it's a Holy Night You know because all is calm And all is bright, looking good, man.

SHAPIRO: Oh, Bill. What is Bootsy doing to that song?

Mr. ADLER: Well, you know, that's Bootsy Collins that is most - the most spiritual there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ADLER: And also, let's not forget, you know, the trombonist on that is Fred Wesley who's a beautiful, beautiful trombonist. He's playing the hell out of that.

SHAPIRO: So this is a serious piece of music.

Mr. ADLER: Well, you know, I'm not to say that Bootsy is in a lighthearted figure but you know, for Bootsy, that was devout I would say.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You've been doing this for 25 years.

Mr. ADLER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Since before the Internet was widespread.

Mr. ADLER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Has it become easier to find obscure things or now that obscure things are everywhere on the Internet, has it become harder to find something that'll be a novelty for someone?

Mr. ADLER: You know, I don't spend that much time on the Internet. I'm still fairly old fashioned. You know, not critically old fashioned, you know what I mean? I go to flea markets and I have friends turn me onto music and there are still record stores that sell actual records and - you know, I live in New York where a lot of the antique culture continues to thrive. So one way or another, I am able to find what I need every year.

SHAPIRO: So we're looking for vinyl often?

Mr. ADLER: Not necessarily. But you know, you know, I like vinyl. I mean, one of the things that people, you know, young people don't necessarily understand is that with each of these new kinds of technology, you know a lot of the old technology gets lost, you know. Not every record that was recorded onto vinyl made it onto CD and not every CD has made it in to MP3. So you know, I'm going to, you know I must look at vinyl as well.

SHAPIRO: There's a song here that I had not heard before hearing it in your mix that I'm sure came off of vinyl. I don't know whether it has ever made it on CD but I think it's an example of one of these great old songs that we just don't even hear anymore. It's Bing Crosby performing with his son Lyndsey. Let's take a listen.

Mr. ADLER: Great.

(Soundbite of "Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus")

Mr. BING CROSBY: Lyndsey, the smallest of the small fry steps forward. Now, what's your song, Lyn?

Mr. LYNDSEY CROSBY: I'd like to hitch a ride with Santa Claus.

Mr. BING CROSBY: I may join you

Mr. LYNDSEY CROSBY: Thank you.

Mr. BING CROSBY: Not at all.

Mr. LYNDSEY CROSBY: I'd like to hitch a ride with Santa Claus.

Mr. BING CROSBY: Or wouldn't that be something to see.

Mr. LYNDSEY CROSBY: I'd like to hitch a ride with Santa Claus dodging the clouds, waving at crowds.

Mr. BING CROSBY: This boy just got his wings.

Mr. LYNDSEY CROSBY: I'd crack the whip and keep a watch for weather vanes. I'd help him with his bag and check it...

SHAPIRO: Well, I could listen to that entire song right now. Why is that not a classic?

Mr. ADLER: Sorry?

SHAPIRO: Why is that not a classic?

Mr. ADLER: Well, you know, I don't know. I think he recorded it - I think being recorded, it was the Andrew Sisters but that's probably pretty obscure as well. But you know, this is a record, you know, You asked me how do I find these stuff, you know I've got a friend named Guy Walker who lives here in New York and he - he's gone to collecting 78 RPM records. He found this on a 78 and I did a little research. The thing was caught in 1950 and you know I guess it was, you know, it certainly didn't make the transition to LPs and it was obscure and I heard it and like you, I mean, doesn't it just jump out of tune? It's hardcore.

SHAPIRO: Oh yeah. It's a fantastic song.

Mr. ADLER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So, when you're digging through these old record bins.

Mr. ADLER: Right.

SHAPIRO: What constitutes the perfect find for you? What makes you say, oh my God, this is going to make the CD the best one ever?

Mr. ADLER: Well, you know, I don't know. I mean, you know, it's very simple to me. I mean, I listen to so much and I reject so much of it so the few standouts really stand out to me and easy for me to make a choice.

SHAPIRO: Now, there's some songs that are really irritating and I wonder if that's a plus or a minus for you when you're putting together your mix.

Mr. ADLER: Well, I don't want to irritate anybody. I want people, you know, I really do want to create a bible alternative, you know according to my taste. You know, I don't want to turn people off.

SHAPIRO: Really?

Mr. ADLER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, I'm going to play something for you and we're going to see what listeners think. This is Sister Hazel's version of a Hanukkah classic.

Mr. ADLER: Oh, OK, good.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing)

I have a little dreidel I made it out of clay And when it's dry and ready, Oh dreidel I will play, yeah. Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel. I made it out of clay. Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel. Oh, dreidel I will play.

SHAPIRO: I don't know maybe that song is just essentially irritating ending up itself. Maybe it's not in better shape.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ADLER: Well, you know - you know what? We're Jewish and maybe we've heard it, you know too often but you know, when I heard it once again, you know, what occurred to me, I'd never heard of Sister Hazel before and this you know, apparently you know, they are a viable band, they've got a career and the rest of it. But you know, they can really play that. They're beautiful musicians, they made it swing and it sounded you know, different enough to me to bear up to repeated listening. You know, I've got a friend who's got young children who are not Jewish and you know, they've listened to this year's a version of "Christmas Jollies." And they've chosen that as one of their favorites, so?

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, let's go to Anna in Portland, Oregon. Our first caller. Hi, Anna, how are you?

ANNA (Caller): Hi. I'm good. How you all there and...

SHAPIRO: Fine thanks. You've got a selection for us?

ANNA: Yeah, yeah, I do. But I was just listening to you all talking about meaningful Christmas songs and then later about vinyl and one of my favorite meaningful Christmas songs is that "Spirit of Christmas." That's from Ray Charles, the "Spirit of Christmas." But the song I called about - it's a childish song. It's something I did in choir when I was like 11. But I've never met anyone else has ever even heard of the song. It's called "Chocolate and My Stocking For Christmas."

SHAPIRO: Mm. Can you sing a few bars for us?

ANNA: I'll do my best.

SHAPIRO: Go for it.

ANNA: A little embarrassing but here it goes.

SHAPIRO: It's just you and me.

ANNA: (Singing)

As we're standing in line to sit on Santa's lap, I wish I could just lie down and take a nap. All I ever see are grown up's knees and undersides of Christmas trees, I never ever get to see what's happening.

ANNA: Anyway, the kid goes on to say that when he gets up to Santa. Santa's going to hear from someone with great taste and the chorus says, I just want chocolate and my stockings for Christmas. I'm really very easy to please and so it's all about chocolate and I've never met anyone else who's heard of it, Bill, so.

SHAPIRO: Bill Adler?

Mr. ADLER: You know what?

ANNA: And I want to - I don't even know where my music teacher - dug it up, you know.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's see if Bill's heard of it.

Mr. ADLER: Well, you know I haven't heard of it. But you know, I think there's, you know a large percentage of all the Christmas songs that are ever cut were aimed at children, maybe done in children's voices or with the children's choir or something. So you know, this sounds like you know, one of those songs. I mean I...

ANNA: It is.

Mr. ADLER: I understand it and you know, I appreciate that it stayed in this woman's mind all these years.

SHAPIRO: Well, thanks for the call.

ANNA: I know. Thank you. Happy Holidays.

SHAPIRO: You, too. We have an email from Mark in Phoenix, Arizona who nominates "Santa Baby" by Eartha Kitt. He writes two words, very sexy.

Mr. ADLER: Oh, that's true. You know, sexy enough for Madonna to have covered it, and since then it's been covered a whole bunch of times. You know, it's a fun - that's a funny song, that's a novelty song. I like it well enough. I mean, I don't think I've ever put it on my Christmas Jollies but you know, it's a classic. It comes back every year.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to another song that brings a little romance into the Christmas music genre.

Mr. ADLER: Sure.

(Soundbite of song "I Want You With Me Christmas")

Mr. JESSE BELVIN: (Singing)

I want you with me, Christmas, When candles are aglow. I want your love this Christmas...

SHAPIRO: Bill, you want to tell listeners what they're hearing?

Mr. ADLER: That's Jesse Belvin doing "I Want You With Me Christmas" and it was cut in 1956. And you know he was you know, you can hear he's a kind of, you know a Nat Cole kind of singer.


Mr. ADLER: And, you know, I hadn't heard it before. I heard it on a reissue of - a CD reissue that came out just last year I think. And I kind of love it a lot. Not least because it's so lush and it's kind of early for, you know a black artist to be singing with something that lush. I mean, you know, I don't even know if Ray Charles was recording with strings at that point. This guy gets the whole big plush arrangement here.

SHAPIRO: And I understand he also wrote "Earth Angel."

Mr. ADLER: Jesse Belvin?

SHAPIRO: No? Is that incorrect?

Mr. ADLER: I mean, I suppose it's possible.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well anyway, I also want to read from email that we have here. It's says I'm so excited that you mentioned "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas". That song has been a favorite in my family for years. Quick question about it though. My dad and I have a disagreement about the origin of the song. Can you clarify why this marvel was written? Bill Adler?

Mr. ADLER: To irritate us all 50 years later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ADLER: I don't know why was it written is that the question?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, yeah. What was the occasion for its composition? No idea, huh?

Mr. ADLER: I'm afraid - no, I'm aware of the song. I know the song. I don't know about the origin. I'm sorry.

SHAPIRO: All right well here's another email from Lisa in San Francisco who writes the Christmas hit songs that were written by Jews were written for Hollywood films. "The American Dream" is portrayed on the silver screen, embodies the dream of countless Jewish immigrants including those who became successful in Hollywood. That's just one of countless examples of the intersection between Jewish culture and mainstream culture. It sounds like you may have tapped into something bigger here.

Mr. ADLER: Well, sure there is a book I'm trying to remember. You know, and I mean this book called "How the Jews invented Hollywood." And in this - you know, it's sounds like you know this listener kind of cooked it down for the purpose of his or her email.


Mr. ADLER: I will say this, you know, Jose Feliciano said something that was real interesting to me about, you know, why aren't there more Hanukkah songs? And that's a good question and I'm afraid the answer in my opinion is that Hanukkah isn't really a giant holiday in the Jewish calendar. It's not a holiday that's comparable with Christmas. It's just happens to fall at the same time every year. And so it just hasn't inspired songwriters including Jewish songwriters to make a lot of great songs. And believe me I've looked every dog gone year. You know, I want to, you know include some kind of Hanukkah song. And…

SHAPIRO: Well, I think actually...

Mr. ADLER: It's just thin.

SHAPIRO: I think we may actually have an example of one right here.

Mr. ADLER: All right.

(Soundbite of song "Deck The Halls")

Slick the halls with loaves of Challah. Fa la la la la la la la la la. Tis the season to be jolly. Fa la la la la la la la la la. Done we now our gay apparel. Fa la la la la la la la la la.

SHAPIRO: OK, so maybe strictly speaking it's not Hanukkah but...

Mr. ADLER: No, that sort of some jokers. You know, actually it's kind of mysterious to me. They called themselves for that up they called themselves The Three Weismen. Not the Three Wise Men.

SHAPIRO: The Three Weismen.

Mr. ADLER: The Three Weismen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ADLER: And it's on a very odd album where it's just kind of fake tour of Christmas around the world. And they do parities and a bunch of different genres. And this is just one of them, you know, or basically this guys goes into Mel Brooks, 2000-year-old man kind of stick. And it's funny to me, but again it's only funny for whatever it is 30 seconds or so. And then it moved on to the next thing.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about Christmas music on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Bill Adler, are there any lines that you absolutely will not cross when you're putting this mix together.

Mr. ADLER: Yeah, there are some songs that are hateful, some songs that really, you know kind of punk oriented anti-Christmas songs. There are songs that curse Christmas, you know, I'm not going to put any of that on. Songs that are like terminally silly, I'm not going to put that on.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, let's take another caller. This is Sue in Moscow, Idaho. Hi, Sue.

SUE (Caller): Hi. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good, thanks. How are you?

SUE: Pretty much snowed in. But other than that it's great.

SHAPIRO: Well, at least you've got your music. What's your song nomination?

SUE: My song is called "The Christmas Song" by Shawn Phillips. And, oh in late 60s, early 70s there was a disc jockey on a San Francisco Radio Station who played it every year. And the neat part about this song is it's like a Dixieland jazz and it's all happy and all of a sudden it gets kind of spooky. And then it ends up happy again.

SHAPIRO: Bill Adler, have you ever heard of it?

Mr. ADLER: Well, I remember Shawn Phillips from that era. I mean, the drugs were stronger then, I mean.

SUE: I actually have it cued, if you want to hear it?

SHAPIRO: Oh, I'd love to. Hit it.

SUE: Are you serious?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, go for it.

SUE: Oh, all right. Here it is. Got it right here, set for you.

SHAPIRO: Just a few seconds, maybe ten seconds.


(Soundbite of song "The Christmas Song")

Unidentified Man: (Singing)

What's talking about. And everybody loves that man so much. That they wanted to laugh and shout. Do do do do do do do do do do.

SHAPIRO: I love it.

SUE: So, that's how it starts out.

SHAPIRO: That's great.

SUE: And then there's a spot where it goes. And I mean it starts out. It came in a way that - it is all about happy babies. And all of sudden it said the people in power. They gave him an order, go back and be a carpenter. So they shouted in his face that he was right and they hung him on a cross right there. And he went oh, oh, wait, wait, wait. And then it gets all happy about at Christmas time, be around your tree and the more you're going to give, the more you're going to get to be a lady and a gentlemen.

SHAPIRO: Wow, OK. Thanks for the call, Sue.

SUE: All right, you're welcome.

SHAPIRO: All right. I think we have time for one quick final call. This is Nathan in San Diego. Hi, Nathan.

NATHAN (Caller): Hi.

SHAPIRO: What's your nomination for a quirky Christmas song? Quickly.

NATHAN: The perfect quirky Christmas song is "Super Mario Sleigh Ride." You can find it at ocremix.com. And it's a remix of "Sleigh Ride" with the Super Mario soundtrack and a lot of other Christmas songs. And it captures the holiday spirit perfectly.

SHAPIRO: Bill Adler has that ever made it on to your mix?

Mr. ADLER: No.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, maybe next year. Thanks for the call, Nathan.

NATHAN: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Well, Bill Adler. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. But thank you for joining us on this Christmas Day on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. ADLER: It was fun. Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Bill Adler is a former music critic and founding director of publicity at Def Jam records. He joined us by phone from Ashby, Massachusetts. And coming up, I have no idea. It's a surprise celebrity guest for me and for you from Talk of the Nation. I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.