50 Years of Beatles: Christmas time is here again

Between 1962 and 1970, the Beatles recorded one musical masterwork after another, amassing some 27 No. 1 hits in the United States and the United Kingdom, while producing such timeless albums as "Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band," "The Beatles (The White Album)" and "Abbey Road," among a host of others. Yet for today’s listeners, the Fab Four’s annual Christmas offerings are all but forgotten, hidden within the shadows of their unprecedented pop music achievements.

The brainchild of Beatles press officer Tony Barrow, the group’s Christmas records were originally conceived as a means of providing holiday greetings to their legions of loyal fans. Beginning in December 1963, British fan club members received annual Christmas messages as free “flexi-disc” record releases. For the inaugural release, the Beatles sang the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” and the comic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ringo.” But 1963 was only the beginning.

By December 1964, the Beatles had a full-fledged holiday tradition on their hands. Titled "Another Beatles Christmas Record," the band’s 1964 release featured the Beatles singing the Christmas carol “Jingle Bells” and the traditional English song “Did You Wash Your Father’s Shirt?” In December 1964, U.S. fan club members began receiving the Christmas messages as well. While their British counterparts were given “flexi-disc” records, American fans received cardboard record releases in the mail.

In the ensuing years, the Beatles continued to produce Christmas messages for their massive fan base. In December 1965, the band’s Christmas record included a performance of “Auld Lang Syne,” as well as the original Beatles poem “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” In November 1966, the Beatles took a break from the “Strawberry Fields Forever” recording sessions to produce their 1966 Christmas message, which included a series of impromptu comic skits titled “Podgy the Bear and Jasper” and “Felpin Mansions.”

For the most seasoned Beatles fans, the band’s 1967 Christmas record exists as a watershed moment in the Fab Four’s brief history of holiday messages. For the recording, the Beatles concocted a six-minute narrative in which various groups audition for a BBC radio show, with the catchy “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” serving as the track’s periodic refrain. During the comic narrative, the four Beatles voice various characters ranging from game-show contestants and musicians (the Ravellers) to actors in a fictive radio program titled "Theatre Hour." For the Beatles, “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” would emerge as their most recognizable holiday tune.

As the band’s career neared its zenith, their Christmas messages became — like the band mates’ relationships themselves — ever more fragmented. For the 1968 message, the record features individual Beatles messages, including Paul McCartney’s “Happy Christmas, Happy New Year” and John Lennon’s poems “Jock and Yono” and “Once Upon a Pool Table.” "The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record," the Fab Four’s final holiday recording, was produced by British DJ Maurice Cole and recorded in separate locations by the group members, now effectively disbanded, in November and December 1969. The recording features brief greetings from George Harrison and Ringo Starr, with McCartney singing “This Is to Wish You a Merry, Merry Christmas.” Much of the recording originates from a session with Lennon and wife Yoko Ono at their Tittenhurst Park estate. Fittingly, "The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record" concludes with the band mates’ epic guitar solos from Abbey Road’s “The End.” And while the Beatles’ heyday together was clearly over, “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” continues to resound as the Beatles’ most beloved holiday standard.
 

Kenneth Womack is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including "Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles" (2007). He has also written three novels, including "John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel" (2010), "The Restaurant at the End of the World" (2012) and "Playing the Angel" (2013). A professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, Womack was selected in April to serve as the sixth Penn State laureate.

Penn State Altoona will host an international Beatles celebration Feb. 7-9, 2014, during the 50th anniversary of the band's legendary performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. 

Last Updated April 04, 2014