How the Threat of Nuclear War Inspired This Classic Christmas Song
By the time anyone in the Western World reaches a certain age, all of the Christmas standards will be imprinted on their brain. The songs are ubiquitous during November and December. One particular Christmas song was inspired by a historical event that was incredibly far removed from the happiness of the holiday: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
The strangest inspiration for a Christmas song
Sometimes, certain songs become forever associated with historical events. According to the BBC, Don McLean’s “American Pie” is connected to widespread turbulence in the United States during the 1960s. According to Peter Fornatale’s 50 Licks, “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones is often erroneously associated the War in Vietnam.
According to The Atlantic, the Christmas classic “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was actually written as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a period of 12 days in 1962 where the threat of nuclear war between the U.S.S.R. and the United States loomed large over the world. Oddly enough, few associate “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with that tense episode in world history. It was written by two songwriters: Noël (what an appropriate name) Regney and Gloria Shayne. According to the Los Angeles Times, the songwriting duo was married when they composed it.
Regeney explained the song’s origin, saying “In the studio, the producer was listening to the radio to see if we had been obliterated. En route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling.”
The image was strong in their minds. According to AXS, the political events unfolding made them want to write about peace. The song extols the listener to “Listen to what I say/Pray for peace people everywhere.”
Shayne reflected on the song, saying she wanted the track to be commercial but her husband wanted it to be beautiful. The song was both, as its first recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale sold out within the first week of its release. The track has been a part of Christmas in the English-speaking world ever since.
The song’s place in popular culture
Regeny later reflected “I am amazed that people can think they know the song and not know it is a prayer for peace. But we are so bombarded by sound and our attention spans are so short that we now listen only to catchy beginnings.”
The song has certainly connected with people. Alongside “The Little Drummer Boy,” it’s one of the few religious Christmas songs from the 20th century to remain popular for decades. It’s been covered by numerous musicians, including Whitney Houston, Idina Menzel, and the king of Christmas music himself, Bing Crosby. It was also featured in a memorable scene of Joe Dante’s acclaimed B movie Gremlins.
In an age of constantly changing musical trends, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” sounds a touch old-fashioned. It doesn’t get as much airplay as more recent songs like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” However, its message of peace will always be relevant.