The Current

The little known history of some popular Christmas songs

Music historian and conductor Kevin Zakresky discusses the history of holiday songs like I'll be Home For Christmas.

'I'll be Home For Christmas' was written from the perspective of a soldier fighting abroad during WWII

While Christmas will look quite different this year, the music will be one consistent feature. (Ramil Gibadullin/Shutterstock)

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For many Canadians, Christmas songs go hand in hand with the holidays and with ideas of sitting by a fire, playing in the snow and being together with family.

But this year, as people stay home and avoid holiday gatherings due to the pandemic, Christmas music might have an extra special place in their hearts. 

"It's like a smell, those scents that immediately transport you back to a certain time," says Kevin Zakresky, music historian and conductor with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music.

Zakresky has been teaching a class on the history of Christmas carols in which he tracks their development from Gregorian chants and medieval hymns through the centuries to Mariah Carey's holiday chart-topper and beyond. 

He says some popular holiday tunes were written during tough times not unlike the one we're in now, or are about feelings of longing and hope.

Zakresky spoke with The Current's Laura Lynch about a few of the classics.

I'll Be Home for Christmas 

This song was first recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby during the Second World War and is written from the perspective of a soldier who is overseas.

"So [the soldier] wants the snow and the mistletoe. He wants the presents under the tree. It's a very poignant message … at a time when a lot of people's loved ones were overseas serving."

The song ends on a melancholic note with the soldier admitting "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams." 

"Which is, I think, something maybe all of us are feeling a little bit this year as well," suggested Zakresky.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

First written in 1943, the song was modified to be slightly cheerier the following year for a movie starring Judy Garland titled Meet Me in St. Louis

More than a decade later, Frank Sinatra changed the lyrics again and sang an even lighter rendition of the song for a holiday album called A Jolly Christmas.

"The story of the carol lyrics is so great because it's sort of was continually evolving, getting cheerier with each new edition."

Song For A Winter's Night

Zakresky says the first time he heard this song it blew him away and he ran out and bought the album.

"I suppose it itself is not a Christmas carol, but it is very Canadian and I think describes the experience of many of us in the cold up here," explained Zakresky.

He first discovered the Sarah McLachlan version of the song while studying abroad and spending his first Christmas away from home before later learning it was originally written and performed by Gordon Lightfoot.

"It has this sort of frostiness about it, that was almost warming, ironically to me."


Written by Lito Howse. Produced by Rachel Levi-McLaughlan.

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