Do You Hear What I Hear — Nazis, the Cold War, and the Little Drummer Boy

Gloria Shayne and Noël Regney — 1962

There’s no shortage of Christmas songs with dicey pasts, but how many of them involve missiles? This one does, but to properly understand “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” we need to look into the lives of the songs two writers.

Gloria Shayne began her music career at a young age, singing in the Shain Sisters, a trio with her two older sisters. She later went on to study music at Boston University before moving to New York City in the 1940s, where she performed as a pianist. It was around this time that she started arranging music for various composers, including fellow Jewish Christmas songwriter Irving Berlin (notice a pattern here?). It wasn’t much later that she met her first husband, Noël Regney, a French World War II veteran and fellow songwriter, while performing in a New York City hotel in 1951.

Regney, on the other hand, was born in Strasbourg, France, a city just west of the French-German border.

Tough, good looking people. Photograph by Donald I. Grant, maintained at the Library and Archives Canada.

After France fell to Germany in 1940, Strasbourg became a German territory, and like many men in the Alsace-Moselle region of France, Regney was drafted into the Nazi army against his will. Not long after joining the military, Regney deserted and joined the French Resistance as a double agent to infiltrate the Nazis. While working with the resistance, he led a group of Nazi soldiers into an ambush, and was shot in the arm in the resulting fight (an odd connection to fellow French lyricist Placide Cappeau).

Shayne and Regney were married in 1951, and the couple began collaborating musically, with Shayne writing the lyrics and Regney composing the music. The 50s and 60s turned out to be a fruitful time for Shayne and Regney, composing songs for several famous artists at the time like Bobby Vinton, Jo Stafford, and Andy Williams, but unfortunately, America wasn’t doing so well when Regney was asked to write the b side to a Christmas single.

The Cold War was seeping deeper and deeper in the American psyche, and in 1962, the war reached a fever pitch during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Like the rest of America, Shayne and Regney were afraid, dreading the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and these feelings made their way into the Christmas tune the pair were composing.

Castro didn’t get enough appreciation for his contributions to the Christmas songbook.

Unlike the majority of their collaborations, Shayne and Regney swapped writing duties, with Shayne composing the music and Regney writing the lyrics. This resulted in maybe the subtlest cry for peace ever put in a Christmas song. Where “A star, a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite” is most directly referring to the Nativity, it just as easily fits with the nuclear missiles that occupied Regney’s mind. Also, consider the wording of “Said the king to the people everywhere, listen to what I say. Pray for peace people everywhere. Listen to what I say.” The call isn’t just to Christians, and it isn’t the typical “Joy to the World,” “glory to the newborn king” message. Regney, a man who’d lived through the destruction of war only twenty years prior, isn’t asking the listener to pray for deliverance or salvation, he’s pleading to the people everywhere to pray for peace.

On the surface, “Do You Hear What I Hear” feels like a classic Christmas standard, with a call and response verse with a glorious rise into the chorus and a message of triumph, but when put into context, the song becomes urgent and foreboding. It’s not a happy song, with a chorus that though it has a regal presence, there’s almost a coldness to it, something a little grim.

The Harry Simeone Chorale recorded the song around Thanksgiving in 1962, a group that also popularized “Little Drummer Boy,” and was later recorded by several popular crooners in the 60s, including Bing Crosby’s 1963 recording, which launched the song into the mainstream. Since then it’s been a staple of the typical holiday album, with artists like Carrie Underwood, Mannheim Steamroller, and even Bob Dylan throwing their own variations into the ether. It’s also been interpreted musically in many different ways. Pink Martini’s 2010 version is smooth and jazzy, where Sufjan Stevens felt it could use a little more vocal editing and drum machines.

Several later versions have their merits, but unsettling intro and the serenity in the original 1962 version to me seems to best touch on just how dark that song really is.

So, like, next time you hear that one, now you can think about nuclear holocaust, so that’s something to brighten up your holidays.




Toronto-based journalist and creative writer with an interest in music, art, people, and small business. Twitter and Instagram @PeteSanf

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Peter Sanfilippo

Peter Sanfilippo

Toronto-based journalist and creative writer with an interest in music, art, people, and small business. Twitter and Instagram @PeteSanf

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