John & Yoko / Plastic Ono Band — 1971
Pop stars and Christmas songs are like peanut butter and chocolate: they were always meant to be together, and eventually someone realized there was money to be made. When you have pop artists like Michael Buble, Carrie Underwood, or Mariah Carey signing contracts for Christmas songs, typically you get a middle-of-the-road, innocuous single or album that will get unlimited mall radio play and make cash year after year. But what happens when you get someone with some edge writing a Christmas song? Well the world found out in the early 70s when John Lennon (with Yoko Ono) became the first ex-Beatle to take a swing at the genre.
Though “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” officially dropped in 1971, the story of that song begins several years earlier with (and this likely won’t surprise you) the Vietnam War. Like many other artists and activists of the day, John and Yoko didn’t keep their criticism of the United States’ involvement in the war private, and they used their celebrity status and wealth to their advantage when it came to garnering attention to their cause. First there were their famous Bed-Ins for Peace in March and May of 1969 in Amsterdam and Montreal respectively, where the two experimented with new forms of occupational protest. Those protests then lead to their billboard campaign, when Lennon and Ono rented space in 12 cities to send out a simple message: “WAR IS OVER! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”
After the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 (which, let’s set the record straight, had very little to do with Yoko Ono, and if any middle-aged guy in a record store tries to tell you otherwise, they’ve got no idea what they’re talking about), Lennon immediately found success in his prolific solo career, but it wasn’t until his seventh single, “Imagine” in 1971 that he started topping charts without Paul, George, and Ringo. “Imagine” would end up being the best selling single of his solo career, and the commercial success of that song would also teach Lennon a lesson: if you want to say something real, it has to be pretty. “Put your political message across with a little honey,” he said of that record in an interview with the Rolling Stone. If you removed the content of the lyrics, “Imagine” would still be a beautiful and accessible melody, and Lennon and Ono would apply this lesson again that same year.
With that approach in mind, Lennon and Ono went to work elaborating on the themes of the billboard campaign, and decided the next logical application was through song. John began recording “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” in October of 1971 from his and Yoko’s rooms at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. With only the bones of the song completed, Lennon recorded a solo acoustic demo. At this point, the melody and lyrics were still unfinished.
After the pair moved across town to their Greenwich Village apartment, they recorded a second demo, and by the end of the month, they were ready to take to the studio and put together their team. Like Let It Be and the first two Lennon/Plastic Ono Band records, they hired on legendary pop producer and soon-to-be murderer Phil Spector to produce the single.
The backing band included members of the Plastic Ono Band, including Klaus Voormann, the artist and musician who designed the cover of the Beatle’s 1966 record Revolver.Voormann, however, only plays bass on the single’s B-side “Listen, the Snow is Falling” after a delayed flight from Germany forced him to miss the first day of the session.
There was still a piece missing from the recording, however. To give the song its grand ending, John and Yoko brought in the Harlem Community Choir. Made up of thirty children between the ages of four and twelve, the choir came into the studio on the afternoon of Halloween to sing the counter melody to the song during the big finale. They also took the photo for the sleeve cover that day, featuring John and Yoko sitting with the kids as they sing.
The single had a lightening-fast turnaround. Within 30 days, the track went from the studio to store shelves in the United States, arriving in time for a December 1st launch. However due to a dispute over publishing rights, the single wouldn’t land in the UK until the following year.
Unfortunately, the timing of the release may not have helped the single initially. The song may have launched a bit late into the Christmas season in the US, and it struggled to get much attention in 1971. It peaked at number 36 on the Cash Box Top 100 Singles, and only number 3 on the Billboard Christmas Singles Chart, but like most Christmas songs, it’s popularity would grow over the years.
“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” really started to pick up steam in the UK, where it immediately garnered attention in 1972. The song peaked at number 4 on the UK singles charts, and it has also would continue to hit the charts nine more times, including after Lennon’s murder on December 8th, 1980, where it claimed the number two spot behind another Lennon cut, “Imagine.”
For the longest time I didn’t care for “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” It always felt a bit off-putting to me. It’s probably partially due to the cognitive dissonance that comes from someone as problematic as John Lennon writing about peace and harmony, but it also always felt like Lennon and Ono just wanted to write another protest piece but decided to disguise it as a Christmas song to garner extra attention.
As it turns out, that’s kinda exactly what they did, but looking at it now that’s actually an interesting reversal of the way lot of Christmas music was made. Take “What Child is This” for example; it’s a traditional folk tune (“Greensleeves”), reworked to celebrate Christmas.
The other important factor to consider is the actual message John and Yoko use the season to promote. As far as lyrical content goes, “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is as true to the Christmas spirit as any of the more secular holiday songs, if not considerably more so. Christmas is supposed to be a season of hope and peace, bringing warmth and light to a dreary time of year, and these themes appear in most Christmas songs (“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “the Christmas Song,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to name a few). Though Lennon and Ono propose these as a commentary on global armed conflict, those themes of social unity and peace perfectly fit the season.
One other exceptional element of the song however is the way that it challenges the listener. We’ve seen this before in Lennon’s work, most notably in “Imagine.” When you listen to that song, his words command you to quite literally imagine what he’s singing. “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try.” “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do.” As a listener, you join him on that journey, and by the time the chorus hits, he directly calls you out. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” You’ve taken part in that journey, and you’ve become a dreamer yourself, even if just for a moment.
John and Yoko take the listener for a similar ride on “Happy Xmas.” The verses don’t focus on the present season, but reflect on the previous 11 months. They ask the listener what they have done with their time, what example they have set now that we’re at the end of the year, and they challenge the listener to try harder in the new year. “And so happy Christmas (war is over), for black and for white (if you want it). For yellow and red ones (war is over). Let’s stop all the fight (now)” The song is aggressive and confrontational in a way that, to my knowledge, no other Christmas song has ever dared.
Looking at it now as a classic that’s played every year, it’s a bit shocking that “Happy Xmas” is this successful. There’s a massive canon of Christmas music but generally the most famous songs are either the religious carols or the ones that express the joy of the season in a pretty obvious and shallow way (looking at you, Paul McCartney). “Happy Xmas” is anything but shallow by comparison. It’s challenging and critical, and it doesn’t just set a scene to bake cookies or put up string lights, and maybe that’s why I didn’t like it for so long. It’s pretty, and it sounds Christmas-y, but John and Yoko don’t want you to be content. “Let’s hope it’s a good one,” but it’s ultimately up to you. Have a cookie, and get to work.