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The Story Behind the Christmas Song "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas"

"Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" is a traditional Christmas carol that was developed from a poem crafted by Emily Huntington Miller. In December 1865, the poem was published in "The Little Corporal Magazine" titled - "Lilly's Secret."

Santa Claus


The lyrics of this popular carol are also ascribed to Benjamin Hanby, who crafted "Up on the Housetop," which is similar to "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas." However, the lyrics that are most prominent in the present scenario are closely related to the original poem by Emily Huntington Miller. Another popular opinion attributes it to John Piersol McCaskey, a celebrated publisher and song editor of the contemporary era.

McCaskey's heir's apparently claimed that he had crafted the song back in 1867. They also mentioned that the word "Johnny" used in the lyrics is McCaskey's son John. However, there is no concrete evidence against that claim. In 1881, John Piersol McCaskey published his own book titled "Franklin Square Song Collection No. 1," which offers relevant attribution to the composers and lyrics. However, his own name is not connected to this particular carol anywhere on that list.

The Chronicle of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas

The protagonist of this traditional carol also has a rich history. The revered character "Santa Claus," who brightens children's imaginations each Christmas is also known as "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas." However, most people are not aware of the fact that there was a real person bearing the name "Saint Nicholas."

The famous character of "Santa Claus" has little similarity to the bishop "Saint Nicholas," who lived some 1700 years ago in Turkey. He was well-known for his generosity, particularly towards children. "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" is one of the carols that offer reference to his original name.

Musical Overview

The melody incorporated into the carol is quite modest, following a definite pattern of four repeating notes leading each phrase. The lyrics also describe the list of Santa's gifts, which offers a distinct appeal towards children, who love the cheerful ambiance on offer.

Another widely acclaimed belief is that the carol is a work of Wilf Carter, a Canadian country musician, also known by his alias "Montana Slim." "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" is also mentioned in Susan Gregg's work titled "Christmas Orphans." The important point is, it was attributed in 1910, which was before Wilf published his version. The carol is performed to a traditional melody, which was crafted in 1857 by James Lord Pierpont for probably the most famous Christmas carol - "Jingle Bells."

Also, the carol arrangement has been famously performed utilizing Johann Pachelbel's "Canon in D Major," with an upward tempo. The usage of a musical canon is also a fitting tribute to Benjamin R. Hanby, which makes the piece omnipresent in the present day.

"Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" in Franklin Square Song Collection, No. 1, published in 1881 by John Piersol McCaskey


Usage in Popular Culture 

This carol has been now reiterated by thousands of artists across the globe, and not just in basic covers, but also in different regional dialects. Churches, especially, translated and reiterated Christmas carols in regional languages to increase their reach.

  • In 1949 Ray Smith created his own iteration of the carol. 
  • In 1961, Chet Atkins used this song for his Christmas album titled "Christmas with Chet Atkins." It's also his 16th studio album. 
  • In 1962, it was a part of "Christmas with Eddy Arnold," the country music performers' famous album. 
  • In 1963, the carol was utilized in a rendition by the famous band "Alvin and the Chipmunks." Also, this version is unique as it uses the names of Theodore, Alvin, and Simon in the lyrics.   
  • In 1980, the carol also became particularly famous after being used in the film titled "Ordinary People." The very same year, George Winston's included another famous iteration on his festive album.
  • In 1990, the carol was also a part of the 4th video titled "Waiting for Santa" in the Barney and the Backyard Gang series. 
  • In 1995, Andy Williams produced his own cover for "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas."
  • In 2004, the first two bars of the carol's first verse were used as a part of a celebratory sequence. The score was arranged by Alan Silvestri. 
  • In 2004, the animated movie "In Search of Santa" used an instrumental cover of the carol. The arrangement was performed by a xylophone and a horn by musicians Keith Heffner and Michael Lloyd.  
  • In 2017, Carole King used this song in his album titled "A Beautiful Christmas Day EP." 
  • The carol is also used in a song titled "Barbie" in the movie "A Christmas Carol." it was performed in the film by child artists Catherine Beadnell and Eden Starling during the festive season itself.

The Victorian Era was a testament to a surge in the popularity of Christmas carols, which was closely associated with a renewed enthusiasm towards the festive season. Christmas offered an avenue to expand people's feelings, to express a bright and loud euphoria against the grey and dark winter. The music of "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" echoes a similar sentiment, catching the listeners unaware, converting the impending gloom into a happy memory. Like all Christmas carols, it truly helps to share the light. It conveys an irresistible glee, which is genuine and also necessary to enjoy all festivities. 


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