In spite of their wide-ranging cultural impact, the Beatles were relative late-comers into the realm of holiday music fare. But as it happens, their stockings weren’t entirely bare. As solo artists, the ex-Fabs scored a pair of standout tracks in John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” but it would take the Beatles’ Anthology project in the mid-1990s to finally bring their collective musical season’s greeting to the ears of the masses.
Originally released in December 1971, Lennon and Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” offers a gentle protest against the Vietnam War in the song’s contemplative refrain, “War is over / If you want it.” Credited to John and Yoko/Plastic Ono Band along with the Harlem Community Choir, the composition’s inherent social activism was bolstered by a billboard campaign heralding peace in a dozen major cities. For many Beatles fans, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” took on even more poignant strains during the 1980 holiday season, when the song dominated the airwaves only scant weeks after Lennon’s senseless murder.
Released in December 1979, McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” was recorded during the sessions associated with the McCartney II project. Another one of the composer’s patented one-man band concoctions, “Wonderful Christmastime” has enjoyed a slow burn since its original appearance on the holiday airwaves, gaining steady momentum over the years as a pop-music standard. For their part, George Harrison and Ringo Starr have been decidedly less successful in the holiday merrymaking business, with George authoring “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” as a New Year’s Eve sing-along in time for the December 1974 Christmas season and Ringo releasing the holiday-themed I Wanna Be Santa Claus in October 1999. As it happened, neither George nor Ringo’s seasonal entries managed to set many chestnuts roasting on an open fire. And indeed for many years, the Beatles’ catchiest holiday greeting—1967’s “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)”—lapsed in obscurity, save for the record’s limited edition fan club release.
Originally recorded for the Beatles’ 1967 Christmas record, “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” is one of the very few songs credited to all four Beatles as composers. The song’s comic spirit was likely inspired by the BBC Radio 1’s Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, while also sharing the same free-form hilarity inherent in the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” which the Beatles had recorded in large part during the previous summer.
Produced by George Martin, the Beatles recorded “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” at Abbey Road Studios on November 28, 1967. The song’s heartwarming chorus features all four Beatles on vocals, along with Martin and actor Victor Spinetti. The six-minute Christmas record centered around a narrative in which various groups audition for a BBC radio show, with “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” serving as the track’s periodic refrain. The four Beatles voice various characters ranging from game-show contestants and musicians (the Ravellers) to actors in a fictive radio program entitled Theatre Hour.
The track itself begins with Lennon ad-libbing the words “Interplanetary remix! Page four hundred and forty four!” At the conclusion of “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” each Beatle offers a spoken-word seasonal greeting to the band’s fans. With “Auld Lang Syne” as his accompaniment, Lennon brings “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” to a close with a reading of his Joycean, nonsensical poem entitled “When Christmas Time Is Over.”
As with the other fan club records, “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” was distributed to British fans in December 1967 via a seven-inch flexi-disc in a decorated picture sleeve, while American fans received a postcard with season’s greeting. In 1984, Geoff Emerick remixed “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” in preparation for the unreleased Beatles Sessions project, leaving the song to languish for another decade until 1994, when it enjoyed an unexpected second life.
With the first Beatles’ Anthology compilation in the offing, Martin remixed “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” for release in December 1995 as the B-side for “Free as a Bird.” With “Free as a Bird” registering a top-10 hit for the band mates, “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” finally received its due as a mainstream holiday release, annually warming the hearts of Beatles fans across the world.