Tired of all the Christmas tunes? I know who you should blame the most.

Johnny Marks is the reason for your earworm season

Photo via Los Angeles Times.

It’s Christmas season. Which means unless you’re successfully hiding under a rock in an uncharted forest, you’re being bombarded with Christmas tunes.

Whether you find Christmas songs a sentimental reminder of times gone by or an annual assault on your senses to be dreaded, one man deserves most of the credit (or blame) for your December earworm dilemma: Composer extraordinaire Johnny Marks.

To be fair, Mr. Marks (were he still alive), would have you know that his songwriting career consists of many other non-Christmassy tunes of note. But that’s a trial — excuse me, article — for another day. Today’s issue is all the holly-jolly-jingle-janglin-sleigh-pullin’ songs he wedged into our brains. Every year.

Here’s a quick (but not exhaustive) list of Mr. Marks’ Christmas confections:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Marks wrote this children’s Christmas classic in 1949. By far his most successful song, it is second only to “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin) in terms of year-over-year Christmas song sales. Marks wrote the song to complement his brother-in-law Robert L. May’s poem. Singing cowboy Gene Autry sang the original and definitive version of the song, which became his best-known recording among many other career-spanning hits for Autry.

The Most Wonderful Day of the Year

Marks wrote this for the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Marks was given the opportunity to create new songs to complete the hour-long television special that debuted on December 6, 1964 on NBC. Sung by the toys inhabiting the Island of Misfit Toys.

A Holly Jolly Christmas

Also from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, “Holly Jolly” was actually originally recorded by the Quinto Sisters years before the TV special. Of course, the more famous version is by Burl Ives from the television soundtrack.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Like all of Marks’ Christmas classics, this one has been covered by just about everyone. Bing Crosby’s version sticks in my mind the most. The song is based on the 1863 poem “Christmas Bells” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It had been set to music prior to Marks’ handling of the song, but his arrangement is the classic best known today.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

OK, I hate this one. There, I said it. Not as much as I hate “Santa Baby,” “Blue Christmas,” “Grandma got run over by …” (I can’t even finish typing it), but to be clear, Marks is not responsible (directly) for these sonic atrocities. Coming one year after “Jingle Bell Rock,” another of my least favorites, it’s fair to wonder if it wasn’t a wee bit of a rip-off of “Jingle Bell Rock.” Brenda Lee covered that one, too, as have many others.

“Rockin’ Around” was — and remains — a monstrously popular Christmas-time song. Brenda Lee was only 13 years old when she recorded the song in 1958. Initially, it did not sell well, but did finally become a bona fide hit in 1960 when Lee became a star in her own right.

Run, Rudolph, Run

This Chuck Berry classic, also sometimes known as “Run, Run, Rudolph,” was originally credited to Chuck Berry and Marvin Brodie as songwriters. In reality, Marks wrote it with Brodie, but Marks’ name was not put on the original record so as to not associate this rock ’n’ roll 12-bar blues song with Marks, who was renowned as the (less cool) Christmas song guy. Melodically, it’s about as identical to Berry’s 1959 hit “Little Queenie” as two songs can be.

Also: “Silver and Gold,” “A Merry, Merry Christmas,” “The Night before Christmas Song,” “Everyone’s a Child at Christmas,” “Happy New Year, Darling,” “When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter,” and “Jingle, Jingle, Jingle.”

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good dose of syrupy earworm. And Happy Hanukkah to Mr. Marks and his continuously enriched heirs. He was Jewish, for the record.


An earlier version of this article originally appeared on WiseTribe. Check them out to see how they’re bringing the generations together and strengthening communities through collaborative learning experiences that lead to a wiser world.

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