At some point during Christmas Eve family gatherings of my youth, perhaps as the bowl of “adult punch” ebbed low, my great uncle Byron would slip his Elvis’ Christmas Album LP onto the hi-fi. A bit later, he’d cue it up again. And perhaps again, to the annoyance of some of the assembled aunts, cousins, and assorted relations. Not me, though. I was a rock ’n’ roll kid, growing up near Memphis no less, and preferred Presley’s soundtrack to the season over Burl Ives or that Como square, especially when the already-classic, extra-Elvisy “Blue Christmas” would come around again.
I was not alone. Since its release sixty-five years ago, Elvis’ Christmas Album has sold more than twenty million copies, making it the best-selling Christmas album in the United States, and on Planet Earth. That’s no small feat, considering that holiday music spun by pop stars has become a genre unto itself in the ensuing decades. (In case you’re keeping score, Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas rings in at fifteen million sold.)
“It’s part of musical history and an absolutely great Christmas album,” says Steve Christopher, host of the Elvis on the Air radio program and a lifelong Presley fanatic. “You don’t want to be without it on your holiday playlist.”
Ironically, upon its release, the now-cherished album was as scandalous as the rest of Presley’s early rise to fame. By 1957 he’d released only two full albums, and critics were aghast that the hip-swiveling Southern maverick had the gall to make his third a—fetch the smelling salts!—Christmas album. Time reported that big-band leader Sammy Kaye declared that it “borders on the sacrilegious.” Worse, renowned composer Irving Berlin was so chagrined at the prospect of Presley interpreting his Bing Crosby–canonized “White Christmas” that he tried to have it banned from radio play.
There was no reason to put Presley on the naughty list. One entire side of the album (hey, remember sides?) is composed of four reverently rendered gospel songs, plus the traditional hymns “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The other side loosens things up with more contemporary tracks, including “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and the bluesy “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” penned especially for Elvis by the hitmaker songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and generally credited as the first rock ’n’ roll Christmas song. All good stuff. But the standout? “Blue Christmas,” in which Elvis injects a heightened version of his signature breathy drawl into lyrics about unrequited love at the holidays, such as:
And when those blue snowflakes start falling,
That’s when those blue memories start calling.
“That’s signature Elvis, a great song sung by a great singer,” Christopher says. “It’s not dated at all. It doesn’t sound like it was recorded sixty-five years ago.”
It didn’t take long for Elvis’ Christmas Album to transcend any fuss and become a classic. All by itself, it still creates a Yuletide mix that rivals anything you’ll find on Spotify. No matter if your playlist veers toward Darlene Love or Mannheim Steamroller or Taylor Swift, also put a little Elvis magic in the Yuletide air.
“I think the album represents a love for Christmas that Elvis had his entire life,” Christopher says. “I can’t imagine there are people who haven’t already heard it, but if not, they’re going to love it.”
Uncle Byron and I concur.