Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” did not enjoy the kind of immediate success that John Lennon was used to. But the single from the ex-Beatle and wife Yoko Ono has since become a staple of the holidays.
The single was so melodic that some have decried it for sappiness. (Producer Phil Spector noted its resemblance to The Paris Sisters’ 1961 hit “I Love How You Love Me.”)
But Lennon wanted to leave listeners with more than the cheerful ditties that he, Paul, George and Ringo used to send each Christmas to members of members of their fan club.
As a religious skeptic who had caused a firestorm of controversy by claiming that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” he would not write a hymn to Christ the Redeemer. Likewise, he was uninterested in evoking the sleigh rides or winter landscapes that had increasingly filled the pop airwaves in the last few decades.
What he aimed for was, in part, a challenge—another attempt, like “Give Peace a Chance,” to attempt to rally sentiment against the Vietnam War through the power of music. His song’s refrain, “War is over (if you want it),” put to musical use a slogan of his “Bed in for Peace” protest with Yoko in late spring 1969.
The tune, recorded in late October 1971, came too late in the year for it to be promoted adequately in time for the Christmas season. (One singular exception: Lennon’s performance on the song in a December 16 appearance on The David Frost Show.)
From the last days of the Beatles through most of his decade as a solo artist, Lennon was engaged in a competition with Paul McCartney. One manifestation of that rivalry can be seen in their respective biggest Christmas hits as solo artists. Before he was murdered in 1980, it would not have been out of character for Lennon to compare his major solo Christmas song with McCartney’s, “Wonderful Christmastime.”
In the U.S., “Happy Xmas” peaked at number 36 on the Cash Box Top 100 Singles and number 28 on the Record World Singles Chart. Over in the U.K., matters were even worse, as a publishing-rights dispute between Lennon and music publisher Northern Songs led the song to be delayed for a year. “Wonderful Christmastime” didn’t do particularly well, either, in the U.S., reaching only number 83 on the Cash Box Top 100 Singles chart.
But in terms of how other artists how viewed the tunes, matters have shifted more decidedly Lennon’s way. The Website Second Hand Songs, which tracks song covers, lists approximately 100 interpretations of “Wonderful Christmastime” by other artists, versus more than 2 ½ times that amount for “Happy Christmas.”
The question of other artists’ interpretation of the song came to the forefront for me over 30 years after its release, when Sheryl Crow sang it live as part of the televised Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting in 2002. One year after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, with an attack on Iraq being prepared for the following year, Lennon’s call for collective responsibility (“Another year over/And what have we done?”) retained its melancholy undertone.
Nearly 30 years later, it still does, along with its appeal to universal brotherhood and the instinct for peace that crosses so many spiritual traditions.
My usual quibble: Lennon did not "claim" that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus; he observed that people had declared it to be so--and was not saying it as a =positive= thing, but rather as one of his regular dour observations about celebrity.
Otherwise, well noted. (Iirc, they did rent a billboard--in Times Squar?--to promote the single.)
Regularly play Melissa Etheridge's version of the song.
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