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Christmas on the Radio

Every year, for nearly two months, radio stations fill the air with great Christmas music from what seems to be a bottomless well of recordings. It’s an eclectic mix that draws on songs from the 1930s to the present, but the sounds of Christmas on the radio once went far beyond this.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Christmas Eve on the NBC Radio network climaxed with the singing of Silent Night by one of the stars of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, notably Ernestine Schumann-Heink or Kirsten Flagstad. The performance was carefully timed to end just before midnight so that NBC could gently transition from the stage at the Met to Trinity’s belltower a few miles south as an announcer intoned:

“…the National Broadcasting Company takes you to historic Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan, where the bells are tolling the hour to usher in Christmas Day.”

The singer and the bells were heard live, not from recordings. Depending on their location, listeners heard the network’s welcome to Christmas as early 9:00 pm, but no one seemed to mind.

Merlin H. Aylesworth, Broadcasting, January 1, 1932.

These real time adventures in sound were features of radio’s yearly efforts to project a wide ranging holiday spirit. In those days, the distance between the Metropolitan Opera and the Trinity Church was less than four miles, but the development of short wave broadcasting made it possible to ring in the holidays from points around the globe. In fact, Trinity’s Christmas bells were first heard on NBC in 1931, as part of a day long international hookup conceived by NBC president Merlin H. Aylesworth that included President Hoover’s lighting of the Christmas Tree in Washington, DC, a performance by the Sistine Choir in Rome, a concert for newly arrived immigrants on Ellis Island, a Lessons and Carol service at Kings College in England and a visit to a German Christmas festival in Berlin. A moment before midnight, Rev. Rennie MacInnes, the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, was heard pressing a button that activated an elaborate transatlantic electrical chain that set Trinity’s bells in motion from more than 5,000 miles away.

Sadly, these earliest Christmas broadcasts do not survive in any form. But there are many examples of this kind of ambitious national and international Christmas radio programming from the mid-1930s on. The broadcasters of the United States were not alone in this approach, and one of the earliest Christmas broadcasts in the collection of the Library of Congress is a three hour BBC broadcast simulcast to the United States in 1934 that featured hookups all around England and beyond to Christmas observances in Canada, New Zealand, India and Africa.

As the 1930s wore on, international events became harder to ignore even in these festive broadcasts. Browsing the Library of Congress SONIC database for Christmas radio broadcasts in that era turns up shows with titles such as “Christmas in Shanghai” and “Christmas in Helsinki,” from 1937 and 1939 respectively, but these programs are anything but cheerful. On Christmas Eve, 1937, during a tense standoff with Japanese army forces gathered at the border of the International Settlement zone of Shanghai, members of the United States Marine Corps brigade broadcast greetings home.  A Marine colonel remarks “I hope that you will never have the kind of a Christmas that the Chinese are experiencing this year.” A reporter for United Press International tells listeners that he’s been officially advised “to confine my remarks to greeting my mother and daughter in Washington. I hope you’re listening.”

Broadcasting, January 1, 1940.

And though NBC correspondent Warren Irvin mentioned the seasonal sound of sleighbells that were still common in Finland in 1939, his “Christmas in Helsinki” broadcast dealt mainly with the Soviet invasion of Finland that had begun a few weeks earlier.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and English Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the light of the National Community Christmas Tree at the White House, December 24, 1941. Note the NBC microphone at the left.

The presidential tradition of lighting a national Christmas tree began in the 1920s, and soon became a staple of Christmas Eve broadcasts. In 1941, President Roosevelt was joined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The United States had entered World War II less than three weeks earlier, and the tone was understandably different than in previous years. In remarks that were translated for short wave Spanish and Portuguese simulcasts to South America, and heard in England via transcription on Christmas Day, Churchill said hopefully:

Here, in the midst of war, raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart.  Therefore we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm.  Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.

Some wartime Christmas broadcasts were only heard overseas. In a broadcast made for the Office of War Information on December 17, 1942, the pianist-comedian Victor Borge, a war refugee from Denmark, spoke to Danes in his native language. After a few jokes about living in the United States, he says: “I wanted to be serious, but I am worried my sentimental feelings would take over, and you don’t want to hear me cry in the microphone when I might as well sit at the piano and play my favorite song.  I get letters from listeners whenever I play this, and everyone wants to know what it is called and who composed it.  It is called “Lille Vuggevise” [Little lullaby] and it is composed by my favorite, the great Danish composer, Fini Henriques.”

Victor Borge. Broadcasting, April-June, 1958.

Borge concludes the short broadcast with an organ performance of the Danish Christmas carol, “Det kimer nu til julefest,” or in English: “The Bells of Christmas Chime Once More.” Karen Hill, a Library of Congress specialist who translated Borge’s remarks for this blogpost notes that “it is a very somber Christmas carol that would have brought many tears to Danes listening to it. He chose a good Christmas carol to end the broadcast.”

International hookups continued to be a staple of holiday broadcasting after the war, and starting on New Year’s Eve 1945, the big bands and dance orchestras of the day took part in all-star programs that lasted as long as eight hours as the networks shuttled between parties coast to coast and even overseas. This tradition lasted well into the 1960s.

The arrival of magnetic tape in the late 1940s enabled different approaches. Bing Crosby, one of the first boosters of the new technology, used it to create an annual radio special called “Christmas Sing with Bing,” which used his pre-recorded announcements and songs as the frame for visits around the country with choirs in locations as remote as Alaskan villages and Indian reservations.

Around the same time, as radio and then television expanded their reach into the global village, Tony Schwartz reached inward and made New York City his broadcasting oyster, taking his tape recorder into taxi cabs, shops and parks . Every year, he created an aural postcard of New York at Christmas time, edited together from his tapes of choir rehearsals at St. Patrick’s Cathedrals, conversations with schoolchildren, the complaints of postal workers and exultation of a storefront church congregation singing “Joy to the World.”

Today, the best remembered traditions of radio’s first golden age include Lionel Barrymore’s unforgettable characterization of Ebenezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol, and Jack Benny’s annual misadventures in search of cheap presents. But reality-based programming also accounted for many of the medium’s most impressive and moving moments.

Interested in more information about the Library’s radio collections?  The Recorded Sound Research Center welcomes your questions -don’t hesitate to get in touch! To find recorded sound materials, search the Online Catalog and SONIC, or get in touch with the Recorded Sound reference staff through Ask-a-Librarian. Visit the Recorded Sound Research Center website for more information on researching our collections.

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