The Story of... 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' by John Lennon
3 December 2020, 13:51 | Updated: 16 November 2022, 16:27
"So this is Christmas..." is perhaps one of the most famous opening lines of any Christmas song to date, but just what was the message behind John lennon and Yoko Ono's iconic track?
But what inspired the song and how was it made? Here's all the big facts:
'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' meaning: What inspired the song?
The song came about after more than two years of peace activism by John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, that began with the 'bed-ins' they created in March and May 1969.
The song was part of an international multimedia campaign launched by the couple in December 1969, at the height of the counterculture movement and protests against America's involvement in the Vietnam War.
They had rented billboard spaces in 12 major cities around the world, for the display of black-and-white posters that declared "WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko".
The slogan had previously appeared in the 1968 anti-war songs 'The War Is Over' by Phil Ochs, and 'The Unknown Soldier' by the Doors. However, it is not known if this was deliberate or merely coincidental.
Lennon came up with the song as a way of continuing the themes of social unity and peaceful change via personal accountability, that was previously the basis of the earlier billboard campaign, while attempting to convey optimism and avoiding the sentimentality he felt often characterised Christmas music.
He was the first Beatle to release an original Christmas song after they had parted ways.
How was it made?
Happy Christmas (War Is Over)
In October 1971, with just a simple melody and half-formed lyrics, Lennon recorded an acoustic guitar demo in his room at the St Regis Hotel in New York City, where he and Ono were living at the time.
Ono later received co-writing credit, but her actual contribution to the song at this stage is unclear, as she did not participate in the demo.
Lennon brought in Phil Spector to produce the song. The first recording session was held on Thursday, October 28, at the Record Plant studio.
Session musicians – some of whom had performed as members of the Plastic Ono Band – recorded instrumental backings, and Lennon and Ono added the main vocals.
30 children aged from four to 12 from The Harlem Community Choir recorded backing vocals in the chorus.
What do John and Yoko whisper at the start?
The song begins with a spoken Christmas greeting from Ono and Lennon to their children from previous marriages: Ono whispers "Happy Christmas, Kyoko", then Lennon whispers "Happy Christmas, Julian".
This has often been erroneously transcribed as "Happy Christmas, Yoko. Happy Christmas, John."
Did any other songs inspire it?
Peter, Paul & Mary ~ Stewball
When Lennon first played the demo for Phil Spector, the producer said that the song's opening line, "So this is Christmas…", was rhythmically identical to his 1961 single 'I Love How You Love Me' by the Paris Sisters.
Lennon also instructed the guitarists to play mandolin riffs similar to the ones heard in 'Try Some, Buy Some', a song Spector and George Harrison had produced for his wife, Ronnie Spector, of the Ronettes.
The chords and melodic structure of the song are rather similar to the traditional English ballad 'Skewball'. The verses are particularly similar to the 1963 version (titled 'Stewball') by Peter, Paul and Mary.
How did it perform in the charts?
A dispute between publisher Northern Songs and Lennon over publishing rights delayed the release of the song in the UK until November 1972.
It peaked at number four in 1972, and has charted many since. In 1980, in the weeks after Lennon's death, it reached number two, behind his other classic 'Imagine'.
On its US debut in 1971, it wasn't a success. This was due to the single's late release, which resulted in limited airplay before Christmas, and a lack of promotion at the time.
Who has covered it?
Sarah McLachlan - Happy Xmas (War is Over)
Over the years, many artists have performed cover versions of the track, including:
- Sarah McLachlan (above)
- The Fray
- Andy Williams
- Neil Diamond - Diana Ross
- Celine Dion
- The Moody Blues
- Carly Simon
- Sarah Brightman
- REO Speedwagon
- Vanessa Carlton
- Glee Cast
- Maroon 5