The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Words & Music by J. Fred (John Frederick) Coots and Henry Gillespie, 1932

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader

Two elements in this song have made it of particular interest to children as well as adults. First is the attention-getting opening-line warning, "You better watch out," and second is the delightful promise of an upcoming event, "Santa Claus is comin' to town." Coupled with a bouncy and catchy melody, these teasers have made the 1932 composition by lyricist Haven Gillespie (1888-1975) and musician John Frederick Coots (1897 - ) one of the most successful of all popular Christmas carols. Only "Rudolph" and "White Christmas" have outsold this depression-era joyful gem.

"Santa Claus Is Comin'" was the best-known piece by either Gillespie or Coots, although both had other successful hits. It was only by luck and/or persistence that their famous collaborative achievement ever got recorded. Two frustrating years passed before the songwriters could get anyone to sing their composition. Finally, just before Thanksgiving 1934, Eddie Cantor, the popular entertainer and Coot's employer, performed the song on his radio show. (It took some persuasion from Cantor's wife Ida to bring about the premier.) Needless to say, Cantor's presentation was extremely well received, and "Santa Claus is Comin'," aided by subsequent multi-million-selling recordings by Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters and by Perry Como, has become one of the more pleasant fixtures of our holiday season.

The song also has a special historical significance. It was the first in a series of top Christmas songs to appear during a uniquely productive generation from 1932 to 1951. The inhabitants of this consequential period include:

Nineteen holiday favorites in about the same number of years!

William L. Simon, ed., Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (1981)

Everybody knows what happens if you pout or cry around Christmastime. Santa Claus passes you by, that what. Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots wrote words and music to this effect in 1932, but no music publishers was interested in the song because it was a "kiddie" tune and "kiddie" tunes were "known" to be "uncommercial." At the time Coots was writing special material for comedian Eddie Cantor, to whom he showed the song. But even Cantor was about to tun it down for his radio show until his wife Ida persuaded him to give it a try – this was near Thanksgiving in 1934 – and of course it was an instantaneous hit. The radio audience went wild over the song, everybody bought the sheet music, and another Christmas standard was born. Since then there have been many recordings of "Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town," but the ones by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters and Perry Como were the most successful.

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970): A Rankin-Bass animated production which purports to tell the story of Santa Claus — and how he came to be. Told and sung by Fred Astaire, loosely based on the song by Coots and Gillespie. Staring Mickey Rooney as Kris, Keenan Wynn as Winter, and the Westminister Children’s Choir, plus Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, and Robie Lester. Music and lyrics by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. Teleplay by Romeo Muller. Characters include Burgermeister Meisterberger, Winter Warlock, Tanta Kringle (adopted mother of the infant Claus), and Jessica (who would become Mrs. Santa Claus). Songs: ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’, ‘It’s a Difficult Responsibility’ (2 versions), ‘Put One Foot in Front of the Other’, ‘What Better Way to Tell You.’ Produced and directed by Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass.

Ron Clancy, author of the Christmas Classics series of Christmas carol books, has now created a number of "The Story Behind The Music" YouTube videos recounting the histories of numerous Christmas carols, including this carol.

The Stories Behind The Music Of
Santa Claus is Comin' to Town

 

For links to all of Clancy's carol videos, go to
Christmas Classics Videos

I do not have any financial or other relationship with Ron Clancy, The Christmas Classics, or YouTube.