A Month of Christmas: Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town & Christmas in Japan

Japan - Scott #3386c (2011)
Japan – Scott #3386c (2011)

Earlier this week, I wrote that my favorite rock Christmas song is the live version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” as performed by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in 1975 and released as the B-side of a single in 1985. The song was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie and was first sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. It became an instant hit with orders for 500,000 copies of sheet music and more than 30,000 records sold within 24 hours. The version for Bluebird Records by George Hall and His Orchestra (vocal by Sonny Schuyler) was very popular in 1934 and reached the various charts of the day. The song has been recorded by over 200 artists, including Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters, The Crystals, Mariah Carey, Frank Sinatra, Chris Isaak, Michael Bublé and The Jackson 5 .

Haven Gillespie’s lyrics begin “You’d better watch out, better not cry / You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why / Santa Claus is coming to town”. Cantor’s original performance, broadcast at the height of the Great Depression, included verses not in the standard version of the song, encouraging listeners to be charitable and help the less-fortunate at Christmas.

The following are the lyrics of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” as sung by Bruce Springsteen:

You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
He’s making a list, he’s checkin’ it twice
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
You better be good for goodness sake
(Better be good for goodness sake)
You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows if you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
You better be good for goodness sake
(Better be good for goodness sake)
You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is
Santa Claus is, yeah
Santa Claus is, yeah
Santa Claus is coming, woah-oh
Santa Claus is coming to town

 

The earliest known recorded version of the song was by banjoist Harry Reser and his band on October 24, 1934 (Decca 264A) featuring Tom Stacks on vocal, the version shown in the Variety charts of December 1934. The song was a sheet music hit, reaching number 1. The song was also recorded for Victor Records (catalog No. 25145A) on September 26, 1935, by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra with vocals by Cliff Weston and Edythe Wright.

The song has become a traditional Christmas standard and has been covered by numerous recording artists. Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters reached the Billboard charts briefly in 1947 with it. In 1963, the Four Seasons version charted at number 23 in Billboard. Also in 1963, producer Phil Spector included a version of the song on his rock album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector performed by The Crystals. In 1970, Rankin-Bass produced Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, an hour-long animated TV film based on the song, with Fred Astaire narrating the origin of Santa Claus. In 1970, The Jackson 5 included the song on their best-selling album Jackson 5 Christmas Album. In 1971, The Partridge Family included the song on A Partridge Family Christmas Card. The Carpenters released the song as a single in 1974.

Bruce Springsteen “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” (live) promotional single, 1981.
Bruce Springsteen “My Hometown” b/w “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” (live) 7-inch single, 1985

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band began performing the song as early as December 1973 including shows at the Bristol, Rhode Island, Motor Inn on December 19 and the Rova Farms Function Center in Jackson, New Jersey, on December 23. The earliest audio recording of the song was a bootleg recording from the Boston Music Hall on December 2, 1975. Springsteen’s version is inspired by that recorded by the Crystals in 1963, borrowing the chorus refrain. Bruce’s entire concert at the C.W. Post College Dome in Greenvale, New York, on December 12, 1975, was professionally recorded by Jimmy Iovine as the plan at the time was to follow the Born to Run album with a live record. To date, only the rendition of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” has appeared from that recording, first as a promotional single sent to radio stations and then in 1982 as part of the Sesame Street compilation album In Harmony 2. The first wide release of the 1975 recording was in 1985 as a B-side to “My Hometown”, a single from the Born in the U.S.A. album.

Springsteen’s rendition of the song has received radio airplay perennially at Christmastime for years; it appeared on Billboard magazine’s Hot Singles Recurrents chart each year from 2002 to 2009 due to seasonal air play. Live performances of the song often sees the band encouraging the audience to sing some of the lyrics with — or in place of — the band’s vocalists (usually the line “you’d better be good for goodness sake”, and the key line “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” Sometimes, concert crowds sing along with the entire song. This version remains a Springsteen concert favorite during the months of November and December, but has been performed (by request) as early as May.

Other well-known versions of this song include Mariah Carey from the album Merry Christmas (1994) and the Pointer Sisters version off the album A Very Special Christmas, also borrowing from the Crystal’s arrangement. Andy Williams performed the song on his album I Still Believe in Santa Claus, which was released on October 1, 1990. Luis Miguel recorded the song in Spanish as “Santa Claus Llegó a La Ciudad” for his Christmas album Navidades (2006). His version of the song peaked at number 26 on the Billboard Latin Pop Songs chart. A capella group Pentatonix covered the song in their 2014 album That’s Christmas to Me.

In October 2015, EMI Music Publishing lost the rights to J. Fred Coot’s stake in the song. EMI had earned the rights to the song via Leo Feist’s publishing company in the 1980s. In September 2017, the family of Haven Gillespie sued Memory Lane Music Group for $700,000, asking for an 85% stake in “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”.

The top video is the audio from the December 12, 1975, version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” released to radio and on the “My Hometown” single in 1985. The second video is a performance of the song filmed at the o2 Arena in London, England, on December 19, 2007 — the final concert of the Magic tour.

The the last video is a full, from-the-audience recording of a special holiday show given by Bruce Springsteen in the town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, on December 5, 2003. This was the second of three nights and was nearly derailed by a massive snowstorm the day before. I attended the concert with my cousin Doug — a New Jersey State Police officer who had been a first responder at the World Trade Center in New York City following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He died just one year following this Springsteen concert (I happened to be in London at the time, celebrating my 40th birthday at a concert by another band and flew home back to the States as soon as I got word). The concert was not only the last time that I’ve seen Springsteen live but also the last time I had a night out with my cousin. I moved to Thailand not long after Doug’s funeral. “Santa Claus” was the grand finale, complete with candy canes thrown into the audience. It starts at the 3-hour, 8-minute mark on the video. In my previous post, I stated that this was the only time I’d seen Springsteen perform the song in person but I have just remembered (and verified with my recording of the concert) that it was the final song played when I saw him at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 19, 1984.

Japan - Scott #3385 (2011)
Japan – Scott #3385 (2011)
Japan - Scott #3386 (2011)
Japan – Scott #3386 (2011)
Japan - Scott #3387 (2011)
Japan – Scott #3387 (2011)
Used copies of Japan's 2011 Winter Greetings
Used copies of Japan’s 2011 Winter Greetings “blue sheet” stamps: “Christmas Preparation” (Scott #3386a), “Christmas Tree is Decorated!” (Scott #3386b), “The Evening of Christmas” (Scott #3386c), “Santa Claus Came Quietly” (Scott #3386d), and “Hooray! Christmas Presents!” (Scott #3386e).

When I first saw the third stamp in the “blue” sheet of Japan’s 2011 Christmas stamps, the first thing that popped into my head was the line “He sees you when you’re sleeping” from “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”. Hold on, wait a minute. Christmas stamps from Japan? This is a country dominated by Shinto and Buddhists with between less than 1 percent and up to 2.3 percent of the population being Christian (depending on which survey you pay attention to). Well, yes. Japan does celebrate Christmas although it’s not seen as a religious holiday at all. It has released Christmas-themed stamps since at least 2006, usually calling them “Winter Greetings” stamps. Japan released three miniature sheets of five stamps each on November 10, 2011 — a green sheet (Scott #3385) with each stamp denominated 50 yen, a blue sheet (Scott #3386) with five 80-yen stamps, and one in pink (Scott #3387) with the stamps each valued at 90 yen. The individual stamps are numbered by the Scott catalogue using lower-case letters a through e. Scott #3386c is called “The Evening of Christmas”.  The self-adhesive stamps were printed using offset lithography and have die-cut perforations.

In Japan, Christmas in known as more of a time to spread happiness rather than a religious celebration. Christmas Eve is celebrated more than Christmas Day and is thought of as a romantic day in which couples spend together and exchange presents. The most popular activity on Christmas Eve is to have a romantic dinner at KFC and couples usually need to book a table in advance. The legend is that foreign tourists were unable to find turkey in Japan for their Christmas dinner and so settled for fried chicken. Beginning in 1974, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s marketing department began promoting their Japanese restaurants as the perfect place for the Christmas meal and began using the slogan, “Kentucky for Christmas!” (Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!). Desert is usually a special sponge cake decorated with strawberries and whipped cream.

It is hard to think of KFC as being either romantic or Christmasy, but it is in Japan.

Schools in Japan are closed on Christmas Day but this is due to the Emperor’s birthday on December 23 being a  national holiday and the New Year school break. Most businesses remain open.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and it’s final act, “Ode to Joy”, is popularly played throughout Japan at the end of the year. It’s referred to simply as “‘daiku” (which means ‘number nine’). Choirs all over the country sing it in German. One choir in Osaka, has 10,000 people in it and is known as the Number Nine Chorus. It’s thought it was first sung in Japan at Christmas by German prisoners of War in World War One and over the years it became more and more popular.

In Japanese, Happy/Merry Christmas is Meri Kurisumasu (めりーくりすます in Hiragana and メリークリスマス in Katakana). Santa Claus is known as サンタさん、サンタクロース (Santa-san, or Mister Santa). Another Japanese gift bringer is Hoteiosho, a Japanese god of good fortune from Buddhism and not really related to Christmas. The Japanese New Year (called o shogatsu) is more like a traditional Western Christmas. New Year is the period where families get together, have a special meal, pray and send greetings cards. It is celebrated over five days from December 31 to January 4.

Christmas in Tokyo. Photo taken on December 31, 2011.

Christianity (キリスト教 Kirisutokyō), in the form of Catholicism (カトリック教 Katorikkukyō), was introduced into Japan by Jesuit missions starting in 1549. In that year, the three Jesuits Francis Xavier, Cosme de Torres and Juan Fernández, landed in Kagoshima, in Kyushu, on August 15. Portuguese traders had been active in Kagoshima since 1543, welcomed by local daimyōs because they imported gunpowder. Anjirō, a Japanese convert, helped the Jesuits understanding Japanese culture and translating the first Japanese catechism.

These missionaries were successful in converting large numbers of people in Kyushu, including peasants, former Buddhist monks, and members of the warrior class. In 1559, a mission to the capital, Kyoto, was started. By the following year there were nine churches, and the Christian community grew steadily in the 1560s. By 1569, there were 30,000 Christians and 40 churches. Following the conversion of some lords in Kyushu, mass baptisms of the local populations occurred, and in the 1570s the number of Christians rose rapidly to 100,000. In the domains of Christian local lords, non-Christians were forced to accept baptism and shrines; Buddhist temples were converted into churches or destroyed.

St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Tokyo, Bunkyo Tokyo Japan, design by Kenzo Tange in 1964. Photo taken on December 19, 2008.

Near the end of the 16th century, Franciscan missionaries arrived in Kyoto, despite a ban issued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1597, Hideyoshi proclaimed a more serious edict and executed 26 Franciscans in Nagasaki as a warning. Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors enforced the prohibition of Christianity with several further edicts, especially after the Shimabara Rebellion in the 1630s. Many Christians continued to practice in secret.

In 1873, following the Meiji Restoration, the ban was rescinded, freedom of religion was promulgated, and Protestant missionaries (プロテスタント Purotesutanto or 新教 Shinkyō, “renewed teaching”) began to proselytize in Japan, intensifying their activities after World War II, yet they were never as successful as in Korea.

Today, there are 1 to 3 million Christians in Japan, most of them living in the western part of the country, where the missionaries’ activities were greatest during the 16th century. Nagasaki Prefecture has the highest percentage of Christians: about 5.1% in 1996. As of 2007, there were 32,036 Christian priests and pastors in Japan. Throughout the latest century, some Western customs originally related to Christianity (including Western style weddings, Valentine’s Day and Christmas) have become popular among many of the Japanese. For example, 60-70% of weddings performed in Japan are Christian-style.

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