Christmas shopping when I was young meant pausing at magical window displays while trundling along snowy sidewalks in heavy coats and boots between the fancy department stores and the Woolworth’s and Kresge’s five-and-dime stores. Tinsel, pine boughs, and strands of multicolored lights strung across the streets. Santa seated on his throne in the sparkling toy department awaiting our visit.
And everywhere the sounds of Christmas music floated in the air.
“Silver Bells” was the first song I can remember noticing the harmonies in. Harmony would soon become what I liked most in music—hence, my enduring regard for groups like The Beatles, The Mamas & the Papas, ABBA, Duran Duran, etc. In “Silver Bells” the harmony reminds me of real bells, especially the way the chorus “rings” out and then reverberates—SILVER BELLS (silver bells), SILVER BELLS (silver bells). The strands of melody and harmony progress in lockstep on the “Silver Bells” lines, then split apart at “it’s Christmastime in the city,” where the melody rises and the harmony descends to slow the pace slightly in the same way a bell hangs in momentary suspension at the outer edge of its arc before swinging back.
The lyrics in “Silver Bells” also delighted me. Those “strings” of stoplights morphing into Christmas lights as they blinked bright red and green. Sidewalks “dressed” in holiday style. Shoppers rushing home with their treasures, snow crunching underfoot, children laughing, “and above all this bustle” the sound of bells. Even the “silver” gleam captivated me—no ordinary bells, these. The vivid images and onomatopoetic sounds perfectly captured the Christmas downtown shopping experiences of my childhood.
I’ve always associated “Silver Bells” with Bob Hope. Mostly, I assumed, because he sang it so often on his annual Christmas special. But just now, searching for video from those old shows, I discovered that “Silver Bells” was actually introduced to the world in one of his old movies, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). Here is video of that original performance.
And here is Olivia Newton-John appearing with Hope in his 1977 Christmas special.