December 21, 2020
For many people, one of the best things about the holiday season is hearing familiar, cheerful songs playing everywhere you go. Among those Christmas favorites is a tune that puts a different spin on a kid’s wish list. Everybody knows “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” which was first recorded by popular bandleader Spike Jones in 1948. It became a top-ten hit that year, and was later performed by everyone from Nat King Cole to the Chipmunks, George Strait, and Elmo from Sesame Street (with some help from Michael Bublé). But not everyone knows the story behind the music!
Flash back to 1944: Music teacher Donald Gardner filled in for his wife Doris (also a music teacher) in a second-grade class at Smithtown, New York. When the classroom teacher asked each of the kids to stand up and say what they wanted for Christmas, Don noticed something a bit odd: Many of them spoke with a pronounced lisp. As soon as they grinned, he realized why — 16 of the 22 children were missing one or more of their front teeth!
Inspired by those cute smiles, Gardner went home that night and wrote a song for the school’s Christmas pageant. It took him about half an hour to put the words and music on paper. His song was published by the Witmark music company a few years later and recorded by Spike Jones & His City Slickers in 1948. The song was originally intended as a Christmas Time novelty and featured a vocalist who sang with a falsetto voice and a pronounced lisp, voicing every ‘s’ as a ‘th.’
At first, Don and Doris “both thought it was God awful,” Gardner later recalled. “I said, ‘My God, that won’t even sell 100 copies.’” But audiences everywhere felt differently! The single sold almost two million copies in 8 weeks. It made the Billboard top ten list in 1948 and again in 1949, when it hit #1.
Don Gardner went on to work for a major music publisher, composed choral anthems and directed church and community choirs. But it’s this lighthearted ditty that he’s most remembered for — and the royalties it earned helped sustain his family for the rest of his life. Since its debut some six decades ago, “All I Want for Christmas” has been performed by dozens of well-known artists, and countless times in pageants and sing-alongs. It is also credited with inspiring several other beloved Christmas songs for kids, such as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Best of all, it’s still on the playlist today.