The song has it’s origins in the hot sweltering summer. Mel Tormé arrived for a writing session in July 1945, at the lake house of his writing partner, Bob Wells. He noticed the first four lines of the now famous song, written on a note pad on the top of the piano.
When he asked Wells about the lyrics, he replied “it’s so…hot,, I thought I’d writing something to cool myself off,” Wells replied. “All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.”
The “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” image was a memory from Wells’ childhood in Boston, when there’d be vendors on street corners at Christmas, serving up paper cones full of roasted chestnuts.
Tormé realized he was onto something and sat down at the piano and began to compose the melody for the song. Wells took the pen and paper and began to furiously write the lyrics flowing out of him.
As Tormé relates in his autobiography, “Improbable though it may sound, ‘The Christmas Song’ was completed about 45 minutes later. Excitedly, we called Carlos Gastel [manager of Nat Cole and Peggy Lee], sped into Hollywood, played it for him, then for [lyricist] Johnny Burke, and then for Nat Cole, who fell in love with the tune. It took a full year for him to get into a studio to record it, but his record finally came out in late fall of 1946; and the rest could be called our financial pleasure.”
Cole would go on to record the song four more times over the years. The final, 1960, version is the holiday standard we are familiar with today. While Nat King Cole’s version is the best known, Mel Tormé also recorded and released several versions of the Christmas hit.
The song has also been known by the titles Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire and Merry Christmas to You.