'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' - the Song Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' - the Song

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Happy Xmas (War is Over) LP in front of a snowy background

'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' by John Lennon and Yoko Ono is among the world's most popular Christmas songs of the 20th Century. First released in 1971 during the Vietnam War as the culmination of Lennon's two-year advertising campaign for peace, its deceptively simple lyrics resonate as much today as when originally released.

While only a modest success on its initial release, barely scraping into the top 40 in the United States and having its release delayed for almost a whole year in the United Kingdom, it shot to popularity following the death of John Lennon in December 1980. It is now considered by many to be the greatest Christmas song of all time.

Advertising Campaign for Peace

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had begun their 'War Is Over' campaign on 15 December, 1969, when they bought billboard space in prominent locations in 12 major cities1, simply reading:

Happy Christmas from John & Yoko

Or words with the same meaning in the relevant local language. They believed that trying to achieve peace by the existing methods was unlikely to have different results, and so, as Lennon said:

Henry Ford knew how to sell cars by advertising. I'm selling peace, and Yoko and I are just one big advertising campaign. It may make people laugh, but it may make people think, too... It's a very good idea to advertise for peace... you must advertise. That's what everybody else does.

This theme continued in John's song 'Give Peace A Chance' and is even mentioned in 'Imagine', in the line 'Imagine all the people living life in peace'. Yoko would later describe the meaning of the words 'If You Want It' by saying:

Politicians cannot do anything without your support. We are the power. Visualise the domino effect and just start thinking positive, that we are all together in this. For the holiday season, I wanted this to be a gift to you from John and I. Stand in front of the billboard. Take photos of yourself, your friends and family. Send them out so the message will circulate. And most of all, have fun.

What Have We Done?

John Lennon was inspired to record a Christmas song in late October 1971, shortly after he had moved to New York in August 1971. After making a couple of demo versions, the song was properly recorded on 28-29 October with the Plastic Ono Band, consisting of Nicky Hopkins on chimes, piano and glockenspiel, Jim Keltner on sleigh bells and drums, John, Klaus Voormann2 and Hugh McCracken3 on guitar, and vocals by Yoko Ono. Backing vocals were contributed by the Harlem Community Choir4.

The song was produced by Phil Spector, who had previously produced the seminal 1963 Christmas album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, which frequently appears in lists of best albums and in 2019 was awarded the title 'The Greatest Christmas Album Of All Time' by Rolling Stone magazine. John's working relationship with Phil Spector would come to a sudden end in December 1973 during the recording of Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll album, in which, following a disagreement, Spector took out a gun and fired it at the ceiling by John. John replied: 'Phil, if you're gonna kill me, kill me, but don't [mess] with my ears, I need them.' In 2009 Spector was imprisoned for murdering Lana Clarkson in 2003.

I Love How You Love Skewed Stew

Skewball was a skewbald bay5 racehorse born in England in 1741. His 4-mile race on the plains of Kildare in Ireland on Saturday 28 March, 1752, which he won in 7 minutes and 51 seconds, has inspired a number of different songs, and also numerous variations on the Skewball ballads. These songs spread across the Atlantic Ocean. Before landing in the New World, the horse's name in the songs changed from 'Skewball' to 'Stewball'6 and the place of the race in the lyrics changed to various locations local to where those versions of the songs happened to be sung.

One version of the song, named 'Stewball', was sung with a new arrangement by Peter, Paul and Mary7, which they released in 1963 on their highly successful In The Wind album8. Lennon was heavily inspired by this song and the second, third and fourth lines of 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' - from 'And what have you done?' to 'just begun' - are very similar to the second, third and fourth lines of this version of 'Stewball', only with extra notes added to allow for additional syllables. The first line, 'And so this is Christmas', has similar notes to the chorus of the 1961 Paris Sisters song 'I Love How You Love Me'.

If You Want It

In the United States 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' was rush-released on 1 December, 1971, amid virtually no marketing and with no airplay. It scraped into the chart at number 36. Two days later the Third Indo-Pakistani War erupted. Additionally, as well as Vietnam, there were wars in 1971 in Cambodia, Jordan, Malaysia, Mozambique, Turkey, Uganda and between the United Arab Emirates and Iran.

In the UK the single was delayed by a year due to a legal dispute with Lord Lew Grade as it was officially labelled as written by both John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In 1963, after the release of 'Love Me Do', the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein had taken John Lennon and Paul McCartney to meet music publisher Dick James9. James set up what he told the Beatles was their own music publishing company, Northern Songs, which owned the rights to songs Paul and John wrote - but James retained 55% of the company while John, Paul and Epstein held minority shares. In March 1969 James' shares were sold to Lew Grade's company, Associated Television (ATV), triggering a take-over bid that resulted in the Beatles losing their song rights. All song royalties were held when the Beatles collapsed amid lawsuits in the early 1970s.

Early in their post-Beatles solo careers both Paul McCartney and John Lennon released songs crediting their wives as co-writers. As Yoko Ono was credited as co-writer for 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)', she was entitled to half the song's royalties, which meant that Grade would only receive half the money he would have done had John Lennon had solo writing credit. Grade felt that these co-composer credits were simply intended to cheat him out of money he was due, and separately sued both Lennon and McCartney on this issue. McCartney won his court case, but Lennon lost and ATV resultingly became co-publisher of all new Lennon songs.

'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' was finally released in the UK in November 1972, reaching number 4 on the Christmas Day chart10.

The B-Side, 'Listen, the Snow Is Falling' by Yoko, is actually a reasonable song, without the usual ululating, moaning and groaning, screaming, shrieking and screeching normally associated with Yoko. It should not be confused with her similarly-titled 'Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)' which has all these traits to the fore, and is enough to worry everyone11.

Is War Over?

It would be fair to say that the song lyrics have been criticised as being naïve, crass or deluded. John Sinclair12 commented about John and Yoko's 'War Is Over' peace campaign:

You are going to sound awfully stupid trying to tell the heroic Vietnamese people that 'War is over if you want it' while they are being burned and bombed and blown out of their pitiful little huts and fields.

Lennon himself had explained his views on television by saying:

What we were doing, you can call it magic, meditation, projection of goal, which businesspeople do. They have courses on it, the footballers do it; they pray, they meditate, before the game they visualise themselves winning. Billie Jean King visualises every move on the court. What we were doing... is to project a future which we can have, goals which we can reach. People project their own future, so what we wanted to do is say let's imagine a nice future... You see if it works for a football player or tennis player, it can work for all of us. We have to project a positive future as a way of promoting peace. Do everything for peace. Kiss for peace or smile for peace... whatever you do just do it for peace. We put out there... we can change it if we really want to change it.

Shaved Fish: All Roads Lead To Wrong

Following the initial release of 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' as a single, the first chance that most music-buyers had to purchase the song was on 1975's best-of Lennon compilation album, Shaved Fish. This was released in October 1975 - the same month as Sean Lennon was born - and was intended to be John's last release before dedicating his life full time to raising his son13. This album contained printed song lyrics - but unfortunately made three mistakes.

At the beginning of the song, two whispers can be heard. Yoko whispers 'Happy Christmas, Kyoko' - referring to Kyoko Chan Cox, her daughter with her second husband Anthony Cox, and John whispers 'Happy Christmas, Julian', meaning his son with his first wife Cynthia. Unfortunately the lyrics printed in Shaved Fish state that Yoko whispers 'Happy Christmas Yoko' to herself and John responds 'Happy Christmas John' (!) Similarly, Shaved Fish records that the line 'The road is so long' was 'The world is so wrong'. Cover versions released by other artists since Shaved Fish have often used the incorrect line. Celine Dion's version includes 'The war is so long'.

Shaved Fish originally reached number 9 in the UK and number 12 in the US, later reaching number 7 in the UK following Lennon's murder.

Lennon Legacy: Let's Hope It's a Good One

The song continues to hold a place as a seasonal favourite. It routinely appears on Christmas compilation albums and is regularly played by radio stations and on channels showing Christmas videos. A music video showing the 'War Is Over' billboards interspersed with shots of John and Yoko has regularly been shown, though more recently one containing photographs of children affected by the Vietnam War has been created.

It would be fair that some lines have aged poorly. Specifically 'And so this is Christmas for black and for white, for yellow and red ones'. Perhaps because the all-inclusive sentiment of equality is so apparent this hasn't been subject to as much controversy or calls for censorship as other beloved Christmas songs such as 'Fairytale Of New York' or 'It's Cold Outside'.

Following John Lennon's murder 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' was reissued and reached number two at Christmas. It is now certified double-platinum in the UK. Since 2007, when the UK's chart rules were changed to include downloads, the song has charted annually there every Christmas. In 2012 it was voted the UK's tenth favourite Christmas song for an ITV television special14 while in 2011 Rolling Stone magazine readers voted it the Best Christmas song of all time.

1Amsterdam, Athens, Berlin, Helsinki, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, Tokyo and Toronto.2A friend of the Beatles since meeting in Hamburg in 1960, Voormann designed the Revolver album cover and played bass with band Manfred Mann and on many songs for John, George and Ringo. He later designed the Beatles' Anthology album covers.3Who had performed on McCartney's Ram album.4Which, unlike the 'NYPD Choir' mentioned in 'Fairytale of New York', actually existed.5Reddish-brown with white patches.6Except when it changed to 'Kimbal'.7Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers.8This award-winning album was number one in the US, but only reached 11 in the UK. The single 'Stewball' only reached 35 in the US and did not chart in the UK.9Then best known for singing the theme tune Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen.10Behind Little Jimmy Osmond's 'Long Haired Lover From Liverpool' at number one, 'My Ding-a-Ling' by Chuck Berry at number two and 'Solid Gold Easy Action' by T. Rex at number three.11Yoko lost custody of Kyoko in 1971 and would not see her daughter again until 1998.12Lennon had campaigned to free Sinclair from prison. He wrote and performed a song titled 'John Sinclair' at a 'Free John Sinclair' rally: less than three days later Sinclair was freed.13John would not release another album until Double Fantasy in November 1980, three weeks before his murder.14After 'Fairytale of New York by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl (1987), 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday' by Wizzard (1973), 'Merry Xmas Everybody' by Slade (1973), 'White Christmas' by Bing Crosby (1947), 'All I Want for Christmas Is You' by Mariah Carey (1994), 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' by Band Aid (1984), 'Stop the Cavalry' by Jona Lewie (1980), 'Last Christmas' by Wham! (1984) and 'I Believe in Father Christmas' by Greg Lake (1975).

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