This is a very unusual Christmas song. Instead of evoking sleigh bells and mistletoe, it asks us to think about those who live in fear, and collectively bring about the end of war. The call to action is the refrain "war is over, if you want it."
It's an esoteric but not unfounded concept that John Lennon and Yoko Ono also put forth in "Imagine
": If enough people want something to happen, it will. So the idea was to get us to actively desire peace, which could bring about the end of war.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote this in their New York City hotel room and recorded it during the evening of October 28 and into the morning of the 29th, 1971, at the Record Plant in New York. It was released in the US for Christmas, but didn't chart. The next year, it was released in the UK, where it did much better, charting at #4. Eventually, the song became a Christmas classic in America, but it took a while.
John and Yoko spent a lot of time in the late '60s and early '70s working to promote peace. In 1969, they put up billboards in major cities around the world
that said, "War is over! (If you want it)." Two years later this slogan became the basis for this song when Lennon decided to make a Christmas record with an anti-war message. John also claimed another inspiration for writing the song: he said he was "sick of 'White Christmas
The children's voices are the Harlem Community Choir, who were brought in to sing on this track. They are credited on the single along with Yoko and The Plastic Ono Band.
Lennon and Ono produced this with the help of Phil Spector. Spector had worked on some of the later Beatles songs and also produced Lennon's "Instant Karma
." It was not Spector's first foray into Christmas music: he and his famous session stars (including a 17-year-old Cher) spent six weeks in the summer of 1963 putting together A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
, featuring artists like The Ronettes and Darlene Love
. Unfortunately, the album was released on November 22, 1963, which was the same day US president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The album sold poorly as America was focused on news of the killing.
This was originally released on clear green vinyl with Yoko Ono's "Listen, The Snow Is Falling" as the B-side.
At the beginning of the song, two whispers can be heard. Yoko whispers: "Happy Christmas, Kyoko" (Kyoko Chan Cox is Yoko's daughter with Anthony Cox) and John whispers: "Happy Christmas, Julian" (John's son with Cynthia).
Martin - Rostock, Germany
This being a Phil Spector production, four guitarists were brought in to play acoustic guitars: Hugh McCracken (who had recently played on the Paul McCartney album Ram), Chris Osbourne, Stu Scharf and Teddy Irwin. According to Richard Williams, who was reporting on the session for Uncut, when Lennon taught them the song, he asked them to "pretend it's Christmas." When one of the guitarists said he was Jewish, John told him, "Well, pretend it's your birthday then."
As for the other personnel, Jim Keltner played drums and sleigh bells, Nicky Hopkins played chimes and glockenspiel. Keltner and Hopkins were part of Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, and a third member, Klaus Voorman, was supposed to play bass on this track, but got stuck on a flight from Germany. One of the guitarists brought in for the session covered the bass - which one nobody seems to remember.
John Lennon was shot and killed less than three weeks before Christmas in 1980. The song was re-released in the UK on December 20 of that year, reaching #2 (held off the top spot by "There's No One Quite Like Grandma" by St. Winifred's School Choir). It made the UK Top 40 again in 1981 (#28), 2003 (#32) and 2007 (#40). Also in 2003, a version sung by the finalists of the singing competition Pop Idol reached #5.
This didn't appear on an album until 1975, when it was included on Lennon's Shaved Fish singles compilation. Most Christmas songs are compiled with other songs of the season, but Shaved Fish listeners got to hear it year round.
At 1:15, there's a line in this song where Lennon sings what sounds to our ears like "the road is so long." This line was transcribed as "the world is so wrong" on the Shaved Fish back cover and was apparently published that way. As a result, most cover versions sing it as "the world is so wrong," but that would be a rather pessimistic view:
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
"The road is so long" seems more congruent with the hopeful message of the song, and is likely what he sang. Keep in mind that the lyrics didn't appear in print until Shaved Fish, four years after the song was released. It appears this line was transcribed incorrectly and has never been rectified.
Why not "Merry Christmas" or "Merry Xmas"? In England, "Happy Christmas" is a more common seasonal greeting and helped differentiate it from the holiday standard "Merry Christmas Baby
." More confusing to Americans is "Father Christmas
," which is the English version of Santa Claus.
The Fray were the first to chart with this song in America, reaching #50 in 2006; Sarah McLachlan's version went to #107 that same year. Other artists to cover it include The Alarm, The Cranes, The December People, and Melissa Etheridge (in a medley with "Give Peace a Chance").
The Australian artist Delta Goodrem also covered it in 2003, taking it to #1 in her native country as a double-A-side single with "Predictable."
Katie - Australia
This was covered by a group called Street Drum Corps. Bert McCracken, the frontman for rock band The Used, supplied vocals for their cover. It appears on the album Taste Of Christmas
, released in the winter of 2005. The album is a compilation of classic and original Christmas songs as done by artists on the Taste Of Chaos tour.
Chris - Andover, MN
The chords and melody borrow heavily from the traditional English folk standard "Skewball," in particular the 1963 version (titled "Stewball") by Peter, Paul and Mary.
When Lennon first played his demo for Phil Spector, the producer remarked that the song's opening line, "So this is Christmas..." was rhythmically identical to the Paris Sisters' 1961 hit "I Love How You Love Me
," which he produced.
Though now a Christmas standard, Lennon originally penned this as a protest song about the Vietnam War, and the idea "that we're just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that somebody's doing it to them and that they have no control, then they have no control."
Miley Cyrus, Mark Ronson and Sean Ono Lennon came together at New York's Electric Lady studios to cover the song for the 2018 holiday season. Cyrus told Jimmy Fallon that they wanted to do a Christmas song, and there wasn't anything more relevant to what's going on in the world right now than 'War is Over.'"
She added that not only has Sean inherited his father's voice and looks, he's also got the former Beatles' "radiant magic."
The trio performed the song on the season finale of Saturday Night Live, December 15, 2018. For Cyrus, the song is a call to action for her generation, asking "what have we done?"
In November 2019, John Legend released a new version of the song titled "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)." He performed his cover with Jorja Smith at the Global Citizen Prize award ceremony on December 13, 2019 at London's Royal Albert Hall. Legend's interpretation peaked at #9 in the UK and #69 in the US.