Jose Feliciano's 'Feliz Navidad:' How The 1970 Christmas Classic Came To Be
Feliz Navidad, I wanna wish you a merry Christmas… the holiday wouldn’t be the same without that joyful phrase. Performed by Jose Feliciano, a virtuoso guitar player whose jaunty stylings have been scoring hits since the 1960s, this modern Christmas classic has only been around for a few decades but it’s managed to become a yuletide favorite. According to the blind multi-instrumentalist the song was written as a lark, but even so the song has been performed by hundreds of artists across the world and it’s become one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time right up there with “Silver Bells” and “White Christmas.”
“Feliz Navidad” calls back to Feliciano’s childhood
While recording an album of Christmas covers in the summer of 1970 Feliciano and producer Rick Jarrard decided that the album needed an original to really kick things up a notch. While thinking about his childhood in Puerto Rico Feliciano recalled the music of the boleros that his mother listened to on the radio.
While mimicking the sounds that he heard on the radio as a child, Feliciano started beating out the rhythmic melody to “Feliz Navidad” while working out the simple lyrics in an improvisational manner. He had no idea that the song would become as big as it is, which just goes to show that you should always write from your heart and write what you know.
The lyrics are simple on purpose
“Feliz Navidad” is, like many of the most successful pop songs, very simple in its lyrics and music. Both of those factors make the song easily to remember and sing along to on the next listen. The song works like a lot of pop songs, it kicks in with the chorus in Spanish before repeating the chorus in English and then going back to through the whole thing again a couple of times. It’s easy peazy. Feliciano said that his decision to record the song in Spanish and English was a way to have the song be an instant crossover hit without being dismissed for being too English or too Spanish. He explained:
I decided to release it in English and Spanish so that I couldn't be turned off the radio, so that no one could say, ‘Oh, well, it's too Spanish’ or, ‘Well, it's only in English.’ So I did it in both and made them eat their hearts out
The lyrics are simple: “Feliz Navidad, Prospero año why felicidad” and then “I want to wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.” It's only a few words, but it rolls off the tongue so well.
One of the main instruments in the song is native to Puerto Rico
It’s not just Feliciano’s native tongue that makes it into this modern Christmas classic, it’s an instrument from Puerto Rico that we’re not used to hearing in America. The cuatro is somewhat like a lute but it plays just like a guitar. It’s been heard on songs like “Despacito” and even on a Yes album - it’s a versatile instrument. Feliciano said that he decided to use the instrument because it reminded him of his youth. That must be why it made such a great instrument for a Christmas tune. The songwriter explained:
My uncle used to play the Puerto Rican native instrument called the cuatro. So I would accompany him on a tin cracker can. My rhythm was perfect. I didn't miss a beat.
Feliciano didn’t think the song would be a timeless classic
When Feliciano and his producer put together the song in the middle of a Southern California summer neither of them thought that the song would be massive hit decades later, or that it would be sung in every school across America. The track was just supposed to be a novelty that filled out an album and forgotten about. But the song connected with audiences and we’re still singing it. Feliciano said:
I started joking around one day singing 'Feliz Navidad' and 'Merry Christmas' and the song just came to fruition in Spanish… I never imagined it would be as popular as it has been. I never imagined 'Feliz Navidad' would be in schoolbooks and children would be singing it in school.
The song wasn’t a Christmas hit when it was released
Even though you can’t go a Christmas season without hearing this track it took a while for the song to complete its world domination. When the song was released in 1970 it did okay but it wasn’t exactly the “Stairway to Heaven” of its time. But thanks to steady radio play and performances of the song by Feliciano (only in the winter, he has a strict rule about summer performances), the single has risen to the top of the Christmas tree. Aside from the need for new Christmas songs, why is the track so popular? Feliciano thinks it has to do with the way it bridges the gap between American and Hispanic cultures. He said:
It's more popular now than it ever was. I think it's a little oasis that brings two cultures together.
There are a ton of versions of the song available, but Feliciano's is the most memorable. Maybe it's because he originated the song, or maybe it's because his version comes from a very special place. Either way it has an undeniable connection with audiences.
The song was re-recorded in 2019
“Feliz Navidad” has seen plenty of artists putting it on and trying it out, and as of 2019 there’s no Christmas album that works without this song. But the most interesting recording of the song is the re-recording that Feliciano did in 2019 for his album “Behind This Guitar.” The new arrangement of the holiday classic has more acoustic guitar than horns, but it’s still the same old Christmas favorite.
It’s fascinating to hear the Puerto Rican guitar master go back to his roots with this track especially after he admitted to growing tired of the song after hearing it Christmas after Christmas. It makes sense that he would want to re-contextualize the song for himself and for an audience that’s grown with him. Maybe this new version of the song will take on the same life as his original recording.
Tags: Christmas | Christmas Songs | Feliz Navidad | Jose Feliciano | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts
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