John Lennon’s seventh single outside of The Beatles was written and demoed in October 1971 on acoustic guitar with Yoko Ono in their New York hotel. It had them entering into the spirit of Christmas in their own special way, with an anti-war sentiment and, as John was reported as saying, because he was fed up with “White Christmas.”
The song, of course, was “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, recorded almost immediately at the Record Plant, co-produced by John and Yoko with Phil Spector, and released as a single in America for that 1971 holiday season, on December 1 that year. But that wasn’t the case in the UK, where a dispute between John and The Beatles’ publishing company, Northern Songs, delayed the release to the extent that it had to wait until November 24 the following year to come out in his home country. The elaborate artist credit on the disc recognized both the Plastic Ono Band and the Harlem Community Choir.
Session notables on the track included Beatles and Rolling Stones alumnus Nicky Hopkins on piano, chimes, and glockenspiel, and ever in-demand drummer Jim Keltner, who also added the atmospheric sleigh bells. The song’s title was familiar to John and Yoko devotees from the posters they had launched in 12 US cities for Christmas 1969, which proclaimed “WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”
It’s an oddity of the British charts that any number of the songs we regard as Christmas classics never reached No.1. The Pogues’ perennial “Fairytale Of New York,” featuring Kirsty MacColl, topped out at No.2 on its first release; Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” peaked at No.4 peak and so, after making the UK charts on December 9, 1972, did John and Yoko’s festive message.
Even in the US, the year before, “Happy Xmas” emerged too close to the holidays to get substantial airplay, and barely made the Top 40 of the Cashbox singles chart. Billboard, for its part, listed it on its separate Christmas countdown rather than the Hot 100, limiting its profile further even though it reached No.3.
When the song finally saw UK release, its chart entry was somewhat modest, at No.23. It climbed to No.16, but sales really took off in the last chart before the holiday, and it spent the last two weeks of the year at No.4. Like so many Christmas songs, “Happy Xmas” has made many return appearances, most notably in the sad aftermath of John’s death in 1980, when it climbed to No.2.
In its many subsequent chart runs, it made the Top 40 in 2007, at No. 40, and returned to the Top 20 in both 2018 and 2020. The festive classic has inspired endless covers, including those by Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Jimmy Buffett, the Moody Blues, and in 2018, a version by Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson featuring John and Yoko’s son, Sean Ono Lennon.
Buy or stream “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” on the 2020 John Lennon compilation GIMME SOME TRUTH. The Ultimate Mixes.