“Feliz Navidad”: The Little Holiday Hit That Could

Not every Christmas song is destined to become a holiday classic. For every Rudolph, Frosty, or “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” there are mountains of forgotten tunes that failed to make a dent.

You could even argue the market is already full, with most favorites coming from the 60’s or earlier, and very few additions from later years. Some of those include the ubiquitous “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey, and “Last Christmas” by Wham.

But then, marching in from the ’70s, there’s a curious entry. And it’s never left our holiday landscape.

This is “Feliz Navidad” from Puerto Rican guitarist Jose’ Feliciano. But mainstream recognition took its sweet time.

Released in November of 1970, the late part of the hippie movement was giving birth to the songwriter era of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Approached by his producer, Rick Jarrad, Feliciano was asked to write a Christmas song.

“I thought it was going to be very hard to compete with ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,’” the musician replied, but still, he wanted to give it a try.

Feliciano’s attempt was impressively simple: the entire lyrics have thirteen words in English and six in Spanish. It would never be confused with a Bob Dylan track, but there’s a reason why it’s said that “brevity is the soul of wit.”

However, once it was released … it didn’t chart at all.

Perhaps America wasn’t ready for a bilingual soft-rock carol by a Puerto Rican singer-songwriter. While already gaining fame in the Spanish-speaking areas of the continent, collaborating with big names like Quincy Jones, and even winning a couple of Grammys, Feliciano was not yet a household name.

“Feliz Navidad” would finally achieve mainstream success, reaching the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts in 1998, and again in 2000. But that was just the beginning. In 2017, the song finally made it to the Billboard 100 at number 44; in 2018, it became Feliciano’s first top 40 single since the 60’s.

“Feliz Navidad”‘s claim to pop culture recognition didn’t stop there. In December 2020, among some of the most difficult pandemic moments, the song reached the top 10; a couple of weeks later, it climbed to number 6.

Even before that, the song had reached cult status, appearing in commercials, TV shows, and movies, being popular both in the English-speaking world as well as in Latino communities. The covers are a staple on both sides of the language barrier, with a version by Canadian singer Michael Buble’ and Mexican pop star Thalia.

Given this degree of impact, the question isn’t why it became a holiday classic, but more “Why did it take so long?” Maybe it needed the growing influence of Latino communities, maybe because it serves as a bridge between old-fashioned classics and more contemporary songs.

Maybe, the key resides in its brevity and simplicity: it’s friendly, it’s approachable, and millions can become a little bilingual while giving one of the most heartfelt messages to the world. It’s both very specific to Feliciano’s background and musical influences and yet universal enough to appeal to so many,

Will “Feliz Navidad” ever dethrone Mariah Carey’s powerhouse? Unlikely, but it doesn’t need to. It shows that the feelings of the season can take many forms.

From the bottom of my heart, Feliz Navidad!

-Anthony Arrieta

Photo: Jose’ Feliciano, 2007 (Bart Cabanier via Wikimedia Commons)

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2 comments on ““Feliz Navidad”: The Little Holiday Hit That Could

  1. JB Fonfrias

    I love Jose Feliciano & the joy & soul he shares whether he plays & sings in English or Spanish. I enjoy all the Christmas classics, & Jose’s spirited gem is up there with my top favorites ✌️❤️

  2. John Smistad

    Great song. Joyful song. Feliciano is so underrecognized.

    His folk-fueled performance of the National Anthem before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit is forever a treasure. Free-spirited. And brave of purpose.

    Makes you proud to be an American. No matter our heritage.

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