The song first became popular in 1970. Puerto Rican songwriter Jose Feliciano sang it. The late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti sang it. French-Canadian singer Michael Bublé and Mexican singer Thalia also sang it. Many of us – even if we don’t speak the language – know tidbits of the Spanish verses in the song, as well as the English ones:
Prospero año y felicidad.
Multi-Grammy Award winner Feliciano, the song’s creator, says even he is surprised by the song’s success.
“Es raro que una cancion sea mundial y especialmente canciones Latinas,” Feliciano says. In English: “It’s really unusual for a song to become well-known world-wide – and it’s specially rare for a song in Spanish.”
Since he wrote it 45 years ago, Feliciano has performed Feliz Navidad thousands of times to audiences in Russia, China, Japan – you name it – places where the lyrics in Spanish and in English don’t resemble the local languages.
It is the only bilingual song that the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers has named among the top 25 most played and recorded world-wide.
Feliciano is bilingual, but throughout our conversation we kept going back to the language with which he’s most comfortable, which is Spanish. He told me his career started when he was 9 years old. He played the accordion at a radio show in New York City. It was his mother’s favorite instrument.
Feliciano says it was his mother who took him to the radio station everyday. In fact, it was she who dragged him around town and landed him his first gig on the radio.
“Pero, ni mi madre ni yo pensamos que yo iba a ser tan famoso,” he says. “But neither my mom nor I would’ve imagined at the time I was going to become so famous.”
After that gig he dropped the accordion, and started writing what he calls simple songs “con mi guitarra, mi voz y percussion y eso le gusto al publico,” he says. “It was just my guitar, my voice and some percussions – and the public embraced it.”
Feliz Navidad is that simple. But it’s remarkable in its simplicity.
Nina Revering directs the Conspirare Youth Choirs. Conspirare is a Grammy award-winning Austin-based choir.
“Oh, I think Feliz Navidad is memorable, catchy in sort of a unique and sparkly way,” she says. “That makes it easy to stick to the brain and easy to repeat. It’s a happy song, that’s the other thing, whether you understand what you are singing or not.”
Revering’s native language is Portuguese. She adopted the song when she first arrived in the United States as a teenager. She says she sings the Christmas song anytime – particularly when she is sad, or when she’s upset about world events. Revering says Feliz Navidad has the power to bring people together.
“It is a brilliant song in that regard, that it has that power,” she says. “It has found its position in everyone’s heart and memories and people feel that joy when they sing it. I think that’s also a big piece of why it’s an important song.”
I ask Revering if her youth choir would sing the song for me, without any practice and without any idea that we were going to ask them.
“I think they might be able to sing it for you,” Revering says.
As soon as the kids hear the piano their faces light up, they start singing and dancing in their place. There was not a single face without a smile.