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The Surprising Creativity Lesson from 'The Christmas Song'

How a fuzzy focus can help you enjoy the holidays more

Nat King Cole sings the most famous version of the song

“The Christmas Song” is literally the most played Christmas song ever.

The song paints a picture in words and music – “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose” – of an idyllic holiday season suffused with an almost magical glow.

Where was the song written? Seems like it should have been written in some picture postcard perfect Vermont village. Actually, it was written in Toluca Lake, California.

When was it written? Maybe Christmas Eve, or if not, surely in December. Actually, it was written during a scorching heat wave in July.

Songwriters Bob Wells and Mel Torme wrote “The Christmas Song” in Wells’ backyard. Wells – desperate to cool off – had jumped into his pool, taken a cold shower, and was still sweating. Then he came up with the idea of thinking cold thoughts – which led him to a snowy Christmas back East – which led him to chestnuts and Jack Frost.

Wells was ready to toss his musings in the trash, but Torme arrived and said that this could be a great song. Forty minutes later they had finished what would become the most popular holiday song of all time.

Wells believes that writing the song in July gave him a perspective that brought the song to life. “If we wrote a Christmas song in December, there would be nothing memorable at all about it,” he said. Wells would have been surrounded by Christmas, by Christmas songs, by Christmas lines and Christmas hassles. It would all seem so mundane instead of magical.

There is a great lesson for all of us in that.

There is a huge disconnect between our warm and glowing Christmas memories and our harried and stressful Christmas seasons.

We appreciate things more with a little distance.* We appreciate things more when our focus is fuzzy.**

Rather than waiting until July to appreciate your Christmas, give yourself some distance now.

Step out of frustrating moments. Literally step out of the room, the conversation, wherever and whatever your frustration may be.

Mother-in-law has criticisms for you this holiday season? Don’t get defensive. Shift the topic, step away at first opportunity, and remember she’s not the point of your holiday.

Ten things to do but only time for five? Don’t panic. Do the five you think we’ll be most important when you look back on the holiday.

Give yourself the gift of a little distance and fuzzy focus this Christmas. Bob Wells had that. And with that he and Mel Torme produced a song that is “a true celebration of the Christmas season because that’s what we felt when we wrote it.”

*I discuss this idea in further detail in It's Not About the Shark: How to Solve Unsolvable Problems.

**Metcalfe, Robert, and Paul Dolan. 2010. “Oops…I did it again: Repeated focusing effects in reports of happiness.” Journal of Economic Psychology 31: 732-737.