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"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)": The History Behind The Christmas Song

"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)": Song Meaning & History

In 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," a holiday song for the ages. A collaboration with the Plastic Ono Band and the Harlem Community Choir, the track is one of the most enduring and popular every Christmas season. This is the history behind the unique track, both a moving Christmas number and an antiwar cry from the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s.

Despite its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" remains a timeless holiday song that's beloved to this day.

The 1971 single, credited to John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band and the Harlem Community Choir, is regarded as a Christmas standard and it will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2021. Let's take a closer look at the song's meaning and how it came to be.

"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)": The song's meaning and history

Though released ahead of Christmas 1971, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and its origins go back several years earlier. The song's context is the Vietnam War era and the 1960s counterculture, when Lennon and Ono were peace activists involved in the antiwar movement.

The U.S. had entered the Vietnam War in 1965 and the counterculture grew increasingly opposed to involvement in the conflict. Lennon and Ono became leading faces of peace activism and, in 1969, led antiwar bed-ins during their honeymoon. They'd married the same year and used the press to spread a new message: "War Is Over: If You Want It."

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Song Meaning: "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

The same phrase featured on billboards at Christmastime 1969, with the "Happy Christmas" greeting added on. The two-part slogan would then title Lennon and Ono's co-written holiday song two years later. Lennon is said to have realized the appeal of such pop-driven, social-change music following the success of his 1971 classic "Imagine." Of the song, Lennon said: "Put your political message across with a little honey."

John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"

Thus, in 1971, "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" was released as a holiday-season message of hope—but still a call for change, coming amid the Vietnam War and a few years before its conclusion. (War is over / If you want it.) The single charted highly worldwide in 1971 and later did the same shortly after Lennon's death in December of 1980.

The song's opening also contains "Happy Christmas" wishes from Ono to her daughter Kyoko and Lennon to his son Julian. Phil Spector co-produced with the couple, while the Harlem Community Choir of 30 children sings on the track and features on the original single cover. "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" turns 50 years old on Dec. 1, 2021. See where Yoko Ono is today here.