Move Over, Mariah: José Feliciano is ‘King of Christmas’ With ‘Feliz Navidad’ Topping Charts 53 Years Later
Who can avoid hearing the lyrics, “Feliz Navidad, próspero año y felicidad” each December? And why would we want to? While the iconic track didn’t reach the Billboard Hot 100 charts until more than two decades after its release, it has now become synonymous with the festive season.
Plus, now that it’s officially one of Spotify’s 20 most-streamed holiday songs 53 years after its release — we may just have to declare Feliciano the “King of Christmas.”
And while we will happily bow to the reign of the King and Queen of Christmas, A.K.A. Feliciano and Christmas icon Mariah Carey, we can’t help but wonder about the origin story of “Feliz Navidad.”
Sure, we know Carey and co-writer Walter Afanasieff penned “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on a whim in 15 minutes, inspired by “traditional, old-fashioned Christmas” songs and 1960s music. But how did Feliciano come up with “Feliz Navidad”? After all, the song has kept topping the charts over five decades later.
It’s pure sorcery. Well, sort of.
In light of Feliciano’s legendary song hitting Spotify’s global holiday chart yet again, we’re looking back at its fascinating history. Because as one X user recently put it, the song just knows how to weave its way into your “corazoncito.”
José Feliciano wrote his hit “Feliz Navidad” in just ten minutes and recorded it in one take
Feliciano released “Feliz Navidad” in 1970 as part of his Christmas album with the same title. That album initially stringed together 12 festive songs. This included holiday classics like “Jingle Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “White Christmas,” and “Silent Night.” And while the Puerto Rican musician surely had fun recording these Christmas standards with his guitar and cuatro, he wanted to give his album a little something extra.
The Lares, Puerto Rico-born star explained to the New Yorker how he and his producer, Rick Jarrard, came up with the idea for “Feliz Navidad.” He recalled, “Rick said, ‘José, I think it’s time for a new Christmas song.’”
As per the outlet, Feliciano’s legendary hit was written in just 10 minutes. The singer described, “That’s why it’s the simplest song ever written… 19 words to it.” As you may know, the lyrics just repeat “Feliz Navidad, próspero año y felicidad” and “I wanna wish you a merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart” over and over. And while simple, the bilingual lyrics played to both his cultures as a Boricua who grew up in New York.
“I wanted a song that belonged to the masses,” he explained. Even more, Feliciano recorded “Feliz Navidad” in just one take. 10 minutes, one take, and he got a song that still tops charts half a century later.
As the “Que Será” singer once wrote on Instagram, “I never expected to write a bilingual Christmas hit that would go on to be one of the top 10-performing hits in the history of Billboard’s Holiday 100 chart.”
And yes, it reached the top spot in Billboard’s Holiday Airplay chart just this month:
Feliciano once described to NPR how “Feliz Navidad” is actually a song about missing his extended family in Puerto Rico. This, for him, surely included eating lechón, listening to salsa, and playing his cuatro during parrandas, a party-ready take on Christmas caroling in neighbors’ homes.
“It was expressing the joy that I felt on Christmas and the fact that I felt very lonely,” the singer remembered. “I missed my family, I missed Christmas carols with them. I missed the whole Christmas scene.”
And while Feliciano said he is still “surprised” at the song’s enduring success, its bilingual legacy isn’t lost on him. He once told GRAMMY.com that he believed the song was such a hit “because it has that Puerto Rican feeling.”
Looking back at 1970, a time that was much different for Latino artists, he explained: “No radio station could turn me off on the grounds that it was too Spanish.” Similarly, he recalled how “The Latino community, couldn’t say, ‘It was too much English and we can’t play it.'” In a way, it was just right for everyone.
Feliciano believes that his iconic song’s bilingual element “strengthened” it. And, of course, he is still as proud as ever about his Latinidad. “I’m proud to be a Caribbean-American. And, I thank the Lord for where I’m at.”
As per the New Yorker, the singer also drew inspiration from Latin American instrumentation and song traditions when recording “Feliz Navidad.” While he played the cuatro, he also enlisted Brazilian drummer Paulinho Magalhães on the recording. Even more, “Feliz Navidad” is inspired by classic Latino villancicos, which include holiday classics like “Los Peces En El Río” and “Cantando Van Los Pastores”
As Feliciano once wrote on Instagram, “Even before ‘Feliz Navidad’ came into my life, I loved Christmas more than any other time of the year.”
“I remember some of my earliest Christmases in Puerto Rico,” he looked back. “Christmas meant sharing aguinaldos, the gifts of music offered to one another, along with the foods my family would prepare.”