Jose Feliciano’s Journey to ‘Feliz Navidad’

Catherine A. Jones
 | December 7, 2023

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! 

The time when beloved holiday melodies fill the airwaves and echo through department stores, bringing everyone together.

And, thanks to Puerto Rican Singer/Songwriter Jose Feliciano’s catchy tune, it’s a time when everyone sings in Spanish! 

The tune everyone knows, loves, and is happy to sing every year is “Feliz Navidad” – the only Spanish-language song to ever crack the country’s Christmas charts.

But how did a Puerto Rican-born singer create a bilingual Christmas classic none of us can ignore?

Turns out, homesickness, and a lot of talent, had a lot to do with it.

Creating a Classic 

“’Feliz Navidad’s one of those kind of songs that, like ‘Happy Birthday,’ it’s very, very iconic. And anybody can sing it,” Musician Bobby Sanabria, co-director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center, told NPR.

Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” released in 1970, did the impossible: united a country with holiday cheer in another language. And, over 50 years later, it still does.

“My thought when I wrote the song was that it didn’t matter what language you were singing in. The feeling of Christmas is privy to all of us,” Feliciano explains.

But did you know that Feliciano’s own feelings of loneliness inspired this iconic tune?

It all started when Felicianco says he was stuck in an L.A. studio, tasked with the assignment of recording a new Christmas album, while his 11 brothers and their entire extended family, back in Puerto Rico. 

“ … was expressing the joy that I felt on Christmas and the fact that I felt very lonely,” Felicano told NPR. “I missed my family, I missed Christmas carols with them. I missed the whole Christmas scene.”

He says the family always got together for Noche Buena, Christmas Eve, eating pasteles and lechon, and drinking rum. They also went caroling in the unique Puerto Rico tradition known as parrandas.

He chose to make a happy song, but admits that his loneliness was the driving feeling behind the song. 

The ‘Birth of a Star’

José was born blind, on September 10, 1945, in Lares, Puerto Rico, according to his official website  “One of eleven boys, his love affair with music began at the age of three when he first accompanied his uncle on a tin cracker can.”

Then, when he was five, his family moved to New York City where he learned to play the concertina at six, and, later, at the age of nine, he performed at The Puerto Rican Theater in the Bronx. 

He taught himself to play the guitar “practicing for as many as 14 hours a day.”

At 17, now a singer as well, the young musician quit school to help his family. “He starting playing in coffee houses in Greenwich Village and for his salary — as was the norm during that time in small clubs — they’d pass the hat,’ his site explains. 

“A music critic from the New York Times, reviewing his performance at Gerde’s Folk City, referred to him as a ‘10-fingered wizard who romps, runs, rolls, picks and reverberates his six strings in an incomparable fashion.’ He added, ‘If you want to witness the birth of a star, catch Mr. Feliciano before he leaves tomorrow night,” according to Feliciano’s official biography.

This is around the time Feliciano signed with RCA, and a star was born.

By 23, José Feliciano had earned five Grammy nominations and won two Grammy Awards for his album “Feliciano!” He had performed over much of the world, and had recorded songs in four languages.

He’s won over 45 Gold and Platinum records; earned a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame; and has been honored by his hometown of New York City with a school named after him: “The José Feliciano Performing Arts School,” in East Harlem.

Then there’s “Feliz Navidad.”

Feliz Navidad’ at 50+

“The idea of ‘Feliz Navidad’ was to try and unite the people,” Feliciano says.

According to Billboard, the song has drawn 3.8 billion in cumulative radio audience and 306 million on-demand streams and has sold 925,000 downloads in the U.S. through Nov. 12, 2020, since Nielsen Music/MRC Data began tracking each metric.

To celebrate the song’s 50th anniversary, Feliciano released a new version of Feliz Navidad featuring 30 artists including CNCO, Shaggy, Jon Secada, Jason Mraz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Gloria Gaynor, Michael Bolton, Los Temerarios, Sam Moore, and Styx.

“Produced by longtime friend and producer Rudy Pérez, ‘Feliz Navidad 50th Anniversary (FN50)’ was released by Anthem Records as an Amazon exclusive that lives in a special Jose Feliciano Feliz Navidad Amazon hub that also houses a Feliz Navidad children’s book, a stuffed bear called “José Bear” and other merchandise including T-shirts,” Billboard reports.

The simple holiday song with only 19 words, with 6 words in Spanish, took only 10 minutes to write. But there was much thought behind its seeming simplicity.

“That’s why, when I did a Christmas album, I didn’t want to do a Christmas album that was syrupy … that told the story of the Savior’s birth in a way that was musical and people could get behind it,” the singer explains.

Of course, even Feliciano couldn’t imagine how famous the song would become, more popular over 50 years later.

“It just came to me; there’s no rhyme or reason,” he told Billboard. “The first lyric came to me, then I put the English lyric into it, not realizing I had made it the only bilingual Christmas song ever in the world. I created a monster.”

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