2020 is the 50th anniversary of “Feliz Navidad,” a bilingual Christmas song written by Puerto Rican musician Jose Feliciano. It was the first Spanish language Christmas song to become popular in the United States, and is still one of the most popular holiday tunes, hitting the top 10 on Billboard this year.
José Monserrate Feliciano García was born in Lares, Puerto Rico, in 1945, one of 11 brothers. He was blind from birth from congenital glaucoma. When he was five years old, his family moved to New York, where they lived in Spanish Harlem.
Feliciano was devoted to music from an early age, and was only 9 years old when he had his first public performance at the Teatro Puerto Rico in The Bronx. As a child, he came home from school and turned on the TV program “American Bandstand” so he could play along on his guitar.
He played in coffee houses in New York City and spent some time in Argentina, where he became well know playing the romantic boleros his mother had loved. He returned to the United States and recorded the Doors’ “Light My Fire” in 1958 as a single, and on his first album. The song reached #3 in the U.S.and #1 in many other countries. The album sold over one million copies in the United States alone.
Feliciano sang the national anthem at the World Series, stirring up controversy with his jazzy rendition of the song. While performers now often make new stylistic choices while singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at sports events, Feliciano was the first to do so.
In 1970, Jose Feliciano was recording a Christmas album for RCA when his producer asked him to write a new holiday song. Feeling lonely and nostalgic for his childhood Christmas celebrations with his family, Feliciano came up with “Feliz Navidad” as an expression of the joy he felt at Christmastime.
The song became a hit and Feliciano became the first U.S. musician to experience significant crossover success with songs in English and in Spanish.
50 years later, “Feliz Navidad” is still one of the most often played and downloaded Christmas songs. Billboard estimates that 3.8 billion people have heard the song. For its 50th anniversary, Feliciano gathered 30 musicians remotely to record a new version of the song during the pandemic. He also brought out a children’s book and an animated film
Here is the 50th anniversary reimagining of the song:
Feliciano received two Grammy awards in 1969: for Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance for “Light My Fire.” He received seven more Grammy awards, plus the 2000 Grammy Legend award.
“Feliz Navidad” is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Feliciano has released 60 albums, performed all over the world, written music for films and TV, acted in TV and movies, and supported a wide range of charitable organizations.