The first two – Gene Autry’s “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Ernest Tubb’s “Blue Christmas” – were both released in 1949. The third, Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” dates back to 1973. Though it mentions the holiday, Haggard’s record wasn’t a pure Christmas release. Economics are as much a factor in the storyline as the yuletide season, and it actually first appeared on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart on October 27, 1973, debuting at #57. With that head start, “If We Make It Through December” was able to pick up enough momentum to reach number one just three days before Christmas.
The impetus for the song actually came from neither Christmas nor the economy. Merle’s guitar player Roy Nichols had been married several times, and his divorces always seemed to come late in the year. As another year-end approached, Haggard asked Nichols about his outlook. As part of Roy’s response, he uttered a phrase that caught Merle’s ear: “If we can just make it through December.” You always know when somebody offers an off-the-wall remark like that and Merle Haggard overhears it, the phrase is liable to be turned into a song. And so it was.
Even though “If We Make It Through December” was special to the public, it meant even more to guitarist Ronnie Reno. The son of veteran musician Don Reno, he was previously a member of the Osborne Brothers’ band, which had opened for Haggard at a White House concert. Reno had since left the Osbornes and joined Merle’s entourage shortly afterward. “If We Make It Through December” was the very first song Ronnie recorded with Haggard, and naturally he was a little nervous working with the mega-star. The song was included as an entry on Merle’s upcoming Christmas album, recorded in July of ’73 at Buck Owens’ old Bakersfield studio.