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The culmination of two years of peace activism by John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, Happy Xmas (War is Over) is a perennial Christmas singalong that started life with the very specific aim of reminding the world, at a time of peace and good will to all men, that war is a choice.

The phrase "War is Over! If you want it" became familiar the world over two years earlier, in 1969, when Lennon and Ono paid to have the slogan pasted in bold black and white headlines on huge billboards in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Helsinki. Using the advertising industry - the capitalist establishment's own tool for conditioning the masses - this was part art installation and part rallying cry. Or, as Lennon described it, simply "our advertising campaign for peace". The message below the headline read "Happy Christmas from John and Yoko".

The focus of Lennon and Ono's campaigning was to bring an end to the war in Vietnam, which had escalated dramatically during Lyndon B Johnson's time in the White House. More than 50,000 Americans died in military action before the conflict finally ceased in 1975, along with an estimated 1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers, 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and around 2 million civilians on both sides of the North-South divide.

To further the cause, Lennon and Ono recorded Give Peace a Chance, which became an anthem for Sixties counterculture, was a worldwide hit single and was sung by half-a-million protestors in Washington DC at a massive demonstration in October 1969.

Acorn Peace was another Lennon & Ono initiative in 1969, sending acorns to 50 heads of state around the world inviting them to plant them as a gesture of peace, with a personal letter which read: "Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures – which are acorns – in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace." Several of the world leaders responded with pledges to plant the acorns.

Perhaps most memorably, they attracted worldwide media attention with two "Bed-Ins", at hotels in Amsterdam and Montreal, where they invited the press to visit them in their room, where they held court, sitting up in a double bed every day for a week.

"Is there not a more positive way of demonstrating in favour of peace than sitting in bed eating three square meals a day?" said Lennon. "It's gimmicks and salesmanship. And if that's what'll put it across, that's the way to do it. Whether you're protesting against the conditions you live in or the conditions you work in, or the conditions of the whole world."

"We knew whatever we did was going be in the papers," Lennon explained further. "So we decided to utilize the space we would occupy anyway, by getting married, with a commercial for peace."

Happy Xmas (War is Over) was put together a bit too late in 1971 to hit the big time - Lennon and Ono wrote it together in October and recorded it with producer Phil Spector - and backing vocals by the Harlem Community Choir - in November. It failed to chart in the US and was held back for a 1972 Christmas release in the UK, where it peaked at No.4. But it has of course gone on to be re-released numerous times, most notably in December 1980 following John Lennon's murder.

Although this song was undoubtedly a reaction to a brutal war that slaughtered millions, conducted at arm's length by politicians in the grip of a venal military-industrial complex, the simple melody and words betray the universal appeal of a Beatle at his best, effortlessly intertwining art and pop with a message that anyone could understand and share.

"A very Merry Christmas / And a Happy New Year / Let's hope it's a good one / Without any fear".

The story of John and Yoko's Bed-Ins is told in the documentary Bed Peace, which you can watch on Yoko Ono's Youtube page

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About the curator: Jon Ewing

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.

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