Christmas music comprises a variety of genres of music normally performed or heard around the Christmas season. Music associated with Christmas may be purely instrumental, or in the case of many carols or songs may employ lyrics whose subject matter ranges from the nativity of Jesus Christ, to gift-giving and merrymaking, to cultural figures such as Santa Claus, among other topics. Performances of Christmas music at public concerts, in churches, at shopping malls, on city streets, and in private gatherings is an integral staple of the Christmas holiday in many cultures across the world.
Music associated with Christmas is thought to have its origins in 4th-century Rome, in Latin-language hymns such as Veni redemptor gentium. By the 13th century, under the influence of Francis of Assisi, the tradition of popular Christmas songs in regional native languages developed. Christmas carols in the English language first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, an English chaplain, who lists twenty five "caroles of Cristemas", probably sung by groups of 'wassailers' who would travel from house to house. In the 16th century, various Christmas carols still sung to this day, including "The 12 Days of Christmas", "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen", and "O Christmas Tree", first emerged.
The Victorian Era saw a surge of Christmas carols associated with a renewed admiration of the holiday, including "Silent Night", "O Little Town of Bethlehem", and "O Holy Night". The first Christmas songs associated with Saint Nicholas or other gift-bringers also came during 19th century, including "Up on the Housetop" and "Jolly Old St. Nicholas". Many older Christmas hymns were also translated or had lyrics added to them during this period, particularly in 1871 when John Stainer published a widely influential collection entitled "Christmas Carols New & Old". Few notable carols were produced from the beginning of the 20th century until the Great Depression era of the 1930s, when a stream of songs of often American origin were published, most of which did not explicitly reference the Christian nature of the holiday, but rather the more secular traditional Western themes and customs associated with Christmas. These included songs aimed at children such as "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", as well as sentimental ballad-type songs performed by famous crooners of the era, such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "White Christmas", the latter of which remains the best-selling single of all time as of 2018.
Popular Christmas music produced from after World War II until the present day has generally remained thematically, lyrically, and instrumentally similar to the songs produced in the early 20th century. Since the dawn of the rock era in the mid-1950s, much of the Christmas music produced for popular audiences has had explicitly romantic overtones, only using Christmas as a setting. The 1950s also featured the introduction of novelty songs that used the holiday as a target for satire and source for comedy. Exceptions such as "The Christmas Shoes" (2000) have re-introduced Christian themes as complementary to the secular Western themes, and a plethora of traditional carol cover versions by various artists have explored virtually all music genres.
Music was an early feature of the Christmas season and its celebrations. The earliest examples are hymnographic works (chants and litanies) intended for liturgical use in observance of both the Feast of the Nativity and Theophany, many of which are still in use by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The 13th century saw the rise of the carol written in the vernacular, under the influence of Francis of Assisi.
In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Audelay, a Shropshire priest and poet, who lists 25 "caroles of Cristemas", probably sung by groups of wassailers, who went from house to house. Music in itself soon became one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, and Christmas music includes some of the noblest compositions of the great musicians.
During the Commonwealth of England government under Cromwell, the Rump Parliament prohibited the practice of singing Christmas carols as Pagan and sinful. Like other customs associated with popular Catholic Christianity, it earned the disapproval of Protestant Puritans. Famously, Cromwell's interregnum prohibited all celebrations of the Christmas holiday. This attempt to ban the public celebration of Christmas can also be seen in the early history of Father Christmas.
The Westminster Assembly of Divines established Sunday as the only holy day in the calendar in 1644. The new liturgy produced for the English church recognised this in 1645, and so legally abolished Christmas. Its celebration was declared an offence by Parliament in 1647. There is some debate as to the effectiveness of this ban, and whether or not it was enforced in the country.
Puritans generally disapproved of the celebration of Christmas—a trend which continually resurfaced in Europe and the USA through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
When in May 1660 Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne, the people of England once again practiced the public singing of Christmas carols as part of the revival of Christmas customs, sanctioned by the king's own celebrations. William Sandys's Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), contained the first appearance in print of many now-classic English carols, and contributed to the mid-Victorian revival of the holiday. Singing carols in church was instituted on Christmas Eve 1880 (Nine Lessons and Carols) in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, England, which is now seen in churches all over the world.
According to one of the only observational research studies of Christmas caroling, Christmas observance and caroling traditions vary considerably between nations in the 21st century, while the actual sources and meanings of even high-profile songs are commonly misattributed, and the motivations for carol singing can in some settings be as much associated with family tradition and national cultural heritage as with religious beliefs. Christmas festivities, including music, are also celebrated in a more secular fashion by such institutions as the Santa Claus Village, in Rovaniemi, Finland.
The tradition of singing Christmas carols in return for alms or charity began in England in the seventeenth century after the Restoration. Town musicians or 'waits' were licensed to collect money in the streets in the weeks preceding Christmas, the custom spread throughout the population by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries up to the present day. Also from the seventeenth century, there was the English custom, predominantly involving women, of taking a wassail bowl to their neighbours to solicit gifts, accompanied by carols. Despite this long history, many Christmas carols date only from the nineteenth century onwards, with the exception of songs such as the Wexford Carol, "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen", "As I Sat on a Sunny Bank", "The Holly and the Ivy," the "Coventry Carol" and "I Saw Three Ships".
The status of Christmas as an important feast within the church year also means there is a long tradition of music specially composed for celebrating the season. The following is a brief and non-exhaustive list of notable compositions:
Peter Cornelius composed a cycle of six songs related to Christmas themes, called Weihnachtslieder. Setting his own poems for solo voice and piano, he alluded to older Christmas carols in the accompaniment of two of the songs.
Songs which are traditional, even some without a specific religious context, are often called Christmas carols. Each of these has a rich history, some dating back many centuries.
A popular set of traditional carols that might be heard at any Christmas-related event include:
These songs hearken from centuries ago, the oldest ('Wexford Carol') originating in the 12th century. The newest came together in the mid- to late-19th century. Many began in non-English speaking countries, often with non-Christmas themes, and were later converted into English carols with English lyrics added—not always translated from the original, but newly created—sometimes as late as the early 20th century.
More recent, copyrighted carols about the Nativity include "I Wonder as I Wander" (1933), "Mary's Boy Child" (1956), "Carol of the Drum" ("Little Drummer Boy") (1941), "Do You Hear What I Hear?" (1962), and "Mary, Did You Know?" (1984).
Christmas music has been published as sheet music for centuries. One of the earliest collections of printed Christmas music was Piae Cantiones, a Finnish songbook first published in 1582 which contained a number of songs that have survived today as well-known Christmas carols. The publication of Christmas music books in the 19th century, such as Christmas Carols, New and Old (Bramley and Stainer, 1871), played an important role in widening the popular appeal of carols. In the 20th century, Oxford University Press (OUP) published some highly successful Christmas music collections such as The Oxford Book of Carols (Martin Shaw, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer, 1928), which revived a number of early folk songs and established them as modern standard carols. This was followed by the bestselling Carols for Choirs series (David Willcocks, Reginald Jacques and John Rutter), first published in 1961 and now available in a five volumes. The popular books have proved to be a popular resource for choirs and church congregations in the English-speaking world, and remain in print today.
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More recently popular Christmas songs—often Christmas songs introduced in theater, television, film, or other entertainment media—tend to be specifically about Christmas, or have a wintertime theme. They are typically not overtly religious. The most popular set of these titles—heard over airwaves, on the Internet, in shopping malls, in elevators and lobbies, even on the street during the Christmas season—have been composed and performed from the 1930s onward. "Jingle Bells", "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas", and "Up on the House Top", however, date from the mid-19th century.
The largest portion of these songs in some way describes or is reminiscent of Christmas traditions, how Western Christian countries tend to celebrate the holiday, i.e., with caroling, mistletoe, exchanging of presents, a Christmas tree, feasting, jingle bells, etc. Celebratory or sentimental, and nostalgic in tone, they hearken back to simpler times with memorable holiday practices—expressing the desire either to be with someone or at home for Christmas.
Many titles help define the mythical aspects of modern Christmas celebration: Santa Claus bringing presents, coming down the chimney, being pulled by reindeer, etc. New mythical characters are created, defined, and popularized by these songs; "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", adapted from a major retailer's promotional poem, was introduced to radio audiences by Gene Autry in 1949. His follow-up a year later introduced "Frosty the Snowman", the central character of his song.
Though overtly religious, and authored (at least partly) by a writer of many church hymns, no drumming child appears in any biblical account of the Christian nativity scene. This character was introduced to the tradition by Katherine K. Davis in her "The Little Drummer Boy" (written in 1941, with a popular version being released in 1958).
The winter-related songs celebrate the climatic season, with all its snow, dressing up for the cold, sleighing, etc.
Paul Williams, ASCAP President and chairman
According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2016, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," written by Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie in 1934, is the most played holiday song of the last 50 years. It was first performed live by Eddie Cantor on his radio show. Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra recorded their version in 1935, followed later by a range of artists including: Frank Sinatra, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, The Beach Boys, and Glenn Campbell. Bruce Springsteen add a rock rendition in 1975.
Long-time Christmas classics still dominate the holiday charts — such as "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," "Winter Wonderland," "Sleigh Ride" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" — new songs to enter the top tier of the season's canon include "Wonderful Christmastime" by Paul McCartney, "All I Want for Christmas Is You" by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff, and "Last Christmas" by George Michael.
The top thirty most-played holiday songs for the 2015 holiday season are ranked here, all titles written or co-written by ASCAP songwriters and composers.
|1||"Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"||J. Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie||1934||Mythical|
|2||"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"||Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin||1944||Celebratory/Sentimental|
|3||"Winter Wonderland"||Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith||1934||Seasonal|
|4||"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"||Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne||1945||Seasonal|
|5||"The Christmas Song"||Mel Tormé, Robert Wells||1944||Traditions|
|6||"Jingle Bell Rock"||Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe||1957||Celebratory/Seasonal|
|7||"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"||Edward Pola, George Wyle||1963||Seasonal/Traditions|
|8||"Sleigh Ride"||Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish||1948||Seasonal/Birthday|
|9||"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"||Johnny Marks||1939/1949||Mythical|
|10||"It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas"||Meredith Willson||1951||Traditions/Celebratory|
|11||"White Christmas"||Irving Berlin||1940||Seasonal/Sentimental|
|12||"A Holly Jolly Christmas"||Johnny Marks||1964/65||Traditions/Celebratory|
|13||"Carol of the Bells"||Peter J. Wilhousky||1936||Celebratory|
|14||"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"||Johnny Marks||1958||Traditions|
|15||"All I Want for Christmas Is You"||Mariah Carey, Walter Afanasieff||1994||Sentimental|
|16||"Frosty the Snowman"||Steve Nelson (songwriter), Walter E. Rollins||1950||Mythical|
|17||"Blue Christmas"||Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson||1957||Traditions|
|18||"(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays"||Bob Allen, Al Stillman||1954||Traditions/Sentimental|
|19||"The Little Drummer Boy"||Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone||1941||Christian-based|
|20||"Do You Hear What I Hear?"||Gloria Shayne Baker, Noël Regney||1962||Traditions|
|21||"Silver Bells"||Jay Livingston, Ray Evans||1950||Traditions|
|22||"Baby, It's Cold Outside"||Frank Loesser||1948||Seasonal|
|23||"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"||Tommie Connor||1952||Novelty|
|24||"Feliz Navidad"||José Feliciano||1970||Celebratory|
|25||"Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24"||Jon Oliva, Paul O'Neill, Robert Kinkel||1995||Instrumental (no lyrics)|
|26||"Last Christmas"||George Michael||1984||Sentimental|
|27||"Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)"||Gene Autry, Oakley Haldeman||1947||Mythical/Christian-based|
|28||"Santa Baby"||Joan Ellen Javits, Philip Springer, Tony Springer, and Fred Ebb||1953||Novelty|
|29||"Happy Holiday"||Irving Berlin||1948||Celebratory|
|30||"Wonderful Christmastime"||Paul McCartney||1979||Celebratory|
The above ranking results from an aggregation of performances of all different artist versions of each cited holiday song, across all forms of media, from 1/1/15 through 12/31/15.
While the ASCAP list is relatively popular in the UK and Ireland, it remains largely overshadowed by a collection of chart hits recorded in a bid to be crowned the UK Christmas number one single during the 1970s and 1980s. Band Aid's 1984 song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is the second best selling single in UK Chart history. The 1987 single "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues, a rock band from London, is regularly voted the British public's favourite ever Christmas song, and it is also the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century in the UK. British glam rock bands had major hit singles with Christmas songs in the 1970s; "Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade, "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday" by Wizzard and "Lonely This Christmas" by Mud, all of which have remained hugely popular. The top ten most played Christmas songs in the UK based on a 2012 survey conducted by PRS for Music, who collect and pay royalties to its 75,000 song-writing and composing members, are as follows:
|1||"Fairytale of New York"||Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan||The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl||1987|
|2||"All I Want for Christmas Is You"||Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff||Mariah Carey||1994|
|3||"Do They Know It's Christmas?"||Bob Geldof and Midge Ure||Band Aid||1984|
|4||"Last Christmas"||George Michael||Wham!||1984|
|5||"Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"||John Frederick Coots, Haven Gillespie||Harry Reser||1934|
|6||"Do You Hear What I Hear?"||Noel Regney, Gloria Shayn||Bing Crosby||1962|
|7||"Happy Christmas (War Is Over)"||John Lennon||John Lennon||1971|
|8||"Wonderful Christmastime"||Paul McCartney||Paul McCartney||1979|
|9||"I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday"||Roy Wood||Wizzard||1973|
|10||"Merry Xmas Everybody"||Noddy Holder||Slade||1974|
Included in the 2009 and 2008 lists are such other titles as Jona Lewie's "Stop the Cavalry", Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", Elton John's "Step into Christmas", Mud's "Lonely This Christmas", "Walking in the Air" by Aled Jones, Shakin' Stevens' "Merry Christmas Everyone", Chris Rea's "Driving Home for Christmas" and "Mistletoe and Wine" and "Saviour's Day" by Cliff Richard.
The best Christmas song "to get adults and children in the festive spirit for the party season in 2016" was judged by the Daily Mirror to be "Fairytale of New York". Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas is You" was declared "the UK’s favourite Christmas song," narrowly beating out "Fairytale of New York" according to a "points system" created by The Independent in 2017. Both score well ahead of all others on the list of top twenty Christmas songs in the U.K.
Ellis Rich, Chairman of PRS for Music
In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the "Christmas number one"—reaching the top spot on the UK Singles Chart and/or Irish Singles Chart on the edition preceding Christmas—is a cultural phenomenon, and is considered a major achievement. The Christmas number one, and to a lesser extent, the runner-up at number two, receives a great deal of publicity. In recent years, social media campaigns have been used to try and encourage sales of specific songs so that they could reach number one.
Though some of these songs do tend to develop an association with Christmas or the holiday season, such an association tends to be much shorter lived than the more traditionally themed Christmas songs such as "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday", "Mistletoe and Wine" and "Merry Christmas Everyone", and the songs may have nothing to do with Christmas or even winter. Some notable and longer-lasting examples include Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" (No. 1, 1984, the second biggest selling single in UK Chart history; two re-recordings also hit No. 1 in 1989 and 2004), Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody" (No. 1, 1973) and Wham!'s "Last Christmas" (No. 2, 1984).
Examples of songs not explicitly tied to Christmas have included children's songs such as "Mr Blobby" (No. 1, 1993) and the theme from Bob the Builder (No. 1, 2000), novelty songs such as Benny Hill's "Ernie" (No. 1, 1971) and South Park's "Chocolate Salty Balls" (No. 2, 1998), "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" from an ensemble of Liverpudlian celebrities in commemoration of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster (No. 1, 2012), and several examples of standard pop fare that would likely be just as popular outside the holiday season. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is the only recording to have ever been Christmas number one twice, in both 1975 and 1991.
At the turn of the 21st century, songs associated with reality shows became a frequent source of Christmas number ones in the UK. In 2002, Popstars The Rivals produced the top three singles on the British Christmas charts. The "rival" groups produced by the series—the girl group Girls Aloud and the boy band One True Voice—finished first and second respectively on the charts. Failed contestants The Cheeky Girls charted with a novelty hit, "Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)", at third. Briton Will Young, winner of the first Pop Idol, charted at the top of the Irish charts in 2003.
The X Factor also typically concludes in December; the winner's debut single earned the Christmas number one in at least one of the two countries every year from 2005 to 2014, and in both countries in five of those ten years. Each year since 2008 has seen protest campaigns to outsell the X Factor single (which benefits from precisely-timed release and corresponding media buzz) and prevent it from reaching number one. In 2009, as the result of a campaign intended to counter the phenomenon, Rage Against the Machine's 1992 single "Killing in the Name" reached number one in the UK instead of that year's X Factor winner, Joe McElderry. In 2011, "Wherever You Are", the single from a choir of military wives assembled by the TV series The Choir, earned the Christmas number-one single in Britain—upsettingX Factor winners Little Mix. With the Military Wives Choir single not being released in Ireland, Little Mix won Christmas number-one in Ireland that year.
Situated in the southern hemisphere, where seasons are reversed from the northern, the heat of early summer in Australia affects the way Christmas is celebrated and how northern hemisphere Christmas traditions are followed. Australians generally spend Christmas outdoors, going to the beach for the day, or heading to camp grounds for a vacation. International visitors to Sydney at Christmastime often go to Bondi Beach where tens of thousands gather on Christmas Day.
The tradition of an Australian Christmas Eve carol service lit by candles, started in 1937 by Victorian radio announcer Norman Banks, has taken place in Melbourne annually since then. Carols by Candlelight events can be "huge gatherings . . televised live throughout the country" or smaller "local community and church events." Carols in the Domain in Sydney is now a "popular platform for the stars of stage and music."
Some homegrown Christmas songs have become popular. William G. James' six sets of Australian Christmas Carols, with words by John Wheeler, include "The Three Drovers", "The Silver Stars are in the Sky", "Christmas Day", "Carol of the Birds" and others. "Light-hearted Australian Christmas songs" have become "an essential part of the Australian Christmas experience." Rolf Harris' "Six White Boomers", Colin Buchanan's "Aussie Jingle Bells", and the "Australian Twelve Days of Christmas", proudly proclaim the differing traditions Down Under. A verse from "Aussie Jingle Bells" makes the point:
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" has been revised to fit the Australian context, as an example: "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me: 12 parrots prattling, 11 numbats nagging, 10 lizards leaping, 9 wombats working, 8 dingoes digging, 7 possums playing, 6 brolgas dancing, 5 kangaroos, 4 koalas cuddling, 3 kookaburras laughing, 2 pink galahs, and an emu up a gum tree."
Other popular Australian Christmas songs include: 'White Wine in the Sun" by Tim Minchin, "Aussie Jingle Bells" by Bucko & Champs, "Christmas Photo" by John Williamson, "Go Santa, Go" by The Wiggles, and "Six White Boomers" by Russel Coight.
"The Australian carols that do exist are mostly novelty re-workings of existing songs with the holly and the ivy replaced by gum trees and wattle. Santa swapping his fur hat for a corked Akubra and a token Aboriginal word is deemed sufficient to localise the celebration of the day a Middle Eastern tradesman wasn’t actually born."— Ben Anderson, Daily Review
"My Little Christmas Belle" (1909) composed by Joe Slater (1872-1926) to words by Ward McAlister (1872–1928) celebrates eastern Australian flora coming into bloom during the heat of Christmas. Blandfordia nobilis, also known as Christmas Bells, are the specific subject of the song—with the original sheet music bearing a depiction of the blossom. Whereas "The Holly and The Ivy" (1937) by Australian Louis Lavater (1867–1953) mentions northern hemisphere foliage.
Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly first released "How to Make Gravy" as part of a four-track EP November 4, 1996 through White Label Records. The title track, written by Kelly, tells the story in a letter to his brother from a newly imprisoned man who laments how he will be missing the family Christmas. It received a 'Song of the Year' nomination at the 1998 Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) Music Awards. Kelly's theme reflects a national experience with Christmas:
"A lot of the early imagery of Christmas in Australia is related to isolation and distance. You’ve got the Sydney Mail in 1879 saying ’The revels of Christmas tide cannot endure the ordeal of immigration’. It’s that sense that it’s alien here and we’re so conscious of being away from family and that figures very prominently in the imagery of Christmas back in that time."— Nicholas Brown, Australian National University
Other popular Christmas songs often heard around the holidays include: "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" (1937), "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (1943), "Merry Christmas Baby" (1947) — all recorded by a number of acts.
Other song titles that have joined the Christmas music canon in ensuing decades include:
In their "admittedly subjective" list of the top Christmas songs of all time, ThoughtCo. ranked their top five favorites as:
In 2007 surveys of United States radio listeners by two different research groups, the most liked songs were standards such as Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" (1942), Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" (1946), and Burl Ives' "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (1965). Other favorites like "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (Brenda Lee, 1958), "Jingle Bell Rock" (Bobby Helms, 1957) and John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas" (1971), scored well in one study. Also "loved" were Johnny Mathis' "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and Harry Simeone Chorale's "Little Drummer Boy".
The Pinnacle Media Worldwide survey divided its listeners into music-type categories:
Among the most-hated Christmas songs, according to Edison Media Research's 2007 survey, are Barbra Streisand's "Jingle Bells?", the Jackson 5's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town", Elmo & Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer", and "O Holy Night" as performed by cartoon characters from Comedy Central's "South Park". The "most-hated Christmastime recording" is a rendition of "Jingle Bells" by Don Charles's Singing Dogs, a revolutionary novelty song originally released in 1955, and re-released as an edited version in 1970.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked Darlene Love's version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" (1963) first on its list of The Greatest Rock and Roll Christmas Songs in December 2010. Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You", co-written by Carey and Walter Afanasieff, was No. 1 on Billboard's Holiday Digital Songs chart in December 2013. "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues is cited as the best Christmas song of all time in various television, radio and magazine related polls in the U.K. and Ireland.
Approximately half of the 30 best-selling Christmas songs by ASCAP members in 2015 were written by Jewish composers. Johnny Marks has three top Christmas songs, the most for any writer—"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", and "A Holly Jolly Christmas". By far the most recorded Christmas song is "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin in Russia)—who also wrote "Happy Holiday"—with well over 500 versions in dozens of languages.
Lyricist Jerome "Jerry" Leiber and composer Mike Stoller wrote "Santa Claus Is Back in Town", which Elvis Presley debuted on his first Christmas album in 1957. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" was written by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (with Phil Spector), originally for Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. It was made into a hit by Darlene Love in 1963.
"Peace on Earth" was written by Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman, and Alan Kohan as a counterpoint to "The Little Drummer Boy" (1941) to make David Bowie comfortable recording "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" with Bing Crosby on September 11, 1977 — for Crosby's then-upcoming television special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas.
What is known as Christmas music today was often adopted from works initially composed for other purposes, coming to be associated with the holiday in some way. Many tunes adopted into the Christmas canon fall into the generic Winter classification, as they carry no Christmas connotation at all. Others were written to celebrate other holidays and gradually came to cover the Christmas season.
Borrowing from the title of the Robert Burns standard "Auld Lang Syne," Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne" (1980) tells a Christmas Eve story and is now frequently played during the holiday season. Perry Como famously sang Franz Schubert's setting of "Ave Maria" in his televised Christmas special each year, including the song on The Perry Como Christmas Album (1968) which "became a staple of family holiday record collections."
"Jingle Bells", first published under the title "One Horse Open Sleigh" in 1857, was originally associated with Thanksgiving rather than Christmas. "Sleigh Ride", composed originally in 1948 as an instrumental by Leroy Anderson, was inspired by a heatwave in Connecticut. The song premiered with the Boston Pops Orchestra in May 1948 with no association with Christmas. The lyrics added in 1950 have "nothing to do with Santa, Jesus, presents or reindeer." The jingling bells and the sleigh in the title, though, made it a natural Christmas song. Lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Julie Styne also found themselves in a heatwave in July 1945 when they wrote "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", with no reference to Christmas in the song.
Many popular Christmas tunes of the 20th century mention winter imagery, and for this have been adopted into the Christmas and holiday season, including:
In the 21st century, some songs mention the holiday season or winter imagery. "Holiday" (2010) is about the summer holidays, but has been used in some Christmas ad campaigns. "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" (2013), from the movie Frozen, features lyrics that are more of an illustration of the relationship between the two main characters than a general description of winter or the holidays, but it is considered a holiday song due to its title rhetoric and the winter imagery used throughout the film.
Following the 2016 death of songwriter Leonard Cohen and the resulting uptick in interest in his work, various versions of his signature song "Hallelujah," including a version by American a capella group Pentatonix which had already been released on their Christmas album shortly before Cohen's death, were added into Christmas music playlists on radio stations in the United States and Canada.
Christmas songs introduced in theater, television, and film include "White Christmas" from Holiday Inn (1942), "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and "Silver Bells" in The Lemon Drop Kid (1950). Some musical films have been set around Christmas time, and because of that some of the songs are popular during the holiday season, including:
A popular form of Christmas song are the musical parodies of the season—comical or nonsensical songs performed principally for their comical effect—usually classified as "novelty songs". The term arose in the Tin Pan Alley world of popular songwriting, with novelty songs achieved great popularity during the 1920s and 1930s.
Many novelty songs employ unusual lyrics, subjects, sounds, or instrumentation, and may not even be particularly musical. This Christmas novelty song genre started off with "I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas" written by Yogi Yorgesson and sung by him with the Johnny Duffy Trio in 1949, and include such notable titles as:
In the Seventies comedic singing duo Cheech & Chong's debut single in 1971 was "Santa Claus and His Old Lady". The Kinks did "Father Christmas" in 1977, and Elmo & Patsy came out with "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" in 1979. More recent titles added to the canon include:
Seattle radio personality Bob Rivers became nationally famous for his line of novelty Christmas songs and released five albums (collectively known as the Twisted Christmas quintilogy, after the name of Rivers' radio program, "Twisted Radio") consisting entirely of Christmas parodies from 1987 to 2002. "Don't Shoot Me Santa" was released by The Killers in 2007, benefiting various AIDS charities. Christmas novelty songs can involve gallows humor and even morbid humor like that found in "Christmas at Ground Zero" and "The Night Santa Went Crazy", both by "Weird Al" Yankovic. The Dan Band released several adult-oriented Christmas songs on their 2007 album "Ho: A Dan Band Christmas" which included "Ho, Ho, Ho" (ho being slang for a prostitute), "I Wanna Rock You Hard This Christmas", "Please Don't Bomb Nobody This Holiday" and "Get Drunk & Make Out This Christmas".
Straight No Chaser singer Randy Stine said of the song: "We wanted a Christmas song that spoke to how informal communication has become."
Christmas novelty songs include many sung by young teens, or performed largely for the enjoyment of a young audience. Kicking off with "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" sung by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd in 1952, other few notable novelty songs written to parody the Christmas season and sung by young singers include:
Christmas novelty songs aimed at a young audience include:
The number of Christmas novelty songs is so immense that radio host Dr. Demento devotes an entire month of weekly two-hour episodes to the format each year, and the novelty songs receive frequent requests at radio stations across the country.
Traditionally, U.S. radio stations began adding Christmas-themed selections to their regular playlists in late November, shortly after Thanksgiving each year, typically culminating in 36–48 hours of continuous Christmas music between December 24–25. This practice became even more widespread after 9/11, when many radio stations across the U.S. sought a sort of musical "comfort food".
When a radio station in the U.S. makes the temporary switch to all-Christmas music, its listener share regularly doubles. A sampling of radio stations that made the switch in 2010 with the change in market share:
Darren Davis, Senior V.P., Clear Channel
As a part of a phenomenon known as "Christmas creep", radio stations—responsible for so much of Christmas music broadcasting, popularization, and appreciation—are "going Christmas" earlier each year. Many stations now start rolling out holiday music in early November instead of Thanksgiving or Black Friday (and a select few, such as WEZW since 2011), have earned a reputation for beginning their Christmas music as early as October, because programmers "think that listeners will stick with the first station to change to a seasonal theme." About 400 radio stations "across the U.S. play Christmas music around the clock." In Chicago, WLIT-FM saw its share of all radio listeners grow from a 2.9/3.6 share earlier in the year to 9.3 during the November 28 to December 11, 2003 Arbitron rating period. A 2002 Arbitron ratings study confirmed holiday-music surges at stations around the country.
Adult contemporary, oldies, and country listeners tend to adjust better to an all-Christmas switch than do listeners of other formats such as hip-hop or hard rock. However: "Nine times out of 10, many new listeners pour in, outweighing the listeners that do opt out", says Greg Strassell, senior vice president of programming at CBS Radio. However, this may not always transition well into financial success, since advertisers do not universally recognise Arbitron's holiday ratings book.
A 2005 study published in the Journal of Business Research noted that shoppers respond well to hearing Christmas music in stores. However, psychologists have noted that continuous exposure to Christmas music for a prolonged period of time can create a hostile work environment for employees.
Even many stations that do not play full-time Christmas music prior to Christmas Eve will often play Christmas music commercial-free the entire day on Christmas Day and often a portion of Christmas Eve as well, with only recorded interruptions for Christmas messages from station personnel and personnel from the station's parent company to give all but the governmental body-required number of personnel (in the U.S., two people must have a presence at a station at all times) the day off.
Although the Christmas season by definition runs until January 6 (Epiphany), and is observed until at least New Year's Eve by the public, almost all broadcasters skip the last Twelve Days of Christmas, abruptly ending all holiday music at or even before midnight on December 26, and not playing a single Christmas song again until the next November. (Several radio stations actually promote this, with ads that proudly proclaim to listeners weary of the Christmas music that the station's regular format will indeed return on December 26, as soon as Christmas Day is over.) It is not uncommon for broadcasters to market the twelve-day period preceding Christmas (December 14 to 25) as the "Twelve Days of Christmas", contrary to the traditional definition. One reason for this is that much popular Christmas music is so closely associated with Christmas Day itself that it would be difficult or impossible to play after December 25 without bringing up references that the broadcaster may wish to ignore (such as those that involve Santa Claus, who has already come and gone by Christmas morning). On occasion, some Christmas music stations will continue to play at least some Christmas music through the weekend following Christmas, or even through New Year's Day (particularly when stunting in anticipation of a format change; see below), but never any later.
The end of a calendar year is a common time period for format switches, often following an all-Christmas format. However, the transition itself can still occur before the end of the holiday season (thus disrupting the all-Christmas programming), such as the sudden transition of country station KMPS in Seattle to soft adult contemporary KSWD (which removed redundancy with new sister station, KKWF, following the merger of CBS Radio and Entercom).
Doing so outside of the holiday season, or otherwise implying that the format is permanent, is a less subtle stunt. In April 2008, the new radio station CFWD-FM in Saskatoon soft launched with an all-Christmas format in preparation for the station's official launch as a top 40 station. On September 30, 2015, WEBC in Duluth similarly switched from sports to all-Christmas as a stunt, which led into an early-October flip to classic rock as Sasquatch 106.5.
Outside of traditional AM/FM radio, satellite radio provider SiriusXM typically devotes multiple channels to different genres of Christmas music during the holiday season. Numerous Internet radio services also offer Christmas music channels, some of them available year-round. Citadel Media produced The Christmas Channel, a syndicated 24-hour radio network, during the holiday season in past years (though in 2010, Citadel instead included Christmas music on its regular Classic Hits network). Music Choice offers nonstop holiday music to its digital cable, cable modem, and mobile phone subscribers between November 1 and New Year's Day on its "Sounds of the Seasons" (traditional), "R&B" (soul), "Tropicales" (Latin), and "Soft Rock" (contemporary) channels, as well as a year-round "All Christmas" channel. DMX provides holiday music as part of its SonicTap music service for digital cable and DirecTV subscribers, as does Dish Network via its in-house Dish CD music channels. Services such as Muzak also distribute Christmas music to retail stores for use as in-store background music during the holidays.
The growing popularity of Internet radio has inspired other media outlets to begin offering Christmas music. In 2009 Phoenix television station KTVK launched four commercial-free online radio stations including Ho Ho Radio, which streams Christmas music throughout the month of December.
iHeartRadio also has two year-round stations that are dedicated to Christmas music. One station, iHeart Christmas, focuses on more contemporary holiday music, while the other, iHeart Christmas Classics, offers seasonal music from past decades.
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