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Christmas music

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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 hymns such as Veni redemptor gentium.[1] By the 13th century, under the influence of Francis of Assisi, the tradition of popular Christmas songs in regional native languages developed.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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".[5] 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".[5] 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 2017.[6][7]

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. 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.


Early music

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.[8] 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.

 A Christmas minstrel playing pipe and tabor
A Christmas minstrel playing pipe and tabor

Puritan prohibition

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.[9] There is some debate as to the effectiveness of this ban, and whether or not it was enforced in the country.[9]

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.[10]

Royal restoration

 King's College Chapel, Cambridge (left) in the snow where the Nine Lessons and Carols are broadcast on the BBC and around the world on Christmas Eve
King's College Chapel, Cambridge (left) in the snow where the Nine Lessons and Carols are broadcast on the BBC and around the world on Christmas Eve

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.[9] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] Christmas festivities, including music, are also celebrated in a more secular fashion by such institutions as the Santa Claus Village, in Rovaniemi, Finland.[14]


 Child Christmas carolers in Bucharest, Romania 1929
Child Christmas carolers in Bucharest, Romania 1929

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,"[15] the "Coventry Carol" and "I Saw Three Ships".

Church feasts

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:

Messiah has become inextricably linked with the Christmas season, especially in England. This is in part due to the efforts of amateur choral societies during the nineteenth century. When it was composed, it was performed during Passiontide.

Traditional Christmas carols

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:[16]

 A Christmas tree inside a home
A Christmas tree inside a home

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.[citation needed]

Early secular Christmas songs

Popular secular Christmas songs from mid-19th century America include "Jingle Bells", "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" and "Up on the House Top".

Recent carols

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), "Little Donkey" by Eric Boswell (1959) and the "Calypso Carol" by Michael Perry (1964).

John Rutter has composed many carols including All Bells in Paradise, Angels' Carol, Candlelight Carol, Donkey Carol, Jesus Child, Shepherds' Pipe Carol and Star Carol.

Published Christmas music

 Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), a British composer who helped to popularise many medieval and folk carols for the modern age[17]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), a British composer who helped to popularise many medieval and folk carols for the modern age[17]

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.[18] 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.[17][19] 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.[20]

Popular Christmas songs

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 centers 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.

Most-performed Christmas songs (U.S.)

According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2006, the following are the Top 25 most-performed "holiday" songs written by ASCAP members, for the first five years of the 21st century:[21] (tracking plays in the U.S. only, and in order of number of plays)[22]

Rank Song Composer(s) Year Type
1 "The Christmas Song" Mel Tormé, Robert Wells 1944 Traditions
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 "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" J. Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie 1934 Mythical
5 "White Christmas" Irving Berlin 1940 Seasonal/sentimental
6 "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne 1945 Seasonal
7 "Jingle Bell Rock" Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe 1957 Celebratory/seasonal
8 "The Little Drummer Boy" Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone 1941 Christian-based
9 "Sleigh Ride" Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish 1948 Seasonal/birthday
10 "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Johnny Marks 1939/1949 Fantasy
11 "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" Edward Pola, George Wyle 1963 Seasonal/traditions
12 "I'll Be Home for Christmas" Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram 1943 Traditions/sentimental
13 "Silver Bells" Jay Livingston, Ray Evans 1950 Traditions
14 "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" Johnny Marks 1958 Traditions
15 "Feliz Navidad" José Feliciano 1970 Celebratory
16 "Blue Christmas" Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson 1957 Traditions/alternative
17 "Frosty the Snowman" Steve Nelson, Walter E. Rollins 1950 Fantasy
18 "A Holly Jolly Christmas" Johnny Marks 1964/65 Traditions/celebratory
19 "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" Meredith Willson 1951 Traditions/celebratory
20 "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" Tommie Connor 1952 Novelty
21 "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)" Gene Autry, Oakley Haldeman 1947 Mythical (Christian-based in verse 4)
22 "Carol of the Bells" Peter J. Wilhousky, Mykola D. Leontovych 1921/47 Celebratory
23 "Do They Know It's Christmas? (Feed the World)" Midge Ure, Bob Geldof 1984 Traditions
24 "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" Bob Allen, Al Stillman 1954 Traditions/sentimental
25 "Santa Baby" Joan Ellen Javits, Philip Springer, Tony Springer, and Fred Ebb 1953 Novelty/alternative
"For Americans and many others around the world, these classic lyrics and melodies are inseparable from the celebration of the holiday season – brightening lives year after year, and serving as a cornerstone of the ASCAP repertory."[21]
Marilyn Bergman, ASCAP President and chairman

Of these, the oldest songs are "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Winter Wonderland", both published in 1934—though some element of the song came along earlier for two titles (the source or music). Almost a dozen were released in the 1940s, the next largest group coming in the 1950s. Only two became popular in the 1960s; one each in the 1970s and 1980s. "Do They Know It's Christmas? (Feed the World)" by Midge Ure and Bob Geldof is the only relatively new one on the list: "Recorded in 1984 by Band Aid—an all-star band of British musicians—this benefit single assisted famine relief efforts in Ethiopia, and sold millions of copies over the '84 holiday season."[21]

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).

Elvis Presley introduced his cover of "Blue Christmas", and debuted the Leiber-Stoller "Santa Claus Is Back in Town", on his first Christmas album in 1957—along with versions of other standards such as "Here Comes Santa Claus", "White Christmas", and "I'll Be Home for Christmas". Bruce Springsteen and The Jackson Five recorded separate versions of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town", as well as other Christmas titles. The unlikely pairing of Bing Crosby with David Bowie on the impromptu "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" created one of the most popular Christmas duets ever recorded.[23]

Christmas music in the United Kingdom and Ireland

Most played songs

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.[24][25][26] 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.[27] 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:[28]

Rank Song title Composer(s) Performer(s) Year
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".[29]

"The Christmas song is a genre in its own right . . More than any other type of music, it spans and links generations with disparate musical taste buds."[30]
Ellis Rich, Chairman of PRS for Music

"Christmas number one single"

In Britain and Ireland, the terms "Christmas number one single" and "Christmas number two single" denote songs released around the time of the Christmas holiday and that reach the top of the UK Singles Chart and/or Irish Singles Chart respectively. Because of the two countries' proximity to each other, the Irish No. 1 is usually the same as the British No. 1 or No. 2. 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. Past Christmas number-ones include children's songs such as "Mr Blobby" (#1, 1993) and the theme from Bob the Builder (#1, 2000), novelty songs such as Benny Hill's "Ernie" (#1, 1971) and South Park's "Chocolate Salty Balls" (#2, 1998), and several examples of standard pop fare that would likely be just as popular outside the holiday season. Some songs will be "tweaked" to make them more related to Christmas. This is almost exclusively a British cultural phenomenon; some notable and longer-lasting examples include Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" (#1, 1985, the second biggest selling single in UK Chart history; two re-recordings also hit #1 in 1989 and 2004), Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody" (#1, 1973) and Wham!'s "Last Christmas" (#2, 1984).

Television talent shows

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 at third. Briton Will Young, winner of the first Pop Idol, charted at the top of the Irish charts in 2003.

The winning song from the December-ending The X Factor 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, "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine reached number one in the UK instead of that year's X Factor winner, Joe McElderry. McElderry did reach number one in Ireland. A fractured campaign to unseat the 2010 X Factor winner, plus a delay in delivery of The Rubberbandits' "Horse Outside" to stores in Ireland, resulted in X Factor winner Matt Cardle earning the Christmas number one in both countries.

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.[31]

In 2012 the Christmas No. 1 was a cover of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" from an ensemble of Liverpudlian celebrities in commemoration of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster. X Factor winner Sam Bailey's single won the Christmas number-one competition in both countries in 2013.

Christmas music in Australia

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 out of doors, 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.

 Blandfordia nobilis, or Christmas Bells, of eastern Australia
Blandfordia nobilis, or Christmas Bells, of eastern Australia

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",[32] proudly proclaim the differing traditions Down Under. A verse from "Aussie Jingle Bells" makes the point:

Engine's getting hot
Dodge the kangaroos
Swaggie climbs aboard
He is welcome too
All the family is there
Sitting by the pool
Christmas Day, the Aussie way
By the barbecue![33]

Some traditional English Christmas carols have been revised to fit the Australian context, notably "The Twelve Days of Christmas", where the traditional objects, trees, and birds are replaced by Australian examples. For instance: 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 variants exist.)

"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.[34] Whereas "The Holly and The Ivy" (1937) by Australian Louis Lavater (1867–1953) mentions northern hemisphere foliage.[35]

Other popular Christmas songs

Other popular Christmas songs often heard include: "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" (1937), "Happy Holiday" (1942), "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (1944), "Merry Christmas Baby" (1947), "(Everybody's Waitin' for) The Man with the Bag" (1950), "The Secret of Christmas" (1959) — all recorded by a number of acts. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters had a hit with "Mele Kalikimaka" in 1950. Crosby introduced "Marshmallow World" backed by The Lee Gordon Singers and the Sonny Burke Orchestra that same year. In 1951 Crosby released "Christmas in Killarney" and Rosemary Clooney introduced "Suzy Snowflake". Frank Sinatra put "The Christmas Waltz" on the B-side of his version of "White Christmas" in 1954, and included "Mistletoe and Holly" on his 1957 album A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra. Chuck Berry released "Run Rudolph Run" in 1958.

Other Christmas titles have joined the popular canon in ensuing decades, including:







Christmas song surveys

In a 2007 survey, of United States radio listeners, 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".[40] The newest song in one survey's top 10 was Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" (1994); for another it was Lennon and Ono's.

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.[41]

Rolling Stone magazine ranked 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.[42] 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.[43] "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.[44]

Non-Christian writers

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.

Approximately half of the 25 best-selling Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers, including:

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.[50]

Adopted Christmas music

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" (released 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."[52]

With a Welsh melody dating back to the sixteenth century, and English lyrics from 1862, "Deck the Halls" celebrates the pagan holiday of Yule and the New Year, but not explicitly Christmas:

Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
See the blazing Yule before us
While I tell of Yuletide treasure

"Jingle Bells", first published under the title "One Horse Open Sleigh" in 1857, was originally associated with Thanksgiving rather than Christmas.[53]

Additionally, many popular Christmas tunes of the 20th century that mention winter imagery, which fit into the Christmas and holiday season are:

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
  • "Snow halation" (2010), a song from Love Live! School Idol Project, contains references to the winter season, but has been performed outside of Christmas

Christmas songs from musicals

Some musical films have been set around Christmas time, and because of that some of the songs are popular during the holiday season:

  • Babes in Toyland (1903), featuring the song "Toyland"
  • Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), in which the main character Jack Skellington accidentally discovers Christmas, features Christmas-themed songs like "Making Christmas", "What's This?", "Town Meeting Song" and "Jack's Obsession"
  • Scrooge (1970) features songs like "Father Christmas" (which first is used sarcastically, and later affectionately), "December the 25th" and the Academy Award nominated "Thank You Very Much"

Christmas novelty songs

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".

Kristen Bell and a cappella group Straight No Chaser "teamed up to poke fun at the modern seasons greeting" with "Text Me Merry Christmas":

Text me Merry Christmas
Let me know you care
Just a word or two
Of text from you
Will remind me you’re still there

Straight No Chaser singer Randy Stine said of the song: "We wanted a Christmas song that spoke to how informal communication has become."[56]


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.

Radio broadcasting of Christmas music

Radio broadcasting of Christmas music has been around for several decades in the United States and elsewhere.[57] Traditionally, U.S. radio stations (particularly those with such formats as adult contemporary, adult standards, easy listening, oldies, or beautiful music) began adding some Christmas-themed selections to their regular playlists shortly after Thanksgiving each year, typically culminating in 36–48 hours of continuous Christmas music between December 24–25. Since the mid-1990s, it has become increasingly common for stations to switch their programming to continuous Christmas music around Thanksgiving, or earlier. This practice became even more widespread after 9/11, when many radio stations across the U.S. sought a sort of musical "comfort food".[58]

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 Nov. 28 to Dec. 11, 2003 Arbitron rating period. A 2002 Arbitron ratings study confirmed holiday-music surges at stations around the country.[59]

24/7 Christmas music

The 24/7 all-Christmas format has been generally successful due in large part to Christmas creep. In the United States, many radio stations begin airing an all-Christmas format by Thanksgiving weekend, with others starting the Friday one week prior and some making the switch as early as November 1. As of November 24, 2015 (two days before Thanksgiving), there were over 244 commercial U.S. radio stations airing 24/7 Christmas music.[60]

When a radio station in the U.S. makes the temporary switch to all-Christmas music, its listener share regularly doubles.[61] A sampling of radio stations that made the switch in 2010 with the change in market share:[62]

"There's no other programming tactic in radio history that consistently delivers ratings increases better than Christmas music . . playing Christmas music is all about having a larger audience after Christmas than you did before. People who find the station often stick around after the holidays and discover a new favorite station."[62]
Darren Davis, Senior V.P., Clear Channel
Station Market Share Christmas
WODS Boston 4.5 9.3
KOST Los Angeles 4.6 9.2
WLTW New York 6.0 12.3
KYXY San Diego 4.1 9.7

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.[62] However, this may not always transition well into financial success, since advertisers do not universally recognise Arbitron's holiday ratings book.[63]

A 2005 study published in the Journal of Business Research noted that shoppers respond well to hearing Christmas music in stores.[64] Psychologists have noted that continuous exposure to Christmas music for a prolonged period of time can create a hostile work environment for employees.[65]

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 25, 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.

Christmas music as a stunt format

Christmas music is a popular stunt format, used when a station is transitioning to a different format. For instance, a rock music station changing to a rhythmic oldies format will often air Christmas music in-between. This can occur at times when Christmas music seems out of place, such as in summer. The end of the calendar year is a common time of year for format switches. As such, Christmas music may be aired for a prolonged period of time from as early as October and/or extend as late as New Year's Day, while the station prepares the switch. Conversely, when 94.9 in Atlanta changed from adult contemporary to country music in the middle of December 2006, it abruptly stopped playing its annual Christmas music a week before the holiday.

A brief 24/7 Christmas music format is also common during Christmas in July stunts.

Christmas music on satellite and internet radio

Outside of traditional AM/FM radio, satellite radio providers XM and Sirius typically devote 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. 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.

In Ireland, a temporary radio station named Christmas FM broadcasts on a temporary license in Dublin and Cork from November 28 to December 26, solely playing Christmas music.

In the U.K., the Festive Fifty list of indie rock songs is broadcast starting on Christmas Day, originally by DJ John Peel, and nowadays by Internet radio station Dandelion Radio.

See also


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Further reading

  • "Seasonal Songs With Twang, Funk and Harmony", New York Times, November 26, 2010.
  • Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins, 160 pages, ISBN 0-7624-2112-6, 2004.
  • The International Book of Christmas Carols by W. Ehret and G. K. Evans, Stephen Greene Press, Vermont, ISBN 0-8289-0378-6, 1980.
  • Victorian Songs and Music by Olivia Bailey, Caxton Publishing, ISBN 1-84067-468-7, 2002.
  • Spirit of Christmas: A History of Our Best-Loved Carols by Virginia Reynolds and Lesley Ehlers, ISBN 0-88088-414-2, 2000.
  • Christmas Music Companion Fact Book by Dale V. Nobbman, ISBN 1-57424-067-6, 2000.
  • Joel Whitburn presents Christmas in the charts, 1920–2004 by Joel Whitburn, ISBN 0-89820-161-6, 2004.

External links

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