Cold December nights: the feeling of warmth, curled up beside the fireplace and reading a favorite book with a warm mug of hot chocolate. Chances are, the music playing in the background was made in the 50s and 60s. Some of the most important events in American history happened in this era, and the same goes for the music industry.
The birth of rock ’n’ roll shook the nation, and in 1961, Nat King Cole, a civil rights activist, recorded “The Christmas Song,” which would go on to become the third best performing Christmas song of all time on the Billboard charts. But the achievement was complete, as the sound of Christmas constantly evolves. The first recorded Christmas carol “Angels Hymn” dates back to 129 C.E. The Bishop of Rome proclaimed to the people “In the Holy Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, all shall solemnly sing the ‘Angel’s Hymn.’”
This little known carol was succeeded many years later in 1818, by “Stille Nacht,” otherwise known as “Silent Night.” The song “Silent Night” from A Christmas Together by The Muppets and John Denver tells the story of the song “Silent Night.”
Denver says, “On December 24th, 1818, the curate of a parish in Ovendorf, Austria, Joseph Moore, gave a poem that he had written to a friend of his, Franz Gruber, who was also the choirmaster and organist of that church. He asked Mr. Gruber if he would write music for his poem. Despite the organ being broken, he desperately wanted music to be a part of their Christmas Eve service. Mr Gruber composed the melody to the song ‘Stille Nacht.’”
“Silent Night” would go on to be the most influential carol of the modern era, and, in 2011, UNESCO declared the carol an “intangible cultural heritage.”
The next chronological classic “Christmas” song wasn’t actually meant to be a Christmas song at first. Written by James Lord Pierpont, and released on September 16, 1857 as “One-Horse Open Sleigh,” “Jingle Bells” was originally supposed to be a song about Thanksgiving, not Christmas. It was first recorded on an Edison Cylinder in 1889, and is believed to be the first Christmas record. The song was first performed in blackface by Johnny Pell at the Ordway Minstrel Hall of Massachusetts—to this day blackface is still a part of Christmas in the Netherlands portrayed by the character Zwarte Piet, Black Pete—Americans now shun this racist practice. Since then, a plaque in Bedford Massachusetts was erected to commemorate the birthplace of the song. Based on the historical sleigh races of the town, the song tells the story of a part of the Victorian era culture of the winter months. Since its release, this Victorian classic has been covered by many artists, most notably Frank Sinatra on his Christmas album A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra. His hit “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” was produced in 1957, and Billboard ranks it in the top-50 Christmas songs of all time.
Sinatra’s peer Bing Crosby is credited with having the fifth best-performing Christmas song to date according to Billboard. First performed on Christmas Day in 1941, merely two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, “White Christmas” was ironically written by a Jewish immigrant to the United States. After its release, it would go on to sell 100 million copies, becoming not only the best-selling Christmas single, but the best selling single of all time. In 1942, The song would go on to win the Academy Award for best original song at the fifteenth Academy Awards. With the influence of “White Christmas” felt all over the world, American capitalist consumerism would slowly begin to take over Christmas. Songs slowly lost their old-timey charm and intimacy, slowly becoming less about what would bring people together and more about what would produce the most money.
The highest grossing song each holiday season is Mariah Carey’s smash Christmas hit “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Released in 1994, Carey has made around $60 million a year from this song alone. Billboard ranks the song as the number-one best-performing Christmas song to date, as the song consistently peaks within the top-five songs each year during the holiday season.
Another timeless hit, “Last Christmas” by Wham! has garnered a cult following in Britain by those who participate in the holiday social game “Whamageddon.” The rules are as follows: one, the objective is to last as long as possible without listening to “Last Christmas” by Wham!; two, the game starts on December 1 and ends December 24; three, only the original version of the song applies, so remixes and covers are fine to listen to; four, you are out of the game as soon as you recognize the song. Most people post on social media a picture of themselves, where they were and what they were doing with the hashtag #whamageddon. The game originally started in 2010 and has caught on nationwide in recent years. Infact, wadio stations will announce “We will be playing ‘Last Christmas,’ so change channels if you don’t want to hear it,” so as to not get backlash from angry listeners when the song plays.
Micheal Buble’s Christmas album is iconic—a stand alone Christmas hit generator that accounts for more than half of his streams.
With artists like Mariah Carey, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Wham! producing Christmas classics that are all 30 or more years old, surely another Christmas hit should be just around the corner. But with the state of pop music nowadays, much music is overproduced and just created for streams or to be made into the next TikTok trend. Some believe the overproduction of Christmas is what is killing the sound of Christmas and feel that modern Christmas music lacks its former sentimental value. Artists producing a new Christmas album every year doesn’t bring the family closer, but instead brings out the monotony and fake niceties within the holiday season. However, in recent years, artists such as Ariana Grande, Micheal Bublé, and Pentatonix have produced popular Christmas albums. Ariana Grande’s hit single “Santa Tell Me” peaked at number one in 2014. It was simple, everyone could relate to it, and it was fun. That’s what Christmas music is all about.
Micheal Buble’s Christmas album is iconic—a stand alone Christmas hit generator that accounts for more than half of his streams. More people associate him with Christmas music than his actual non-holiday music. Lastly, Pentatonix have revamped Christmas classics into charming and emotional a capella covers. They had two Holiday albums go number one on Billboard’s top 200 chart, and in 2015 their album That’s Christmas To Me went two-times platinum. Their sound can be heard anywhere on radio or where one would go Christmas shopping. They may not seem like much compared to classics such as 1982’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” performed by Bruce Springsteen, 1958’s “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree” sung by Brenda Lee, or “Jingle Bell Rock” by Buddy Helms.
These new artists won’t “bring back Christmas music,” but they will guide it in its evolution. Their influence will lead the way for new artists with new songs to break through, generating holiday hits every Christmas, and letting us fill our holiday playlists with new tracks to listen to over winter break.