The holiday season is one for time-honored traditions: Baking cookies, decorating, gathering with family and friends – and blasting holiday music. Whether on the radio, over a store’s loudspeaker or via a curated streaming playlist, you’ll likely hear many of the same songs in rotation, from Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to what else? Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
A lot of these songs have been popular for decades, but music scholars and industry experts note there isn’t just one formula behind their success. While the most well-known songs feature some similar qualities – themes of nostalgia or simple lyrics and repetition that make them easy to remember – various factors play a role in making a holiday song a lasting hit.
“What you see if you look into the history of the songs, is that the songs themselves usually tie to something else, whether that is a tradition, or a film, or a certain era – a certain feeling that the entire country has, or that they’re somehow tied to some really big stars” says music journalist Brian Mansfield. “It’s usually a combination of events around the song itself that makes something a classic.”
What makes holiday songs resonate
The music heard during the holiday season can encompass a wide range of genres, from choral and classical pieces that are more than a century old to radio-friendly contemporary pop songs. Some of the most popular holiday music we hear today – much of it secular in nature – however, was written and recorded during the mid-20th century.
“White Christmas,” written by legendary Tin Pan Alley composer Irving Berlin – who was Jewish – is widely credited as one song that helped embed such numbers in popular culture. Bing Crosby’s 1942 recording of the tune “set a new kind of bar,” says Larry Starr, professor emeritus of American Music Studies at University of Washington and co-author of “American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3.”
“It not only was a No. 1 song during Christmas of the year it was released, 1942, it was No. 1 next year in 1943. And it continued to show up on the bestseller charts for years afterwards,” Starr says, adding that other songwriters took note.
“Write a good secular holiday tune, one that is not limited by very specifically religious imagery in the words, and you might have a perennial hit.”
Sure enough, many of the songs released after that remain holiday favorites to this day. Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Holiday 100 Songs list is topped by Carey’s 1994 recording of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” But the rest of the popular recordings in the top five – “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” – are from the ’50s and ’60s.
Carey’s hit and “Last Christmas” by Wham! (1984) are among the most “modern” all-time chart-topping holiday hits, says Gary Trust, senior director of charts at Billboard.
“The main thing with Christmas music and holiday music is it’s the one time in music that the older you are, the cooler you are,” Trust says, highlighting that many songs are “passed down from generation to generation.”
“It’s a real bonding point where a grandparent and a grandchild both have grown up with ‘Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,’” he says.
Plus, holiday songs tend to be happy compositionally and thematically, though there are some exceptions.
“As happy as ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ by Mariah sounds, it’s really a song of longing,” says Trust, noting that songs with added “layers” draw listeners in.
That’s true for Elizabeth Chan, a songwriter and performer of Christmas music, who also recognizes that the holiday season can be a “complicated time” for people. She counts The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling” as one of her favorite holiday tunes because “it was such a compelling and clear story that kind of shows the different sides of Christmas and what it means to different people.”
Chan focuses on making original music, but last year, she chose to cover Kenny Loggins’ “Celebrate Me Home,” another favorite.
“It’s great to have a ‘holly jolly Christmas,’ but that doesn’t resonate with me as much as ‘Celebrate Me Home,’” she says of Loggins’ song. “It wasn’t until the pandemic, as a pregnant mother trapped with my toddler, as an Asian American in New York City that the theme ‘celebrate me home’ took a different meaning.”
Movie tie-ins, star power, church … and streaming play a part
Musicality and themes aside, certain external factors can also help holiday songs take off. The artist behind a particular recording is one factor: Trust points out that Carey’s “Merry Christmas” album came out at a time when the singer “had totally hit superstar level.”
Though the album featured familiar covers, as expected, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” became the rare post-mid-century original holiday hit. Listeners were given “a familiar sound in a brand new song with an artist who is on top of her game,” Mansfield says.
Ties to a particular TV show, commercial deal or movie can also help propel some music’s popularity. (See: The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack, No. 1 on the Billboard Greatest of All Time Top Holiday Albums).
“A lot of the records we think of as Christmas standards, you can tie them to being in a ‘Home Alone’ or ‘Die Hard’ or something like that,” says Mansfield. “You need something in the larger culture that attaches to your song.”
And as much as secular holiday music has taken over the public consciousness, Mansfield notes one shouldn’t overlook the role church can still play in bringing such music to the masses. Amy Grant, who started out as a contemporary Christian artist, is known for her Christmas catalog both in and outside church communities.
Meanwhile, “Mary, Did You Know?” – which has been covered by groups like Pentatonix – “hung around the Christian music market, began to get sung in holiday programs at churches,” says Mansfield, adding that as those who sang it in church grew up and became artists themselves, they recorded the song.
“About 20 years in, you started seeing all these different people cover it, and it moved out of the church and into the mainstream,” he says.
On top of that, streaming services have also helped certain songs stay relevant today, especially with regular radio airplay not holding as much power as it once did, Trust says. For all the adoration “All I Want For Christmas Is You” receives each year, it didn’t actually reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 until 2019.
“Holiday music is really big on streaming every year,” Trust says. “Without that big support from streaming, we might not see some [music] doing quite as well on the charts.”
When novelty songs and ‘alternative’ tunes join the holiday canon
Every now and then, something silly or unexpected (“Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” anyone?) comes along and finds its place amid tried-and-true holiday tunes like “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Some, like Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” (with four versions released over two decades), represent non-Christmas holidays. Others, like “Dominick the Donkey,” simply tell silly stories set to a catchy tune. And somehow, they still show up on playlists or get covered decades later, showing that they too have staying power that surpasses their initial novelty.
Part of that is because Christmas and the holiday season overall are synonymous with kids, giving presents and family time, Starr says.
“We may be willing to put up – even embrace silliness as part of a holiday aesthetic – that we wouldn’t necessarily welcome in other ways,” he says.
Other times, artists associated with genres not normally linked to holiday music, will attempt a new seasonal release or do a cover of something tried-and-true. New Wave band The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” (1981) still makes the rounds every holiday season. Indie bands like The Raveonettes have released entire Christmas EPs.
“No matter what style of music you do… we’re all people, we all like the holidays,” says Trust, noting that such recordings offer artists a chance to do something fun and new – either by recording a Christmas standard within the constraints of their genre, or by stepping outside their comfort zones and recording a Christmas ballad, even if their performance style is otherwise loud and angry.
Meanwhile, Mansfield points out that the novelty of songs like “Christmas Wrapping” is very different from those that are more explicitly goofy.
“The Waitresses’ record is a good record, it’s a good story – it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s got interesting production,” he says. “I don’t think you get tired of that the way you get tired of some others.”
The ‘new classics’ and the future of holiday music
Decades-old holiday songs still top the charts and many of our personal playlists. In some cases, artists like Michael Bublé are taking Christmas standards and making them their own. But that doesn’t mean new holiday music isn’t being made. (Bublé himself recently released an original, “The Christmas Sweater.”)
Elton John and Ed Sheeran just teamed up to release “Merry Christmas.” Earlier this month, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers released its list of the Top 10 ASCAP New Classic Holiday Songs of 2021 – all songs written and performed after 2000, with most from the past decade. Multiple songs on the list are by Kelly Clarkson, while Josh Groban’s recording of “Believe” (from “The Polar Express”) also makes an appearance.
Taylor Swift has released original tunes like “Christmas Tree Farm,” while a cappella group Pentatonix has released multiple Christmas albums featuring a mix of covers and original compositions.
Songwriters like Elizabeth Chan – who has written more than 1,000 songs but is selective about the ones she releases – remain determined to make new holiday music that strikes a chord with listeners. She’s already started to accomplish that, as seen with a couple who used her song “Ghost of Christmas Past” for their first dance at their wedding before the groom was deployed over the holidays.
“You don’t know how people will connect,” says Chan, adding that she sometimes receives YouTube videos from people using her music for performances like ballets or figure skating tournaments. “Being interpreted so beautifully by people who love the song is just the biggest honor in the world. And I know that I’ve done my job right because my whole job in writing Christmas music is to bring people together.”
Ultimately, there may still be room for surprise holiday hits to get added to our annual playlists – as Starr points out, there is no explicit formula that determines what listeners will latch onto next. After all, even the 20th century songs considered “standards” today weren’t necessarily expected to have that kind of lasting impact.
So stay tuned – the next “White Christmas” may already be out there.