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.
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:
- Thomas Tallis: Mass "Puer natus est nobis" (1554)
- Heinrich Schütz: Weihnachtshistorie (1664)
- Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ (c. 1670)
- Johann Sebastian Bach: several cantatas for Christmas to Epiphany and Christmas Oratorio (1734)
- George Frideric Handel: Messiah (1741)
- 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.
- Jakub Jan Ryba: Czech Christmas Mass "Hey, Master!" (1796)
- Various 18th-century composers such as Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Torelli & others: Christmas Concertos (for performance on Christmas Eve)
- Hector Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ (1853–4)
- Camille Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noël (1858)
- Benjamin Britten: A Ceremony of Carols (1942)
- Various composers from Baroque to the 21st century: Christmas cantatas
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 collection of traditional Christmas music"
performed by James D. Blodget on a Roland U-20 synthesizer, December 23, 2004.
"Joy to the World"
Performed a cappella by Kim Butler on December 15, 2006.
"I Saw Three Ships"
Tune of traditional English Christmas carol transcribed by CambridgeBayWeather.
"El Noi de la Mare"
A traditional Catalan Christmas carol, arranged for guitar.
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- "Angels We Have Heard on High" (in the UK the text of "Angels from the Realms of Glory" is sung to this tune)
- "Away in a Manger"
- "Deck the Halls" (Deck the Hall)
- "Ding Dong Merrily on High"
- "The First Nowell" (The First Noël)
- "Go Tell It on the Mountain"
- "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen)
- "Good King Wenceslas"
- "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"
- "I Saw Three Ships"
- "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"
- "Joy to the World"
- "O Christmas Tree" (O Tannenbaum)
- "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (Adeste Fideles)
- "O come, O come, Emmanuel"
- "O Holy Night" (Cantique de Noël)
- "O Little Town of Bethlehem"
- "Once in Royal David's City"
- "Silent Night"
- "The Twelve Days of Christmas"
- "We Three Kings of Orient Are"
- "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"
- "What Child Is This?"
- "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks"
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.
Early secular Christmas songs
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).
Published sheet music of Christmas music over the centuries has been available 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.
- Christmas Carols, New and Old (1871)
- Oxford Book of Carols (1928)
- Carols for Choirs (1961)
- New Oxford Book of Carols (1992)
- A Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols (1992)
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: (tracking plays in the U.S. only, and in order of number of plays)
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."
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.
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) —all recorded by a number of acts. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters had a hit with "Mele Kalikimaka" in 1950, and Crosby introduced "Marshmallow World" (backed by The Lee Gordon Singers and the Sonny Burke Orchestra) in the same year. Bing Crosby also had recorded "Christmas in Killarney" in 1951, that same year "Suzy Snowflake" was released and recorded by Rosemary Clooney in 1951. 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.
Others would follow in the ensuing decades:
- 1960: "Please Come Home for Christmas", written and released by Charles Brown on the album Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs (now associated with The Eagles' 1978 release)
- 1960: "Caroling, Caroling" written by Alfred Burt and Wilha Hutson for Nat King Cole on The Magic of Christmas
- 1960: "Must Be Santa", written by Hal Moore and Bill Fredericks; first released by Mitch Miller, Tommy Steele's cover of the song reached No. 40 on the UK Singles Chart in the same year
- 1961: "Blue Holiday" by The Shirelles
- 1963: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry with Phil Spector) sung by Darlene Love, on the hit album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
- 1963: "Pretty Paper", written by Willie Nelson; sung by Roy Orbison (Nelson had a hit with his own song in 1978)
- 1964: "Little Saint Nick" by the Beach Boys on their Christmas album
- 1964: "Silver & Gold", sung by Burl Ives and composed for the Rankin-Bass Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- 1965: "Christmas Time is Here", written for A Charlie Brown Christmas animated TV special; harmonized by the choir of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California
- 1965: "My Favorite Things" from the musical, The Sound Of Music, popularly covered by Diana Ross and The Supremes on their album Merry Christmas
- 1966: "We Need a Little Christmas" from the musical, Mame, popularly covered by Percy Faith & His Orchestra on the album Christmas Is... Percy Faith
- 1967: "Snoopy's Christmas" by The Royal Guardsmen
- 1967: "Someday at Christmas" by Stevie Wonder on his album of the same name
- 1970: "Give Love on Christmas Day" by the Jackson 5 on their Christmas album
- 1970: "This Christmas" by Donny Hathaway
- 1970: "Merry Christmas Darling" by The Carpenters on their album Christmas Portrait
- 1971: "River" by Joni Mitchell on her album Blue
- 1971: "Happy Xmas (War Is Over), a single by John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band
- 1973: "Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade
- 1973: "Step into Christmas", written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin; released by John as a stand-alone single
- 1974: "I Believe in Father Christmas" by Greg Lake
- 1977: "Father Christmas", released by The Kinks tells of a department store Father Christmas who is beaten up by a gang of poor kids
- 1977: "Celebrate Me Home" by Kenny Loggins on his album of the same name
- 1977: "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" by David Bowie and Bing Crosby
- 1978: "Please Come Home for Christmas", released by The Eagles
- 1979: "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo & Patsy
- 1979: "Wonderful Christmastime" by Paul McCartney
- 1979: "Christmas Rappin'" by Kurtis Blow
- 1980: "Same Old Lang Syne" by Dan Fogelberg
- 1981: "Christmas is the Time to Say 'I Love You'" by Billy Squier
- 1981: "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses
- 1982: "Hard Candy Christmas" adopted by Dolly Parton from a musical
- 1983: "Merry Christmas Everyone" by Shakin' Stevens
- 1984: "Thank God It's Christmas" by Queen
- 1984: "Last Christmas" by Wham! on the album Music from the Edge of Heaven UK No. 2 hit
- 1984: "Another Lonely Christmas" by Prince
- 1987: "Fairytale of New York", as originated by The Pogues on the album If I Should Fall from Grace with God
- 1988: "Mistletoe and Wine" by Cliff Richard on his album Private Collection: 1979–1988
- 1989: "Christmas Serenade" by Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge from their EP Christmas Is...
- 1989: "All I Want for Christmas Is You" by Vince Vance & The Valiants
- 1990: "Saviour's Day" by Cliff Richard (1990 British Christmas Number one single)
- 1990: "Grown-Up Christmas List" by David Foster and Natalie Cole for his album River of Love
- 1992: "Christmas All Over Again" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the album box set Playback
- 1993: "Hey Santa!", written (with the help of Jack Kugell) and sung by Carnie and Wendy Wilson on the album of the same name
- 1993: "Christmas Through Your Eyes" by Gloria Estefan on the album of the same name Christmas Through Your Eyes
- 1994: "All I Want for Christmas Is You" by Mariah Carey from the album Merry Christmas
- 1998: "Christmas Canon" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra on their album The Christmas Attic
- 1998: "I'm Your Angel", written by R. Kelly, performed by Kelly and Celine Dion (US #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100)
- 2000: "My Only Wish (This Year)" by Britney Spears off the compilation album, Platinum Christmas
- 2004: "Believe" written by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri for Josh Groban
- 2004: "Wizards in Winter", an instrumental written and composed by Paul O'Neill and Robert Kinkel, performed by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra
- 2008: "White Is in the Winter Night" by Enya on the album, And Winter Came...
- 2009: "Christmas Must Mean Something More" by American Country music singer Taylor Swift
- 2009: "It Doesn't Often Snow At Christmas" by Pet Shop Boys (UK No. 40 hit)
- 2009: "Present Face", written by Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, performed by Garfunkel & Oates
- 2010: "Christmas Lights" by Coldplay, 2010 UK Top 20 hit by British alternative rock band
- 2011: "Mistletoe" by Justin Bieber from his album Under the Mistletoe
- 2012: "Christmas in the Sand" by Colbie Caillat from her album of the same name; meant to conjure up (humorously) what Christmas might be like in Hawaii
- 2012: "Something About Christmas" by Christina Perri on her EP, A Very Merry Perri Christmas
- 2012: "The Day The "Conducator" Died (An Xmas Song)" by Scott Walker on his album, Bish Bosch
- 2013: "Underneath the Tree" by Kelly Clarkson on her album, Wrapped in Red
- 2013: "One More Sleep" by Leona Lewis on her album, Christmas, with Love
- 2014: "Wake Me When It's Christmas" by Shayna Leigh, co-written by Peter Zizzo and Michael Mangini, through Buzznet
- 2014: "Santa Tell Me" by Ariana Grande on her EP, Christmas Kisses
- 2015: "Every Day's Like Christmas" by Kylie Minogue on her album, Kylie Christmas
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". 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:
- "Adult contemporary" listeners rated Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" best.
- "Adult Top 40" fans liked Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock".
- "Hip-hop/R&B" fans liked the Jackson 5's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town".
- "Country" listeners ranked Burl Ives' "A Holly Jolly Christmas" number one.
- "Smooth jazz" fans liked "The Christmas Song" as sung by Nat King Cole.
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 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.
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:
- "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" by Sammy Cahn (born Cohen) and Jule Styne (who also wrote "The Christmas Waltz" together)
- "Winter Wonderland" (composer Felix Bernard was born Felix William Bernhardt)
- "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Robert Wells (born Levinson) and Mel Tormé
- "Sleigh Ride" (lyricist Mitchell Parish was born Michael Hyman Pashelinsky in Lithuania)
- "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (composer George Wyle was born Bernard Weissman)
- "Silver Bells" by Jay Livingston (born Jacob Levinson) and Ray Evans
- "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Bob Allen (born Robert Allen Deitcher) and Al Stillman (born Albert Silverman)
- "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Walter Kent (born Walter Kauffman) and Buck Ram (born Samuel).
- "Santa Baby" by Joan Ellen Javits (Zeeman), niece of Senator Jacob Javits, and Philip Springer.
- "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Frank Loesser
"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
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.
- "Joy to the World", with words written by Isaac Watts in 1719 and music by Lowell Mason (who in turn borrowed liberally from Handel) in 1839, was originally written anticipating the Second Coming.
- "Shchedryk," a Ukrainian tune celebrating springtime, was adapted in 1936 with English lyrics to become the Christmas carol "Carol of the Bells."
Borrowing from the title of the Scottish New Year 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."
- Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
- See the blazing Yule before us
- While I tell of Yuletide treasure
Additionally, many popular Christmas tunes of the 20th century that mention Winter imagery, which fit into the Christmas & Holiday season are:
- "Winter Wonderland" (1934)
- "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" (1937)
- "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (1944)
- "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" (1945)
- "Marshmallow World" (1949)
- "Frosty the Snowman" (1950)
- "Sleigh Ride" (1950)
- "Jingle Bell Rock" (1957)
- "My Favorite Things" (1959)
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:
- "Jingle Bells" by the Singing Dogs was recorded in 1955 by Don Charles from Copenhagen, Denmark; considered the work of Carl Weismann, it was revolutionary in its use of latest recording technology
- "Green Chri$tma$", a radio play parody by Stan Freberg that came out in 1958 and parodied commercial advertising
- "A Christmas Carol" by Tom Lehrer, a 1959 live-recording parody of Christmas carols purporting to show (in a subtle nod to Jewish stereotypes, as Lehrer is Jewish) the true spirit of Christmas, "refer[ring], of course, to money"
- "I'm Gonna Spend My Christmas with a Dalek" by The Go-Go's a Doctor Who spin-off song, released in 1964, that tried to turn the sinister Daleks into another version of The Chipmunks (It was originally intended to help fuel Dalekmania)
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 have included:
- "The Twelve Days of Christmas" parodies (including one by Bob and Doug McKenzie in 1982)
- "Christmas at Ground Zero" by Weird Al Yankovic (1986)
- "Rusty Chevrolet" by Da Yoopers, a parody of Jingle Bells (1987)
- "Christmas in Hollis", a rap single by Run–D.M.C. (1987)
- "Christmas Convoy", a southern rock song by Paul Brandt, a parody of the C.W. McCall song Convoy (2006)
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".
: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
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:
- "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" sung by 10-year-old Gayla Peevey (1953)
- "Nuttin' for Christmas" by Art Mooney and Barry Gordon, who was seven years old when he sang it (1955)
- "¿Dónde Está Santa Claus? (Where is Santa Claus?)" sung by 12-year-old Augie Rios, featuring the Mark Jeffrey Orchestra (1959)
Christmas novelty songs aimed at a young audience include:
- "The Chipmunk Song", written by David Seville and performed by Alvin and the Chipmunks (1958)
- "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth", written by Donald Yetter Gardner in 1944 and introduced by Spike Jones and his City Slickers (1948)
- "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" originally done for the 1966 cartoon special How the Grinch Stole Christmas!; lyrics written by Dr. Seuss, music by Albert Hague, and performed by Thurl Ravenscroft
- "Snoopy's Christmas" performed by The Royal Guardsmen in 1967; a follow-up to their earlier song "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron" recorded in 1966
- "Santa Claus is a Black Man" by Akim and the Teddy Vann Production Company (1973)
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 has been around for several decades in the United States and elsewhere. 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".
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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. The 1987 single "Fairytale of New York" by London rock band The Pogues is regularly voted the UK's favourite Christmas song, and in 2012 it was listed as the most-played Christmas song of the 21st Century in the UK. In a 2007 poll, the UK's most popular Christmas song was "Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade, an English glam rock band that was popular in the 1970s. The top ten most played Christmas songs in the UK based on a 2010 survey conducted by PRS for Music, who collect and pay royalties to its 75,000 song-writing and composing members, are as follows:
|1||"All I Want for Christmas Is You"||Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff||Mariah Carey||1994|
|2||"Last Christmas"||George Michael||Wham!||1984|
|3||"Fairytale of New York"||Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan||The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl||1987|
|4||"Do They Know It's Christmas?"||Bob Geldof and Midge Ure||Band Aid||1984|
|5||"Merry Xmas Everybody"||Noddy Holder and Jim Lea||Slade||1973|
|6||"White Christmas"||Irving Berlin||Bing Crosby||1940|
|7||"Driving Home for Christmas"||Chris Rea||Chris Rea||1988|
|8||"Merry Christmas Everyone"||Bob Heatlie||Shakin' Stevens||1985|
|9||"Mistletoe and Wine"||Jeremy Paul, Leslie Stewart and Keith Strachan||Cliff Richard||1988|
|10||"Walking in the Air"||Howard Blake||Peter Auty||1982|
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", Wizzard's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day", Elton John's "Step into Christmas", and Mud's "Lonely This Christmas".
The best Christmas song "to get adults and children in the festive spirit for the party season in 2016" was judged by the Mirror to be "Fairytale of New York".
"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 has earned the Christmas number one in at least one of the two countries every year since 2005, and in both countries four times out of the last seven. Each year since 2008 has seen protest campaigns to outsell the overly-popular X Factor single 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.
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.
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.
The tradition of an Australian Christmas Eve carol service lit by candles, started in 1937 by 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 carols 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:
- 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!
"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.
- List of Christmas hit singles in the United States
- List of Christmas hit singles in the United Kingdom
- Christmas carol
- List of Christmas carols
- List of best-selling Christmas/holiday albums in the United States
- Best-selling Christmas/holiday singles in the United States
- List of UK Singles Chart Christmas number ones
- List of UK Singles Chart Christmas number twos
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