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The Bulgarian Detska Kitka Choir at the International Festival of Advent and Christmas Music in Prague (2006).

Christmas music comprises a variety of genres of music normally performed or heard around the Christmas season, which tends to begin in the months leading up the actual holiday and end in the weeks shortly thereafter.



Music was an early feature of the Christmas season and its celebrations. The earliest chants, litanies, and hymns were Latin works intended for use during the church liturgy, rather than popular songs. The 13th century saw the rise of the carol written in the vernacular under the influence of Francis of Assisi.

The word carol comes from the Greek word choraulein, meaning a circle dance performed to flute music. 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 twenty five "caroles of Cristemas", probably sung by groups of wassailers, who went from house to house.[1] 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.

During the British Commonwealth government under Cromwell, the British 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.[2] There is some debate as to the effectiveness of this ban and whether or not it was enforced in the country.[2]

Puritans generally disapproved of the celebration of Christmas — a trend which has continually resurfaced in Europe and the USA through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[3] When in May 1660 Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne, the people of England once again practised the public singing of Christmas carols as part of the revival of Christmas customs, sanctioned by the king's own celebrations.[2] William B. Sandys 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.[4] 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.[5]

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, taking a 'wassail bowl' round their neighbours to solicit gifts, accompanied by carols. Despite this long history, almost all surviving Christmas carols date only from the nineteenth century onwards, with the exception of some traditional folk songs such as; 'God Rest You Merry Gentlemen', 'As I Sat on a Sunny Bank' and 'The Holly and the Ivy'.[6]

The music of Christmas has always been a combination of sacred and secular, a trend which is also visible in the music composed in the twentieth century, in particular in popular music. In the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, the annual competition to be the Christmas number one single led to the production of music which still provides the mainstay of festive playlists.

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:

Handel's 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 originally composed, it was performed during Passiontide.

'Christmas creep'

In the United States the playing of Christmas music had generally begun after the Thanksgiving holidays, at which point Christmas decorations in stores and on streets would also appear, but in recent decades the music and related decor have been appearing increasingly early. This tendency for the length of the Christmas and holiday season to grow is referred to as 'Christmas creep'. Given the importance of the seasonal gift-giving to the U.S. economy,[7] one driven largely by consumer spending,[8] and with the music industry making at least 40 percent of its annual revenue in the fourth quarter culminating at Christmas,[9] demands for increased revenues motivates the shift. Christmas music best serenades these shopping months, injecting the Christmas spirit and putting shoppers into the proper mood for buying gifts.

Radio stations—responsible for so much of Christmas music broadcasting, popularization, and appreciation—are "going Christmas earlier and earlier", even the day after Halloween, because executives "think that listeners will stick with the first station to change to a seasonal theme." About 400 radio stations "across the United States play(ing) Christmas music around the clock." In Chicago, WLIT 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.[10]

Traditional Christmas carols

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Songs which are traditional, even some without a specific religious context, are often called Christmas carols. A more or less standard set of these traditional carols might include such titles as:

Each of these has a rich history, some dating back many centuries.[11]

Popular Christmas songs

More recently popular Christmas songs, often introduced through film or other entertainment medium, are specifically about Christmas, but are typically not overtly religious and therefore do not qualify as Christmas carols. The archetypal example is 1942’s “White Christmas”, although many other holiday songs have become perennial favorites in the United States, such as Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.

ASCAP's most-performed 'holiday' songs

A Christmas tree inside a home.

According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the following are the Top 25 most-performed “Holiday” songs written by ASCAP members for the first five years of the 21st century. The list does not include songs out of copyright (like "Jingle Bells") or written by members of Broadcast Music, Incorporated, known as BMI.[12]:

  1. "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) — Mel Tormé, Robert Wells
  2. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" — Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie
  3. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" — Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
  4. "Winter Wonderland" - Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
  5. "White Christmas" — Irving Berlin
  6. "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" — Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne
  7. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" — Johnny Marks
  8. "Jingle Bell Rock" — Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe
  9. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" — Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram
  10. "The Little Drummer Boy" — Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone
  11. "Sleigh Ride" — Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish
  12. "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" — Edward Pola, George Wyle
  13. "Silver Bells" — Jay Livingston, Ray Evans
  14. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" — Johnny Marks
  15. "Feliz Navidad" — José Feliciano
  16. "Blue Christmas" — Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson
  17. "Frosty the Snowman" — Steve Nelson, Walter E. Rollins
  18. "A Holly Jolly Christmas" — Johnny Marks
  19. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" — Tommie Connor
  20. "Here Comes Santa Claus" (Right Down Santa Claus Lane) — Gene Autry, Oakley Haldeman
  21. "It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas" — Meredith Willson
  22. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" — Bob Allen, Al Stillman
  23. "Carol of the Bells" — Peter J. Wilhousky, Mykola Leontovich
  24. "Santa Baby" — Joan Ellen Javits, Philip Springer, Tony Springer
  25. "Wonderful Christmastime" — Paul McCartney
"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.”[13]
Marilyn Bergman, ASCAP President and Chairman

Of these, the oldest songs are "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Winter Wonderland" which were both published in 1934. The newest song is Mark Lowry's Mary, Did You Know from 1984. Songs introduced through motion pictures in the top 25 are: "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).

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" with well over 500 versions in dozens of languages.

While the BMI list is relatively popular in the United Kingdom and Ireland, it remains largely overshadowed by a collection of chart hits recorded in a bid to be crowned the UK Christmas number one during the 1970s and 80s. The vast majority of these songs played heavily to a party or novelty feel and were recorded by a full range of artists from major global stars, artists that were enjoying great success in the UK at the time, bands that otherwise scored only a handful of minor hits and a host of novelty acts that recorded only one song. These songs have gone on to dominate the UK and Ireland Christmas music traditions and have largely overshadowed their often less party orientated BMI songs, although Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime has managed to span both groups.

Adopted Christmas music

Much of what is known as Christmas music today was adopted from music initially created for other purposes, and retroactively applied to or associated with the holiday.

A significant subset of the secular songs are regarded as “Christmas” songs due to the time of year that they are most often sung, despite never mentioning anything about Christmas. These songs include favorites such as “Winter Wonderland”, “Let it Snow”, "Baby, It's Cold Outside", “Sleigh Ride” (whose standard lyrics mention not a holiday party but a birthday party) and the now hugely popular Christmas standard "Jingle Bells", which was originally written to celebrate Thanksgiving.[14]

Many of these songs fall into the generic “winter” classification, as they carry no Christmas connotation at all. To popularize a winter-themed song, especially in the United States, without its being regarded as a “Christmas” song, would be difficult. In fact, winter-themed songs are generally not played on the radio in the U.S. during the larger part of the winter after the Christmas season has ended, although they may receive limited radio airplay on some stations, particularly after a significant snow event.

The other subset of this type is the "Christmas number one single" and "Christmas number two single." Tending to be more short-lived in their association with the holiday, these songs may have nothing to do with Christmas or even winter, but are released around the time of the Christmas holiday and reach the top of the charts in the United Kingdom. As such, some songs will be "tweaked" to make them more related to Christmas. This is almost exclusively a British phenomenon; such songs in the United States are rare. Perhaps the most enduring of this type is Wham!'s "Last Christmas."

The phenomenon is not limited to popular music. Classical music, too, has been adopted to the Christmas canon. Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker comprises a set of secular orchestral pieces often performed at Christmastime. Perhaps the most famous "Christmas music" of all, Handel's "Messiah", was written for an Easter performance in 1742 in Ireland, and performed from 1750 until Handel's death for the Foundling Hospital for orphans around Eastertime.

Novelty songs

Another form of popular Christmas song are those musical parodies performed solely for comical effect, usually classified as "Novelty songs". The best known of these include:

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.[16] Radio personality Bob Rivers has parlayed the format into several albums in the Twisted Christmas line. Even Cheech and Chong got into the act with "Santa Claus and His Old Lady" recorded in 1971.

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.

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".

The Skandles released a Christmas Rap and R & B parody of Rihanna, Snoop Dogg and Biggie Smalls to Airplay Direct on Dec. 9th, 2009 called "The Elf That Jacked Christmas".

Radio broadcasting

Radio broadcasting of Christmas music has been around for several decades.

Traditionally, U.S. radio stations (particularly those with an adult contemporary, top 40, or adult standards, format) began adding some Christmas-themed selections to their regular playlists right after Thanksgiving each year, and aired 36 to 48 hours of Christmas music December 24–25. Since the mid-1990s, however, it has become increasingly common for stations to switch their programming to continuous Christmas music around December 1; this practice became even more common after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when many radio stations across the US sought a sort of musical "comfort food".[17] The format has usually been quite successful; because of Christmas creep, many radio stations subsequently began airing an all-Christmas format as early as Thanksgiving, and currently it is commonplace to begin the format the Friday before Thanksgiving. Several stations have even aired all-Christmas music as early as the beginning of November (a few, such as KOSY-FM in Salt Lake City, Utah, and WMYX-FM and WRIT-FM in Milwaukee have earned a reputation for this), although until 2009, this was generally the exception rather than the norm, and stations that change formats much earlier than Thanksgiving usually received backlash from listeners, because this is outside the traditional Christmas and holiday season. To accommodate the adult contemporary stations' flip to Christmas music, the syndicated John Tesh and Delilah nighttime shows also play this format around the same time as their respective affiliates. Some radio stations play Christmas music commercial-free the entire day on Christmas Day, with only interruptions for Christmas messages from station personnel and personnel from the station's parent company. (This is also the case on home shopping TV networks.) Others, like 96.5 KOIT-FM in San Francisco do on both part of or all of Christmas Eve and the entire day Christmas Day.

Some in the industry speculate that more and more stations may start programming 24/7 Christmas music as early as November 1 each year, which could result in dozens of stations (instead of the half-dozen or so stations in prior years) "taking the plunge" on that first day after Halloween (although November 1 is the Day of the Dead, the reason for Halloween's existence). However, as of the last week of October 2009, at which point at least one or two stations have changed to the format in previous years, no stations (other than a single automated digital-only channel, WOGL HD2) had done so.

Christmas music is also popular as an eccentric stunt format, used when a station is changing formats. For instance, a rock music station changing to a rhythmic oldies format will often air Christmas music in-between. This often occurs either at times when Christmas music seems out of place, such as in summer, or for prolonged periods of time that may start as early as October or extend as late as New Year's Day. 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.

Outside of traditional AM/FM radio, satellite radio providers XM and Sirius typically devote a few channels temporarily to different genres of Christmas music during the holiday season. For example, Special X became Special X-Mas. Internet radio services such as AOL Radio also offer Christmas music channels, some of them available year-round. Citadel Media produces The Christmas Channel, a syndicated 24-hour radio network, during the holiday season, while Music Choice offers a "Sounds of the Season" channel to its digital cable and cable modem subscribers between November 1 and Christmas (Music Choice also mixes Christmas music into the regular playlist on its "Soft Rock" channel during this time).

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.

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 Christmas night, and not playing a single Christmas song again until the next November. And justly so, as Christmas music is so closely associated with the holiday that it would be difficult or impossible to play without bringing up references that the broadcaster may wish to ignore.

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

In the U.K., the Festive Fifty list of indie rock songs is broadcast starting on Christmas Day, originally by BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, and nowadays by Internet radio station Dandelion Radio.

See also


  1. ^ Miles, Clement, Christmas customs and traditions, Courier Dover Publications, 1976, ISBN 0486233545, pp.47-48
  2. ^ a b c Hutton, Ronald (1996). The Stations of the Sun. Oxford.  
  3. ^ Shoemaker, Alfred L.. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Mechanicsburg, PA. p. xvii.  
  4. ^ Richard Michael Kelly. A Christmas carol p.10. Broadview Press, 2003 ISBN 1551114763
  5. ^ "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols". BBC. 16 December 2005.  
  6. ^ Simpson, Jacqueline; Roud, Steve (2000). Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford. p. 64.  
  7. ^ "Retail Sales Rose 0.2% Last Month". New York Times. Associated Press. January 13, 1990. Retrieved 2009-09-23.  
  8. ^ Baxter, Annie (October 30, 2008). "Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economy". Minnesota Public Radio.  
  9. ^ "ERA asks for an early Christmas present the recording industry won't buy" by Daniel Langendorf, November 21, 2007]
  10. ^ "Piped-In Christmas Music" December 19, 2003
  11. ^ Carol Histories and Track List
  12. ^ ASCAP Announces Top 25 Holiday Songs — "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting...)" Tops List
  13. ^ ASCAP
  14. ^ Jingle Bells: History of Christmas Carols by Espie Estrella.
  15. ^
  16. ^ 100 Greatest Novelty Songs
  17. ^ Tucker, Ken (May 13, 2005). "The Christmas Format: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town". Radio Monitor. AllBusiness.  

Further reading

  • Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs Of Christmas by Ace Collins, 160 pages, ISBN 0762421126, 2004.
  • The International Book of Christmas Carols by W. Ehret and G. K. Evans, Stephen Greene Press, Vermont, ISBN 0828903786, 1980.
  • Victorian Songs and Music by Olivia Bailey, Caxton Publishing, ISBN 1840674687, 2002.
  • Spirit of Christmas: A History of Our Best-Loved Carols by Virginia Reynolds and Lesley Ehlers, ISBN 0880884142, 2000.
  • Christmas Music Companion Fact Book by Dale V. Nobbman, ISBN 1574240676, 2000.

External links

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