Why no recent Christmas music?
December 9, 2011 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Why is almost all Christmas/holiday music from over 50 years ago?

This recent XKCD comic exemplifies my thoughts on the Christmas music I've always heard each year. Wherever I go during the holiday season, I hear:

1. Songs from the 40's and 50's
2. Remakes of songs from the 40's and 50's
3. Even older hymns
4. Occasional plays of more recent songs such as "All I Want for Christmas Is You" or "Last Christmas"

The rest of the year, music on the radio and in public favors new stuff, or at least anything from the last 25 years. It's rare to hear popular music from the 50's, and 40's music seems nonexistent.

Is there an explanation for this? Why is holiday music so archaic?
posted by Nikolai to Media & Arts (55 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Just be thankful; nearly all the Christmas music played in the UK is either by 70s and 80s novelty acts, or by Cliff Richard. The older stuff (Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Perry Como) is sadly becoming quite rare.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 9:54 AM on December 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

It's an incredibly sentimental, nostalgic season so the old standards "match" the emotions of the time more than the new stuff does.
posted by headnsouth at 9:55 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

My wife and I were laughing about this just this morning.

Here's my theory -- you have to look at the context in which the music was made and popularized in the first place.

The music made in the late 40s and 50s wasn't aimed at baby boomers. It was aimed at their parents, who, stylistically, were keyed to music from the 30s.

Now think about music made by baby boomers. The rock-and-roll era takes off, the 60s era takes off, and the art of these eras were rejections of what had happened previously. They just weren't interested in making Christmas music, and when they did, it had a different feeling and different standards.

Moreover, the true mass-media aspect of the music meant that the baby boomers didn't have to replace Christmas music. It would always be there available on the radio.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:56 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Because Last Christmas is a total piece of crap? Really, I haven't even heard anything done recently that would remotely qualify as listen-to-able.

I was actually going to post the comic as the answer to your question. People like tradition and they like what they like. Those songs are around and my parents listened to them, and in turn I listened to them around Christmas time. I'll probably have my kids listen to them unless I win the battle and we only play metal Christmas songs in my family. It's a never ending cycle.

Because really, hearing Last Christmas once means you've heard it 50 times too many.
posted by theichibun at 9:57 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

The guy in my office who detests "Wonderful Christmastime" but can't get it out of his head because he hears it on the radio several times a day would beg to differ.
posted by massysett at 9:57 AM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Similarly, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is overplayed, and not of that era.
posted by scruss at 10:03 AM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's because more recent Christmas music looks and sounds like this.
posted by trunk muffins at 10:04 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Everyone knows the classics. We sang these songs in school and church. It takes a while for new songs to catch on and the window to become popular is pretty short (Thanksgiving to New Year's). Also, many new Christmas songs are crap. But a couple of new ones make it into the rotation each year.
posted by shoesietart at 10:06 AM on December 9, 2011

Saint Etienne, which--I'm sure you'll agree--is simply the best thing ever, has a great selection of new Christmas music, though often in limited editions. Last year, they put out an entire Christmas album, A Glimpse of Stocking. Great stuff.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:13 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I find it kind of interesting to think about Christmas music of the 40s and 50s, and the utter boom it experienced in North America. Prior to that, you'd see the occasional music-hall or vaudeville song, but I'm guessing hymns and secular winter songs like Jingle Bells and Over the Hills and Through the Woods were more the norm. But in the mid 20th century, there seems to have been this enormous boom of Christmas everything, from Rudolph to movies set at Christmas like White Christmas. And of course, those movies had hit songs associated with them that are still in rotation today.

Obviously, post WWII United States was going through an economic boom that increased the commercialism surrounding a lot of things, including Christmas, but I wonder what it was about Christmas specifically that was so attractive? The family-centric nature of the holiday that played well to the conservative values of the 50s? The attractiveness of a romantic, "simpler time" mentality that seems to play out around this time of the year? Or were those things products of the advertisers of the era, designed specifically to get shoppers to empty their wallets?

Such a chicken and egg idea, and yet the music of the era seems to have been a symptom of whatever it was.
posted by LN at 10:20 AM on December 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

I don't think the "new Christmas music is crap" argument holds up all that well, because I listen to Mitch Miller and Andy Williams every year. That is definitely crap, and it's not new. Being crap is no barrier to becoming popular Christmas music.

Is it also maybe about the diversification of pop culture/music over the past 40-50 years? There's a core of songs from the 50s because that was the last time there was a core North American culture where a wide swath of the population listened to the same music? I do listen to some new Christmas music but it's probably not the *same* new Christmas music as other people.

But clearly nostalgia is huge in Christmas music as in Christmas in general. When my family got a CD player, several of the first CDs my mother bought were replacements for Christmas record albums (including the aforementioned Andy Williams and Mitch Miller albums) and she probably originally purchased those records because she grew up hearing the same records. And I have mp3s of most of them on my phone right now.
posted by mskyle at 10:25 AM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


If you think about it, there's no reason why we have to have the same specific menu for Thanksgiving every year that people in this country have been having since the 1860's either. But we do. Because it's Thanksgiving and that's what you do.

Similarly -- it's Christmas, and these carols are Christmas songs, so that's when we sing them. As for the focus on the 1940's -- maybe it's because that was the golden age of radio, and so that's the first time people really got to hear a lot of songs written expressly FOR the pop market anyway. And then the kids who grew up listening to that new stuff wanted to keep hearing it again and again, and then THEIR kids did too, and...etc.

I hear you on the wanting to shake it up a bit, though. And thus my own Christmas playlist includes two songs from 1987 and one from circa 2006 as well as more esoteric stuff from all over the place historically.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:26 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think it's about the 40s and 50s being a very idyllic period for so many Americans. Postwar America saw an explosion of consumer spending power, with Christmas being an embodiment of the truly amazing increase in the standard of living that America was experiencing, that people could buy truly staggering amounts of shit for their families and loved ones, and this was a new and miraculous thing.

My grandfather, who came from a poor, immigrant family in New Haven, says they never had a Christmas tree growing up, and their christmas present was either an orange, a piece of chocolate, or a lump of coal in their stockings. (Stockings that were hung on the stove because they were the kids' actual clothes, and where by the fire to dry off so they could wear them the next day). By the 1950s he and his siblings could afford to slather presents on their families at christmas (thanks to the availability of good jobs and a college degree paid for by the GI bill), and it was a point of genuine pride and happiness that they could do so. Christmas was actually, measurably, more joyous and special then, and the music reflected it.
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:30 AM on December 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

I hear Mariah Carey's Christmas song (from 1994) a lot.

Covered by Justin Bieber
From the movie Love, Actually

It's become somewhat of a standard.
posted by I am the Walrus at 10:30 AM on December 9, 2011

Or, on preview, what LN said.
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:31 AM on December 9, 2011

Some of it is probably public domain and therefore cheaper (free) to use.
posted by cmoj at 10:31 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the premise is totally flawed. Tons of the music on the radio is contemporary or recent, and this year whenever I go into a big box store I don't even recognize the versions of the songs, they're so new.

Part of it is that 75% of Christmas music is recycled. it's a traditionalist time of year with a strong tradition of a musical canon, some of which reaches back as far as "Jingle Bells," huge pop hit in 1876. People revisit the tradition and try to update it, but it isn't always successful compared to the original. You can re-record "Sleigh Ride" but it's hard to argue you're going to do a better version than the Ronettes. People keep going back to the Ronettes not entirely out of nostalgia (I wasn't even born when the recording was made) but because it's a damn good rendition.

But here's a shortlist of a ton of Christmas music that's incredibly common and isn't from 50 years ago, in addition to the couple mentioned above - things that are sort of the new classics:

Christmas Wrapping
Do They Know It's Christmas
2000 Miles
David Bowie's Peace on Earth/Drummer Boy
Fairytale of New York
The entire Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder Christmas canon
Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"

Though I don't know if the 70s doesn't feel recent enough, or if we're talking about why so many songs were written around 50 years ago even if they've been heard in updated versions.

LN raises some interesting points. Christmas became a big deal even before the end of World War II. The advent of radio had a LOT to do with it - not just for advertising, but for content as well. Radio needed stuff to play. Christmas was a great time to do special shows and band concerts, and lots of original compositions were created just for people like Bing Crosby and other singers at the time. I do think it was amplified by the sentiments during World War II and particularly afterward. Incredibly stressful times tend to produce more nostalgia and sentiment and there was a new interest in establishing a sense of domesticity and "tradition" even if some of the traditions were fairly new.

it's true that Christmas was just way amplified but I actually tend to identify that as starting in the late 1800s and just reaching a peak when the full range of mass media (film, recorded music, radio broadcasting, and then TV) really became availability. For a great history of how ideas about Christmas developed int he US and UK, see Phillip Nussbaum's excellent history The Battle for Christmas. He mainly argues that intense interest in Christmas is a byproduct of and attempt at antidote to industrialization, beginning with the industrial revolution, and then enters into a strangely symbiotic but also antipathic (is that a word?) relationship to capitalism and the world of business ("Be generous to others and handmake everything, but buy stuff and indulge yourself! It's not all about presents, the real meaning is togetherness! But it IS all about presents so come to the Black Friday sale!")
posted by Miko at 10:33 AM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Right, and of course crazy postwar prosperity and a desire to put painful pasts (Depression, war) behind, like Jon_Evil notes.
posted by Miko at 10:34 AM on December 9, 2011

I saw that comic this morning and wished a radio station would run with the premise of promising to not play any of these songs in their Christmas rotation. On preview, they can throw in "Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"" too.
posted by mikepop at 10:37 AM on December 9, 2011

shoesietart makes a good point about all of us knowing the old classics.

My thinking is the state of music consumption has changed so much that a modern music lover really has to make an effort to seek out new music, whether it's holiday music or not. Back when our only music option was the one big AM station in town, we listened to whatever they played, even if we hated it, because there wasn't anything else.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:39 AM on December 9, 2011

Miko, a point of order about some of your "new classics":

David Bowie's Peace on Earth/Drummer Boy
Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"

These are remakes of older things from the 1940's and 50's. AWESOME ones, to be sure, but remakes nonetheless.

Although -- speaking of remakes, I was somewhat shocked to hear that Michael Buble has remade "All I Want For Christmas Is You," which now puts that into the realm of a modern classic. Oy.

Two more nominations for "modern Classic," though -- Joni Mitchell's River, which is gorgeous (albeit really depressing if you've just been dumped) and Christmastime Is Here, which is from the late 1960's.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:39 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and in some circles this is another modern song.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:41 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Miko, agreed about radio, and, the same is probably true of the phonograph that preceeded it.

People love tradition as much as they love novelty - Christmas music definitely seems to ping the tradition side of the equation. We probably struggle with new Christmas music precisely because it's novel; it doesn't press the "tradition" buttons the way the old ones do.

What I find interesting is that society could have latched onto any holiday in the calendar to make into a big deal musically, but Christmas was the one chosen. Where are the countless pop songs about Easter, or about Thanksgiving? Halloween at least has some novelty songs, but there's virtually nothing for the others. What was it about Christmas?
posted by LN at 10:49 AM on December 9, 2011

In a radio interview yesterday, Stephen Sondheim said that when music was mostly heard on the radio, and there was a “Hit Parade”, songwriters for (movies and) shows tried to write “hits” for radio exposure. Since then, they concentrate on the needs of the show: no “hits”. That also may be why many ballad jazz standards are based on songs from shows premiered in the “days of radio”.
posted by RichardS at 10:49 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Christmas music in the forties and fifties was secular, commercial and consumption/experience-oriented yet wasn't cynical about or critical of Christmas - secular culture was growing stronger but sort of post-Christian secular culture was still hegemonic; Christmas wasn't the giant marketing megalith that it is today and thus there was a bit more thrill and a bit less dismay; it was less socially acceptable to loathe the holidays or to take a non-Christian/non-consumerist/non-heteronormative approach. Thus the unending horror.

I myself am partial to Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again" because of its sleazy delivery and vague suggestions of drunken, inappropriate hook-ups with cousins. It is definitely the working class/lower-middle class realpolitik of Christmas.

The only good, popular non-hymn Christmas song I can think of is Nina Simone's "Children, Go Where I Send You", which is religious in inspiration.
posted by Frowner at 10:53 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

thus there was a bit more thrill and a bit less dismay; it was less socially acceptable to loathe the holidays or to take a non-Christian/non-consumerist/non-heteronormative approach. Thus the unending horror.

While I suspect that we'd disagree about the quality of the music that "loathes the holiday,"(I hate most of them) I think this is part of it. We have a set of Christmas songs that sing the merits of the "conventional" Christmas, more recent music is either going to be (at least in part) songs that react against that, and I think a lot of people don't want that attitude in what they think of as their happy family Christmas.

Of course, none of this addresses the fact that we're playing (religious) Christmas music when it is CLEARLY still Advent. Seriously people, if you want to play "Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending"(I'm guessing you don't) on the radio, you have my full support, but save "Silent Night" for the 25th-Epiphany.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:03 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think the songwriting craft on display in many of mid-century Christmas songs is exponentially higher than in newer ones. The lyrics are often brilliant or witty or sentimental in a way that evokes the feeling of winter or spending time with loved ones, and the music is usually supportive of the lyrics.

John Lennon or Mariah Carey, brilliant in their own ways, fail at writing/performing satisfying Christmas songs, because they are not sensitive to the sentiment of the holiday and they are boxing their lyrics into a repetitive pop format (which can be satisfying when they are performing pop songs, but not so much in a Christmas music context).
posted by quarterframer at 11:14 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. I always thought Andy Williams voice was awesome. Not sure about some of the actual songs, but the voice is stunning.

2. While John Lennon is not a Christmas type person, I always thought "So this is Christmas / And what have you done" to be a pretty useful sentiment.

3. Christmas songs by "classic" rock performers tend to be way saturated in today's radio market. I can certainly do without McCartney "Wonderful Christmastime" and Springsteen "Santa Claus" now, no matter what I thought of them originally.

4. Much current Christmas music (Christina Aguilara) is totally unlistenable.
posted by Billiken at 11:35 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Interestingly, the most recent XKCD addresses this question and comes up with "boomer nostalgia."
posted by COBRA! at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2011

What some of these answers get close to but don't quite say out loud is that the old standards are singable. I just listened to Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas (okay, twice), and it's one of the vanishingly few Christmas songs I don't run shrieking from as I get older and more pre-reformation Grinch-like. But as good as it is, you can't gather the family around the piano, or just start in a capella, and make it sound right. You can do that with White Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and all the carols. They work for ordinary people to sing and enjoy, and that contributes to their continued popularity.
posted by bryon at 12:19 PM on December 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

Billiken, I couldn't agree more with your #1 and #3 points.

I like certain Christmas music because I've heard those songs all my life at Christmas time. Those songs *mean* Christmas to me. I guess that's why the remakes sell, too. They are updated versions of my nostalgia.

Songs I never want to hear again? Any version of Rudolph, Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:23 PM on December 9, 2011

Cobrai, the OP linked to that XKCD comic in the question.
posted by kestrel251 at 12:25 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Christmas as it is celebrated in America today is a commercialized extension of a Victorian era confection, which was itself nostalgic for a mythical late medieval Northern European Yuletide that never was. Conspicuous in their absence from this Victoriana are African Americans.

On the other hand, American popular music since the 1930s and especially since the end of World War Two has been disproportionately influenced by AA culture. Jazz, Blues, R&B, R&R, Soul, Funk, Reggae, Rap, etc. are not notably effective at expressing sentimentality and nostalgia. Joy, humour, exhilaration, determination, anger, loss, sadness, even suicidal depression; yes. Sentimentality; no. Nostalgia; No. Not really. No.

What's that leave? C&W? Bluegrass? Too 'down-market'. 'Showtunes'? Too jewish, too gay. (That said, one of my personal favourites is "We're Despicable" from Magoo's Christmas Carol, essentially a Showtune for a cartoon; it has very little to do with Christms, per se.)

So, to express what society deems the appropriate emotional mix for the season, you have to reach back to before the Rock & Roll era. It's no surprise then, that arguably the most recent (p. 1944) classic Christmas song is Mel Torme's bathetic The Christmas Song, a song with no pelvis whatsoever (and no Jesus, either), that expresses sentimentality about and nostalgia for the materialistic secular Christmas of the present!

PS: Bruce Stringstone didn't write "Santa Claus is Coming To Town"; it's from the 1930s.
posted by Herodios at 12:27 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes, a lot of what shows up on collections of Christmas tunes are actually just "winter" themed songs. They are secular but easily tossed into the mix.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:34 PM on December 9, 2011

This Warm December by Brushfire is an excellent Christmas album from last year. It includes songs by most Brushfire artists including Jack Johnson, G. Love, and Zee Avi. The original songs are well-written, and the new takes on the classics are well re-worked (not just sound-alike covers), too. They have a new one this year that isn't quite as good/original.

@ThatCanadianGirl take a listen to Jack Johnson's version of Rudolf - I didn't think I could stand any version of that song either, but this dispelled me of that notion :)
posted by LizardOfDoom at 12:34 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Okay, LizardOfDoom, I listened to the Jack Johnson version of Rudolph. The Jack Johnson part I liked. The Rudolph part was still kind of annoying. Good try, though, thanks!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:46 PM on December 9, 2011

There's plenty of new Christmas music being made-- you just have to hunt around the Internet to find it these days rather than hear it on the radio.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:16 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

What I find interesting is that society could have latched onto any holiday in the calendar to make into a big deal musically, but Christmas was the one chosen. Where are the countless pop songs about Easter, or about Thanksgiving? Halloween at least has some novelty songs, but there's virtually nothing for the others. What was it about Christmas?

Nussbaum discusses that. Thanksgiving and New Year's stomped all over Christmas as the major holidays until the 1850s/60s. He argues that it's partially the need for a carnival period in which the social order can be rearranged to make up for the excesses of the haves and the needs of the have-nots, which did have origins in Northern Europe (and not just imagined ones), and partly the response to intensifying consumer culture.

I tend to think if we didn't have the Winter Holiday Complex (as it's become) we'd have to invent it. It's the time we make exceptions to everything we do and say the rest of the year and I think functions as a real steam valve.

Miko, a point of order about some of your "new classics...These are remakes of older things from the 1940's and 50's

I did acknowledge that in my comments about 'recycling' songs. The rest of the year, a remake is sort of an out-of-the-ordinary approach to making a pop record. Christmas, not so. I was trying to show that there are versions of songs written during the period that have succeeded when recorded by others and been made even more famous since that period.

Also, I'm starting to get a little irritated by the xkcd thing which has erroneous and selective information, which contributing the selection bias and false premise. For instance, Winter Wonderland was written in 1934. Songs that were hits like "What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin')" (1936) by Louis Prima (America's first real Italian-American superstar by the way) were big hits but don't get as much airplay today.

If you look at Wikipedia's page of hit singles that were holiday-themed, there are just a ton from the 70s and onward that are getting less airplay now. Is this because they don't feed into Boomer nostalgia? Or because they simply aren't the cream of the crop and don't suit the overall popular taste as well as all these others? It's quite possible that the most popular radio-play holiday songs today are just the most popular of all time when you poll a wide audience. Between "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" and Elton John's S"tep Into Christmas," I know which one I'd take. There have been some great Christmas songs in every decade since the dawn of recorded music, and even going back to sheet music pop songs, but there have been some real turkeys as well in every decade. The turkeys are not worth keeping.

Though now my curiosity is sparked to go find John Denver's "Please Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas" and Commander Cody's "Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas."

There is a lot of Christmas music that I love that's more recent which just does not fit into the pop format, too. Like, Kate Bush and Loreena McKennit and indie-pop whiners and old-timey artists are not going to be mainstream no matter how Christmassy they are. The music is great and recent but I don't expect to hear it on a major radio station.

I wonder if this was among Mariah's inspirations.

"All Alone on Christmas" (now with more Little Steven) was written in 1997 and that song stands with the best of the Motown Christmas song versions. Joni Mitchell's "River" has become a sort of classic for the anti-holiday spirit.
posted by Miko at 1:25 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sorry, I screwed up my Winter Wonderland link.
posted by Miko at 1:27 PM on December 9, 2011

Actually, hasn't retro 40s and 50s culture made a huge comeback among people in their 20s and 30s in the last decade or so? I don't think it's necessarily true that you don't hear this music the rest of the year--Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf, Motown artists, Tony Bennett, Jacques Brel, etc. are still popular, and bands like Pink Martini cite old ballad and lounge singers as influences.

Maybe it's the children of the Baby Boomers, rebelling against their parents' rebellion (as children tend to do). But I think among a certain cohort that era represents (romanticized, of course) a time when they perceive that people valued elegance and sophistication and the privileges of adulthood, instead of wanting to be trapped in the perpetual self-absorbed follow-your-bliss adolescence of Baby Boom popular culture. Hence the popularity of Mad Men. It's no surprise to me, therefore, that this kind of music still has a huge appeal.

(My parents were war babies and so missed the Baby Boom by a few years. But I've still collected MP3s of a lot of their old Christmas albums because I love them so much and they were so much a part of my childhood. And that's why I have the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, too. I think much of it is nostalgia and the need for tradition, pure and simple, uncoupled from any particular generational longing.)
posted by tully_monster at 1:40 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I screwed up my Winter Wonderland link.

As well as the link to "Wikipedia's list of hit singles that were holiday-themed."

The US one is here, and the UK one is here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:44 PM on December 9, 2011

Oh, and you know, upon reviewing that...

I've heard Billy Squier's "Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You" quite a lot, as well as Stevie Wonder's "Someday At Christmas".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:49 PM on December 9, 2011

As well as the link to "Wikipedia's list of hit singles that were holiday-themed."


Actually, hasn't retro 40s and 50s culture made a huge comeback among people in their 20s and 30s in the last decade or so?

As a kid who was pretty into the 1990s swing revival and tiki stuff, I don't think it ever really went away. This is just American pop culture, unglued from its time and now free-floating.
posted by Miko at 2:27 PM on December 9, 2011

I'm wondering what the influence of education & copyright is on the long-standing "popularirty" (is that even the right word?) of this body of music. Year after year kids get exposed to what's free & easy & non-controversial, fostering almost a common lexicon of what Christmas music "is"/should be...
posted by Ys at 3:42 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I believe the answer is Johnny Marks. Marks was the brother-in-law of Robert L. May who was commissioned in 1939 to write a coloring book for Montgomery Ward. The subject of that coloring book? Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Now here is where I speculate on the other theories in this thread...

Marks was writing right when radio was arguably at its most popular, so his stuff in particular got mass play and became Christmas Standards.

Johnny Marks also wrote "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", "Silver and Gold" (and the whole Rankin Bass music from Rudolph) and "Holly Jolly Christmas."
posted by frecklefaerie at 4:47 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's plenty of new christmas music being written all the time. The trick is, it's really REALLY hard to write a new song which becomes a classic and gets played as part of the canon.

But there's plenty being written all the time:

George Michael - December Song
Indigo Girls - Your Holiday Song
Sheryl Crow - There Is A Star That Shines Tonight
Stephen Colbert & Elvis Costello - There Are Much Worse Things To Believe In
Wilson Phillips - Our Prayer/Warm Lovin' Christmastime/Joy/Christmastime (weird choppy amalgam soundtrack, but gives good samples of the songs)
Pet Shop Boys - It Doesn't Often Snow At Christmas
Carbon Leaf - Christmas Child
Melissa Etheridge - Ring The Bells

All of these have come out in the past 2-4 years.

Anyway, if you want to find some truly great full albums, the three I cannot recommend to strongly are Tori Amos - Midwinter Graces, Melissa Etheridge - A New Thought For Christmas, and Carla Bley - Carla's Christmas Carols.

All three of those have new twists on very familiar tunes, new compositions, and they all will refresh all your holiday listening as they create new echoes which create depth to songs which can be overly familiar.
posted by hippybear at 7:06 PM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Grrr. "the three I cannot recommend too strongly"

I can recommend anything to strongly... is his account still active?
posted by hippybear at 8:02 PM on December 9, 2011

I'm thinking the big reason older songs dominate at Christmas time is because holiday music is only played for a month out of the year. It'd be really hard for a song in modern times to get enough repeat plays amidst the more established playlist, and to make enough of an impact for people to remember it after 11 months off.

Regular modern pop songs have a lot more time to build an audience, get more promotion, and get played in different media (commercials, movie trailers, radio talk show bumper music, Idol, etc).

And I think another thing is that more recent songs don't get covered by a wide variety of musicians, which would add to the legacy of those songs, and that's probably because of the reason above. Famous, familiar holiday covers are usually of famous, familiar songs.

The biggest exceptions that come to mind are the aforementioned songs by Lennon, McCartney, Carey, Wonder, and Live Aid. And even those haven't spawned too many memorable covers, which I think makes their enduring popularity rather impressive

(esp the Carey one, which I'm glad I don't detest, even after someone accidentally left it on repeat during a company Christmas party)
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:53 AM on December 10, 2011

I think TheSecretDecorderRing has a lot of the reason -- radio relies on familiarity and is really slow to break new music in general, and the Christmas season is short. So a lot of what gets played (and consequently, a lot of what gets recorded) is versions of the classics, where the familiarity is built in, even if the artist/version is new.

If you're a relative newcomer to your genre, and you're cutting a Christmas album, and you know that radio will likely play your version of O Holy Night from now until the end of your career or at least until someone else in your genre cuts a really distinctive version, but may never once play your version of Recently Written Christmas Song, you're a lot more likely to record O Holy Night. So most Christmas albums are largely classics, with a few newer songs thrown in. And the new songs, unless they have something larger to recommend them, like a movie tie-in, don't tend to get the promotional push (read: payola) that's required to get them on the radio as new songs, so they never become classics.

There's a familiarity bias that's built into the whole process. You remember hearing songs that you know better than you remember hearing songs that you don't know, which means they score better in song-specific radio polling, and help a radio station get better ratings in ratings surveys. That's basically the reason radio is so slow to work new songs into the rotation, and it's also a reason why you would remember that you heard Silver Bells four times today (probably in four different versions), without necessarily remembering that you also heard a couple of new songs.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:25 AM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of very good (and largely Jewish) composers and performers had very secular Christmas hits (bells and snow and getting together and giving stuff, but fuck baby Jesus) in the 1940s and 1950s. Those songs and performances became the standards for those generations, and everyone since then has grown up with them and so expects to hear them, not the latest fad, when that old nostalgic egg-noggy season comes around again. A really good tune will be added to the pop Christmas canon now and then, but it's got to compete with Irving Berlin, not just this year's sample sampler.
posted by pracowity at 2:03 PM on December 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

A really good tune will be added to the pop Christmas canon now and then, but it's got to compete with Irving Berlin, not just this year's sample sampler.

That is a really good way of saying what I was trying to get at above, that we're judging the latest offering by Teenybopper Pop Star or Earnest Country Crooner against some of the greatest pop music songwriters of the century whose works are holding up to decades of replay for good reason. It's a tough elite to break into.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I view Christmas music much as I view religious or "Christian" music.... the sentiments and in many cases the actual words already exist. How many ways can you set the same bible verses or spritual thoughts to music? There's not much actual "songwriting" craft required if you really think about it. You can modify or paraphrase and half the work is already done. It's even easier for holiday music- the actual SONGS already exist. Why do so many performers put out holiday records? I bet they make a bundle since many of those songs are in the public domain and no songwriting royalties need to be paid. So the same batch of songs keep being delivered- and they "make it their own." (ugh.)
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:38 PM on December 11, 2011

That somewhat cynical perspective has popped up before, but only a very few holiday songs are in the public domain, and of those, most are religious. You do in fact have to pay licensing fees to cover most of the popular Christmas songs. There's still a bundle to be made, but that's more because people buy tons of holiday music than because you saved money on clearances. There's both a commercial and a consumer market for holiday music, so just imagine. The endless tracks you hear in retail stores need refreshing every year.

Don't bother downloading that PDF - it's an ad for a licensing agency.
posted by Miko at 7:26 PM on December 11, 2011

From the British perspective, which is very different:

It's weird to think that Slade and Wizzard's songs came out in the same year (1973) and have been the linchpins of Christmas pop music ever since. In addition, Now - The Christmas Album (the original Christmas compilation from the best-selling Now series) has been ubiquitous ever since it came out in 1985. (I hope that it gives Jona Lewie a decent stipend once a year.) That establishes a kind of canon, and once established, I think modern Christmas music canons are slow to alter, because they're brought out once a year like the decorations.

So I think something similar is going on in the US: the post-war years were the ones where the canon was established, for musical, economic and social reasons.
posted by holgate at 6:23 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

People who think there is no new Christmas music should get out more. It doesn't have to be written in 2011 to be classed as new. It just has to be new to you.

Try listening to stuff like 'Hark The Herald Angels Sing' by the Fab Four (They're a Beatles kind of tribute band); and 'White Wine In The Sun' by Tim Minchin. Try 'This Winter's Night' by Lady Antebellum; and 'Elf's Lament' by The Barenaked Ladies with Michael Buble on vocal. Try 'Peppermint Winter' by Owl City and 'Here Comes Christmas' by Remington Super 60. Try '12 Days Of Christmas' by Straight No Chaser.

Just because songs aren't on the only radio station(s) you listen to, it doesn't mean they don't exist. Just type a few search words in on Youtube; you'll find all these songs and more.
posted by jubly at 7:56 AM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

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