Christmas music

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Christmas music band performs at a California shopping mall (2008)

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.

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.[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.

Puritan prohibition

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.[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 continually resurfaced in Europe and the USA through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[3]

Royal restoration

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'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.[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, of 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]

Church feast

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:

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.

'Christmas creep'

In the United States and elsewhere[7] the playing of Christmas music would generally begin 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,[8] one driven largely by consumer spending,[9] and with the music industry making at least 40 percent of its annual revenue in the fourth quarter culminating at Christmas,[10] 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 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.[11]

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 popular set of traditional carols that might be heard at any Christmas-related event include:[12]


A Christmas tree inside a home

Less-often heard Christmas carols include:

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

In addition to these traditional carols, there are some popular secular Christmas songs from mid-19th century America that pre-date the secular Christmas songs of the 20th century. These songs include "Jingle Bells", "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" and "Up on the House Top".

Recent Carols

Alongside the popular secular Christmas songs there have also been some recent copyrighted carols about the Nativity, some of which are played together with the popular Christmas songs. This set of songs includes such often played titles as Mary's Boy Child, Carol of the Drum (Little Drummer Boy), Do You Hear What I Hear?, Mary, Did You Know?, as well as other popular carols sung in British schools including Little Donkey by Eric Boswell, Calypso Carol by Michael Perry and It was on a starry night by Joy Webb of The Joystrings.

Popular Christmas songs

More recently popular Christmas songs, often introduced through 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 centres and lifts, 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 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 and Frosty the Snowman were both introduced by Gene Autry a year apart (1949 and 1950 respectively).[n 1] 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 climactic season, with all its snow, dressing up for the cold, sleighing, etc.

Most-performed Christmas songs (USA)

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:[13] (tracking plays in the U.S. only, and in order of number of plays)[14]

1"The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)Mel Tormé, Robert Wells1944traditions
2"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin1944celebratory
3"Winter Wonderland"Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith1934seasonal
4"Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"J. Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie1934mythical
5"White Christmas"Irving Berlin1940celebratory/seasonal
6"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne1945seasonal
7"Jingle Bell Rock"Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe1957celebratory/seasonal
8"The Little Drummer Boy"Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone1941religious
9"Sleigh Ride"Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish1943seasonal/birthday
10"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"Johnny Marks1939/1949mythical
11"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"Edward Pola, George Wyle1963seasonal/traditions
12"I'll Be Home for Christmas"Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram1943traditions
13"Silver Bells"Jay Livingston, Ray Evans1950traditions
14"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"Johnny Marks1958traditions
15"Feliz Navidad"José Feliciano1970celebratory
16"Blue Christmas"Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson1957traditions/alternative
17"Frosty the Snowman"Steve Nelson, Walter E. Rollins1950mythical
18"A Holly Jolly Christmas"Johnny Marks1964/5traditions/celebratory
19"It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas"Meredith Willson1951traditions/celebratory
20"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"Tommie Connor1952mythical/novelty
21"Here Comes Santa Claus" (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)Gene Autry, Oakley Haldeman1947mythical
22"Carol of the Bells"Peter J. Wilhousky, Mykola D. Leontovych1921/47celebratory
23"Do They Know It's Christmas? (Feed the World)Midge Ure, Bob Geldof1984traditions
24"(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays"Bob Allen, Al Stillman1954traditions/sentimental
25"Santa Baby"Joan Ellen Javits, Philip Springer, Tony Springer, and Fred Ebb1953mythical/alternative

"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", 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."[13]

Songs introduced through motion pictures 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).

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.

Approximately half of the 25 best-selling Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers, including "White Christmas", "Let It Snow", "Winter Wonderland," "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)," "Sleigh Ride," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and "Silver Bells".[15][16][17][18]

While the ASCAP 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 single during the 1970s and 1980s. According to a 2007 poll, the UK's most popular Christmas song is "Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade,[19] a band that was popular in the 1970s.

Christmas music in the United Kingdom and Ireland

Most played songs

The top ten most played Christmas songs in the United Kingdom 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:[20]

RankSong titleComposer(s)Performer(s)Year
1"All I Want for Christmas Is You"Mariah Carey and Walter AfanasieffMariah Carey1994
2"Last Christmas"George MichaelWham!1984
3"Fairytale of New York"Jem Finer and Shane MacGowanThe Pogues with Kirsty MacColl1987
4"Do They Know It’s Christmas?"Bob Geldof and Midge UreBand Aid1984
5"Merry Xmas Everybody"Noddy Holder and Jim LeaSlade1973
6"White Christmas"Irving BerlinLouis Armstrong1940
7"Driving Home for Christmas"Chris ReaChris Rea1988
8"Merry Christmas Everyone"Bob HeatlieShakin' Stevens1985
9"Mistletoe and Wine"Jeremy Paul, Leslie Stewart and Keith StrachanCliff Richard1976
10"Walking in the Air"Howard BlakePeter Auty1982

Included in previous lists—like those for 2009 and 2008—are such titles as "Stop the Cavalry" – Jona Lewie, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" – Bruce Springsteen, "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day" – Wizzard, "Step into Christmas" – Elton John, "Lonely This Christmas" – Mud, and "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby.

"The Christmas song is a genre in its own right . . More than any other type of music, it spans and links generations with disparate musical taste buds.”[21]

Ellis Rich, Chairman of PRS for Music

"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 #1 is usually the same as the British #1 or #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 (The Fastest Milkman in the West)" (#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, 1989 and 2004), Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody" (#1, 1972) and Wham!'s "Last Christmas" (#2, 1984). Although Scotland maintains a separate chart, its results almost always parallel the main UK chart in this regard.

Reality television

Reality television has had an impact on both the British and the Irish charts since 2002. In that year, the series Popstars The Rivals produced the top three singles on the Christmas charts: two produced by the two "rival" groups created as the result of the series (the girl group Girls Aloud and the boy band One True Voice) finished first and second respectively, while failed contestants The Cheeky Girls charted with a novelty hit at third, on the British charts. Will Young, winner of the first Pop Idol, charted at the top of the Irish charts in 2003, but not in his native Britain. Since the second series of the TV series The X Factor, which ends in December, the debut song from that series' winner generally is released at a time conducive to it becoming the Christmas number one in both countries, and most of the songs are unrelated to Christmas. X Factor winners have earned the Christmas number one in at least one of the two countries every year since 2005, and in both countries in a majority of those years (four times out of the last seven). As a result of the show's stranglehold on the top of the charts, each year since 2008 has seen protest campaigns to outsell the X Factor single and prevent it from reaching number one. Only one has actually been successful: 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. 2010 saw several campaigns to unseat the X Factor winner, but fracturing between the warring campaigns in Britain and a delay in the delivery of The Rubberbandits' "Horse Outside" to stores in Ireland led to X Factor winner Matt Cardle earning the 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 (which was not released specifically as a campaign against the X Factor single), earned the Christmas number-one single in Britain, pulling off an upset over X Factor winners Little Mix, whose single was mistakenly released one week earlier than usual and peaked in sales too soon, and a host of anti-X Factor campaigns; because the Military Wives Choir single was not released in Ireland, Little Mix succeeded in winning the Christmas number-one in Ireland that year due to a lack of competition.[22]

Song histories

Currently popular Christmas songs in the U.K. arise from diverse artist inspirations, aims, social concerns, and takes on the holiday itself. Many share roots in major U.S. popular Christmas tunes, either in actual musical terms or in originating artist favorites. Illustrative examples of this include . .

Christmas music in Australia

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 "uniquely Australian Christmas carols" have become popular. "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",[26] examples of these, 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![27]

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 (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" (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 (War Is Over)" (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".[28] 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:

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.[29]

Other popular Christmas songs

Other popular Christmas songs often heard include "Happy Holidays" (1942), "Baby It's Cold Outside" (1944), and "My Favorite Things" (1959)—all recorded by a number of acts. Newer titles mostly associated with the originating artist include "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" by John Lennon, "Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You" by Billy Squier, "Little Bright Star," "Merry Christmas Darling" by The Carpenters, "Merry Christmas, Baby" and "Little Saint Nick" by the Beach Boys (with the former later covered by Bruce Springsteen), "Thank God It's Christmas" by Queen, "Wonderful Christmastime" by Paul McCartney, "If Everyday Could Be Like Christmas" by Patti Labelle, and "Pretty Paper" by Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters had a hit with "Mele Kalikimaka" in 1950, and Crosby introduced "Marshmallow World" in the same year, with other acts performing both songs since. Frank Sinatra put "The Christmas Waltz" on the flip-side of his version of "White Christmas" in 1954, many other acts covering it since. "Please Come Home for Christmas" was written and released by Charles Brown in 1960, but is now mostly associated with The Eagles. The Jackson 5 released "Give Love on Christmas Day" in 1970, with other acts following suit. Also in 1970, Donny Hathaway originated "This Christmas"; in 2007 singer Chris Brown released a popular version for the film of the same name.

More recent covers of songs found on the ASCAP top-25 Christmas songs have gained a popularity all their own. Elvis Presley famously covered a number of Christmas standards on his Christmas album, originally released in 1957. His versions of "Here Comes Santa Claus" and the previously mentioned "Blue Christmas" are particularly popular. 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. [30]

Rolling Stone magazine ranked Darlene 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.[31] Included on the list were such rock and roll hits as Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run" released in 1958.

Adopted Christmas music

Much of what is known as Christmas music today was adopted from pieces initially created for other purposes. Retroactively these were applied to Christmas, or came 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. Favorites such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Let it Snow,” and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" describe Winter and Seasonal. "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" is a song about New Years and Christmas.

The popular Christmas standard "Jingle Bells" was originally written to celebrate Thanksgiving.[32] Standard “Sleigh Ridelyrics mention not a Christmas party but a birthday party ("There's a birthday party/At the house of farmer Gray"). "Auld Lang Syne", with words by Scottish poet Robert Burns put to a traditional Scottish melody, is traditionally sung at the conclusion of New Year gatherings in Scotland and around the world, especially in English speaking countries, but is now often considered a Christmas song. Borrowing from the title, Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne" (released 1980) tells a Christmas Eve story and is now frequently played during the holiday season, integrated with traditional Christmas songs.

Perhaps the most famous Christmas music of all, Handel's "Messiah", was first performed "not during Advent or Christmas, but in Eastertide."[33] Handel’s masterpiece premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, 19 days after Easter, with proceeds intended for a number of charities. According to the words, only the beginning deals with the birth of Jesus, while "the second and third parts focus on his death, resurrection, the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the final resurrection of all believers."[34] It was 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". These range from those sung by children, or largely for their enjoyment, to those with a distinctly adult theme.



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". 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.[39]

Radio broadcasting

Radio broadcasting of Christmas music has been around for several decades in the US and elsewhere.[40] Traditionally, U.S. radio stations (particularly those with such formats as adult contemporary, adult standards, easy listening, or beautiful music) began adding some Christmas-themed selections to their regular playlists shortly after Thanksgiving each year. Some exclusively aired 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. This practice became more profound after 9/11, when many radio stations across the United States sought a sort of musical "comfort food".[41]

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:[42]

"There's no other programming tactic in radio history that consistently delivers ratings increases better than Christmas music . . playing Christmas music is all about having a larger audience after Christmas than you did before. People who find the station often stick around after the holidays and discover a new favorite station."[42]

Darren Davis, Senior V.P., Clear Channel
KOSTLos Angeles4.69.2
WLTWNew York6.012.3
KYXYSan Diego4.19.7

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.[42] However, this may not always transition well into financial success, since advertisers do not universally recognize Arbitron's holiday ratings book.[43]

The 24/7 all-Christmas format has been generally successful due in large part to Christmas creep. Many radio stations began airing an all-Christmas format by Thanksgiving, starting as early as the Friday one week prior. Several stations have started the format as early as November 1 (a few, such as KOSY and WNIC, have earned a reputation for this) or even in late October, although this is generally the exception rather than the norm. Stations that change formats before Thanksgiving sometimes experience backlash from listeners, because this is well 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, even those that do not play full-time Christmas music prior to Christmas Eve, play Christmas music commercial-free the entire day on Christmas Day and often a portion of Christmas Eve as well (e.g. KOIT), 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.)

Some in the industry speculate that 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). As of the last week of October 2010, four stations had changed to the format. Two of them (WSMM in South Bend, Indiana and an admittedly stunting WSHP in Lafayette, Indiana) did so on their analog channel; the other two were automated digital-only channels, WBEB HD2 and WPEN HD2, both in Philadelphia. The number of "all-Christmas" radio stations indeed jumped on November 1; for instance, four stations in upstate New York adopted the format that morning. HD Radio also allows for the expansion of Christmas music beyond Christmas Day and into early January, much as WLIT does after Christmas.

Every year compiles a list of all stations that play the format. In 2011, the first station in North America to adopt a 24/7 all-Christmas format was WEZW in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey, which serves the southeastern corner of that state, including Cape May and the fringes of Atlantic City. WEZW switched on October 16, some 68 days prior to Christmas.[44] What makes WEZW's case unusual is that in previous years, stations that changed to Christmas music in mid-October were generally stunting (see below) in anticipation of a change to a different format after the Christmas holiday; WEZW did not do so, thus obliterating—by over a week—the previous record for the earliest change by a non-stunting commercial analog station. As of November 21, 2011 (three days before Thanksgiving), there were over 150 commercial U.S. radio stations airing 24/7 Christmas music.[45]

For 2012, KYXE-FM, a new sign-on station in Yakima, Washington, was the first terrestrial station in the United States to begin broadcasting the Christmas format,[46] using the service called North Pole Radio. WEZW, the first station to do so in 2011, was also the first station to change to the Christmas format in 2012 (the distinction is that KYXE had signed on for the first time with the Christmas format). The first HD subchannel to carry Christmas music was the specially created HD3 channel of WODS, which signed on October 24. On Halloween, WLTQ, which flipped to Christmas early in 2011 ahead of rebranding their on-air identity, started airing all Christmas music.

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 has indicated it will instead include 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 Christmas on its "Sounds of the Seasons" and "Soft Rock" 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 Ireland, a temporary radio station named Christmas FM broadcasts on a temporary license in Dublin and Cork from November 28 to December 26, solely playing Christmas music.

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

See also


  1. ^ First described in a book, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was popularized by the related song that came out in 1949.


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Further reading

External links