Christmas is right around the corner, and with it comes the annual arrival of holiday music. Songs like “White Christmas,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and “Jingle Bell Rock” make a recurrence every year, bringing a familiar touch to the holidays. But “Jingle Bell Rock,” the most recent of these songs, was actually originally released back in 1957. In fact, nearly all of the popular Christmas songs were released before 2000. Even “All I want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey, which is considerably more modern than tunes like “Little Drummer Boy,” was released in 1994, almost 30 years ago.
It’s no surprise that trends and popular music genres change over the years. Older generations’ musical taste often differs from the younger ones. Compare the leading musical artists of the 1950s, Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry, to today’s Taylor Swift or Bad Bunny.
The personal memories for some of classic Christmas music is likely also part of its appeal. Holiday songs only get played during one time of the year, and there is a strong sense of familiarity and nostalgia to hear the same songs year after year.
“Music is especially evocative of emotion,” said psychologist Krystine Batcho, PhD, an expert in nostalgia, during an interview with the American Psychological Association. “Nostalgic song lyrics engage the listener in reverie and capture the bittersweet feeling of the past’s irretrievability,” Batcho said.
Holiday songs are also well recognized by people of all ages, bridging a generational gap between younger and older listeners and creating something entire families enjoy together.
“It pulls together a shared thing,” said BHS senior and musician Annamaria Acosta-Ferezi. “We sing together, and it’s a way where all of us can get together.”
Modern musical artists have found success re-making traditional songs, which may also contribute to their ongoing appeal. Kelly Clarkson sold over a million copies of her 2013 Christmas Album “Wrapped in Red,” which included her covers on many classic songs such as “White Christmas,” “Silent Night,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s a winning marketing combination to have current artists singing these beloved songs and a profitable opportunity for artists, and may actually decrease the motivation to invent new holiday tunes.
“They’re playing on nostalgia,” said Acosta-Ferezi on the topic of Christmas covers. Other artists like Justin Bieber or Ariana Grande have done similar things in recent years, putting their own personal touches on classic songs and adding more pop flair or “modern” techniques. For example, while Ariana Grande’s 2013 cover of “Santa Baby” kept the original lyrics, the song includes more modern vocal embellishments and a more pop influenced backing track.
It’s also important to note how religion might have impacted the significance and popularity of Christmas songs. Christmas is widely known as a Christian holiday and has been celebrated as such for years; the majority of the United States has long identified as Christian. Classic songs that were written for Christmas often have religious elements and themes. “Little Drummer Boy” is about a little boy’s visit to Jesus in the manger and “O Holy Night” is about the birth of Jesus. Had these songs been released today, in a country where religions have diversified and the population is overall more secular, one could wonder whether they would be as successful as they were in the eighteen or nineteen hundreds. Today, these songs are so ingrained in our culture the religious aspects are less readily apparent to the casual listener.
“I listen to songs that have religion as a topic in them and I just don’t really think about it,” said Miguel Huhndorf-Lima, a BHS senior and a musician. “Obviously there are different appeals to songs for different people. But if the song is catchy, they like it.”
For people who celebrate Christmas, consistent traditions and activities are part of the joy. Having something familiar to look forward to every year is part of the reason we celebrate holidays. Music is no exception, only adding to the nostalgic activities people enjoy every holiday season. It’s not that it’s impossible to create new Christmas songs, it’s just difficult to compete with the old favorites. Huhndorf-Lima agreed, stating, “And when people think about Christmas and when people want to get into the Christmas spirit, that’s where they go, right? They go to tradition.”