Styles & Forms | Christmas Songs | Popular & Novelty

Being perched at the top of the charts on 25 December has represented a prestigious achievement for musicians since the dawn of the pop era, while the shopping frenzy of the festive period makes it one of the most potentially profitable times to release a record.

It wasn’t always that way: the original Yuletide songs were church carols that endure today. But Christmas music was changed immeasurably in the 1920s and 1930s when the commercialization of the period, particularly in America, saw Christian references increasingly give way to snowmen, sleigh-bells, and the Coca-Cola-sanctioned Santa Claus.

Idealistic nostalgia pieces such as Dick Smith & Felix Bernard’s ‘Winter Wonderland’ (1934) and light-hearted ditties like Gene Autry’s ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ (1949) reflected this shift and were covered countless times in the following decades. But the definitive example of this new, secular breed of Christmas song, and still the best-selling single of all time, is Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’.

Written by the great composer Irving Berlin for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, this unmatched slice of seasonal schmaltz was first performed by Crosby on his radio show on Christmas Day, 1941. As the world’s most popular entertainer poured his mellifluous baritone over a backing of strings, woodwind and festive chimes, there could be only one outcome: No. 1. The song repeated the feat every year for the next four years and has now sold in excess of 50 million copies around the world, a total that is highly unlikely to be matched.

Spector Spices Up The Formula

Once Crosby and Berlin had set the template for the Christmas classic, those who followed them ran the constant risk of falling into cliché. But, in 1963, the virtuoso producer Phil Spector consummately avoided that pitfall on his A Christmas Gift For You LP. With a string of standards from ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ to ‘Silent Night’, Spector added a twist with his Wall of Sound recording techniques and an exciting roster of predominantly black pop singers including The Ronettes, The Crystals and Darlene Love. Popular material, symphonic orchestration and soulful vocals were combined to sublime effect. Spector’s Yuletide stock rose further in 1973 when he co-produced John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Merry Xmas (War Is Over)’, a rare example of a Christmas protest song.

Since then, festive charts have been dominated by jaunty novelty songs like Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ (1973), charity efforts (Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, 1984), traditional revivals (numerous releases by Johnny Mathis), returns to Christian themes (Cliff Richard’s ‘Saviour’s Day’, 1990) and modern updates (Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ and The Backstreet BoysChristmas Album, 1999). The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale Of New York’, on the other hand, was completely unsentimental. Lines like ‘You scumbag, you maggot/You cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it’s our last’ were worlds away from Crosby’s restrained civility.


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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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