The Christmas song canon rarely changes and this year, Mariah Carey even hit No. 1 with one - from 1994

Originally posted Friday, December 27, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Good news about Christmas music: it’s great for a few weeks in November and December and now - poof! - it’s gone. (Unless you keep playing them on Spotify, but that’s another story...)

And here’s a prediction: in November, 2020, the same core 100 to 150 songs will be heard again, as they were heard in November 2000 and November 2010. 

Sure, the world keeps changing faster than you can say TikTok but the Christmas music canon still features plenty of songs from the 1940s, 50s and 60s by artists that otherwise would not be known by anybody under the age of 30: Dean Martin, Burl Ives, Gene Autry, Bing Crosby.

“It’s baked-in nostalgia,” said Jessica Besack, who programs Sirius/XM’s “Holly” channel, which focuses on modern pop Christmas hits by the likes of Colby Caillat and Gwen Stefani but includes classics as well because how could it not? “Collectively as a society, our social experience of Christmas is interwoven with these classic songs. This makes it incredibly difficult to introduce new songs into the genre.”

While current pop music is about what’s hot now and rarely welcomes artists once they hit 40, Christmas music is the opposite. It’s about familiarity, simple lyrics and, as this Washington Post story noted, a preponderance of sleigh bell sounds. 

“Christmas music adds the feeling of yearning we have this time of year for holidays of the past,” added Will Gara, a former producer for B98.5 and now a traffic reporter. “The magic of Christmas as a child, missing relatives who are no longer with us. Certain songs take me back to a simpler time in my life. Something everyone finds comfort in.”

Although current artists release original Christmas music every year and some radio stations will sample them, it’s rare for any to truly break through. Ariana Grande, for instance, really tried in 2014 to break out with “Santa Tell Me” but that song was barely a blip in 2019. 

The only new song from the past 20 years in the Mediabase 24/7 most played top 50 Christmas songs is Kelly Clarkson’s chipper “Underneath the Tree” at No. 35 from 2013.

And the last time a song really broke into the Christmas canon was 25 years ago: the now ubiquitous Mariah Carey earworm  “All I Want For Christmas is You.” 

And thanks to a marketing push, the song landed on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 for the very first time this year. It also received the most streams ever for a holiday song for the week ending December 19 at 54.5 million, according to Nielsen Music. 

“This song is not one of those things that decays year over year, with some old-style message,” told Dave Bakula, a senior analyst for Nielsen Music, to the New York Times. “It’s a simple, straight-ahead pop gem that just happens to be about Christmas.”

And Georgia peach Brenda Lee’s “Rockin ‘Around the Christmas Tree” - from 1958, mind you - reached its highest peak ever at No. 2. 

Here are the top 10 most played holiday hits of 2019, based on Mediabase 24/7/ radio airplay. 

1- “All I Want for Christmas Is You” - Mariah Carey (1994)

2- “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” - Brenda Lee (1958)

3- “Feliz Navidad” - Jose Feliciano (1970)

4- “Jingle Bell Rock” - Bobby Helms (1957)

5- “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas” Burl Ives (1965)

6- “Last Christmas” - Wham (1984)

7- “The Christmas Song” Nat King Cole (1946)

8- “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” - Andy Williams (1963)

9- “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” - Johnny Mathis (1951)

10- “Wonderful Christmastime” - Paul McCartney (1979)

And to show how things have not changed, here were the top 10 most played holiday songs from 2009:

1- “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” Burl Ives

2- “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” - Brenda Lee

3- “Jingle Bell Rock” - Bobby Helms” 

4- “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” - Andy Williams

5- ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You” - Mariah Carey

6- “The Christmas Song” Nat King Cole

7- “War Is Over/Happy Xmas” - John Lennon (14 in 2019)

8- “Jingle Bell Rock” - Hall & Oates (27 in 2019)

9 - “Feliz Navidad” Jose Feliciano

10 - “White Christmas” Bing Crosby (22 in 2019)

Billboard’s top 10 holiday songs, week ending 12/28/19

1- “All I Want for Christmas is You” Mariah Carey

2- “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” - Brenda Lee

3- “Have a A Holly Jolly Christmas” Burl Ives

4- “Jingle Bell Rock” - Bobby Helms

5- “It’s a Most Wonderful Time of the Year” - Andy Williams

6- “Last Christmas” - Wahm

7- “Feliz Navidad” - Jose Feliciano

8 - “Let It Snow” - Dean Martin 

9 - “The Christmas Song” Nat King Cole

10- ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” - Gene Autry

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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