Editor’s note: This article was written by Austin McLain.
Being one of the oldest, most recognizable, yet ultimately niche genres, Christmas music faces the duality of being ever-evolving and inherently connected to centuries-old traditions. Most of this music typically employs themes ranging from those based around religious aspects of the holiday, Christmas pastimes, winter themes and folklore. The origins of Christmas music date back to the 4th century beginning with Latin Christian hymns based around the Nativity such as “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” or “Jesus, Light of All the Nations.”
It was not until the 13th-16th century that Christmas carols as we know them today were adopted into the canon of Christmas music. Many of the carols from this time such as “O Christmas Tree” and “The 12 Days of Christmas” are still sung today almost 300 years later. Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, Classical music began to incorporate Christmas themes into symphonies such as Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” the latter of which still generates 40% of major American ballet companies’ annual revenue. Some of the best known Christmas songs were popularized by post-war crooners such as Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Dean Martin. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is not only the best-selling Christmas song of all time but also the best-selling single of all time. Although traditional carols come back year after year to top the charts, more modern takes on holiday music can also find their way into the “essentials.” The best example of this being Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart 25 years after its release.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Christmas music without mentioning Mariah Carey. She released her Christmas album Merry Christmas in 1994, which has been certified six times platinum. The album introduced the song “All I Want for Christmas Is You” which has gone on to become one of the most beloved Christmas songs, the best selling single by a female artist of all time and also one of the best selling singles of all time, having sold an estimated 16 million copies. The song reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2019, 25 years after its release.
One of the earliest examples of commercial success of Christmas music came with Bing Crosby’s release of “White Christmas” in 1942, where it quickly became one of the best known Christmas songs ever recorded. The song gained additional notoriety by being featured in the movie Holiday Inn. The release and subsequent success of “White Christmas” was a groundbreaking moment for Christmas music as the music industry had previously not considered the commercial value of songs based around Christmas traditions. Dave Marsh and Steve Propes wrote: “‘White Christmas’ changed Christmas music forever, both by revealing the huge potential market for Christmas songs and by establishing the themes of home and nostalgia that would run through Christmas music evermore.” “White Christmas” has gone on to become the best selling single of all time with an estimated 60 million copies sold.
Another key player during the early commercial success of this genre was Nat King Cole, whose name has become synonymous with the holiday season. His many recordings of “The Christmas Song” in the 1940s-1960s helped to secure him a spot in the canon of holiday tunes. The song was actually written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells in July of 1945 in an attempt to distract themselves from the heat of the summer.
In later decades, different genres and styles found their way into the holiday repertoire. Elvis Presley’s version of “Blue Christmas” became a Christmas staple after its release in 1957. The song is a great example of Elvis’s ability to mix Country, early Rock and Blues music. Elvis’s version of “Blue Christmas” appealed to a wider audience than previous recordings of the song because of the inclusion of “blues notes” especially in the backing vocals of The Jordanaires.
- Spotify’s Christmas Hits playlist exhibits a wide variety of Christmas favorites old and new from artists ranging from Ariana Grande to Stevie Wonder.
- Classic Christmas Favorites is a great playlist that highlights the most popular Christmas songs from years past. Artists such as Eartha Kitt, Gene Autry and Chuck Berry are featured on this playlist.
- Christmas songs have traditionally been a big part of country music. Spotify’s Country Christmas highlights many of the most popular Christmas songs in the Country genre. Country Christmas features Streaming Promotions clients Dylan Scott and For King & Country.
- Christmas Hymns — Choir by curator Matthew Abate features many traditional Christmas hymns and carols in a choral style heard at Christmas church services.
The audience of this genre is unique in the way that it’s targeted towards and consumed by almost everyone at some point in the holiday season. Christmas music is heard annually in stores, restaurants and on the radio around early November until the end of Christmas. You can always count on Christmas television specials and movie marathons as well as Christmas concerts and musicals (in any year besides this one). Some radio stations even convert to playing strictly Christmas music during the holiday season. Notably, Christmas music is being listened to much earlier in 2020 than in previous years. An article by the BBC notes that Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” has returned to Spotify’s UK Top 50 a full two weeks earlier than 3 years ago.
Christmas music has a large yearly audience on Spotify throughout the holiday season. In 2020, Spotify users worldwide have started listening to Christmas music much earlier than most years. The general consensus is that listeners are seeking the cheer and happiness of the holiday season in a year dominated by a global pandemic. At the time this article was written, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is #26 and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” is positioned at #45 on Spotify’s United States Top 50. In the UK, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is positioned at #12 on Spotify’s United Kingdom Top 50. Wham!, Brenda Lee, Michael Bublé, and Ariana Grande all have Christmas songs in the Top 50 as well. It’s probable that the necessary absence of some of the holiday traditions this year is leading people to listen earlier and at home instead of traditional get-togethers and events. This is leading to a surge in listenership of the widest variety of editorial and independent playlists on Spotify, many of which are updated annually.
The holiday season inspires listeners and artists alike to consume and create Christmas cheer. Our team at Streaming Promotions is excited to represent many artists who are creating new content and taking their own spin on the Christmas catalogue.
For King & Country are a duo that have consistently risen in popularity in the Christian music genre the last decade. Having won 4 Grammy awards and 7 Dove awards, they now have released their Christmas album A Drummer Boy Christmas. The album features their original Christmas song “Heavenly Host” along with guest appearances by NEEDTOBREATHE on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and Gabby Barrett on “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”
Six-time Dove award and Grammy award winner Francesca Battistelli released her much anticipated second Christmas album This Christmas in October of 2020. The album includes traditional spiritual Christmas songs as well as seasonal favorites. This Christmas features several originals including Battistelli’s chart-topping single, “Messiah”, her popular rendition of “Marshmallow World” and her powerful new single, “Behold Him.”
Country artist Dylan Scott lends his recognizable vocals to his first Christmas LP, Merry Christmas. The album features the holiday favorites “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Frosty The Snowman,” “Mary, Did You Know?” and more.
Jackie Evancho gained worldwide fame at the age of 10 with her debut on America’s Got Talent. With the success of her O Holy Night EP, Evancho became the youngest solo artist to go platinum in the US, the youngest top-10 debut artist in US history, and also the best selling debut artist of 2010. In the last decade, she has released 7 full length albums including two Christmas albums. This year, Evancho returned with her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s modern Christmas standard “River.”
An on-the-rise Canadian artist mixing soul, country and pop, Carolina East recently charted on Canadian Country radio with her single “Soaked in Whisky.” She won the MusicNL Country Artist of the Year, received a nomination for ECMA Indigenous Artist of the Year, and was one of eight semi-finalists in Sirius XM’s Top of the Country competition. With her album Home for the Holidays, Carolina East showcases her vocal versatility with Christmas songs ranging from “O Holy Night” to “Blue Christmas.”
Another artist worth mentioning is multi-instrumentalist and singer Charleene Closshey. A classically trained musician since an early age, Closshey has played violin with artists such as Josh Groban, Charlie Daniels and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Her album Christmas Time is Here features Christmas classics “Ave Maria” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Along with her musical accomplishments, Charleene Closshey also has scored and starred in the films No Postage Necessary and An Evergreen Christmas.