A lot of these songs have been popular for decades, but music scholars and industry experts note there isn’t just one formula behind their success. While the most well-known songs feature some similar qualities — themes of nostalgia or simple lyrics and repetition that make them easy to remember — various factors play a role in making a holiday song a lasting hit.
“What you see if you look into the history of the songs, is that the songs themselves usually tie to something else, whether that is a tradition, or a film, or a certain era — a certain feeling that the entire country has, or that they’re somehow tied to some really big stars” says music journalist Brian Mansfield. “It’s usually a combination of events around the song itself that makes something a classic.”
“It not only was a No. 1 song during Christmas of the year it was released, 1942, it was No. 1 next year in 1943. And it continued to show up on the bestseller charts for years afterwards,” Starr says, adding that other songwriters took note.
“Write a good secular holiday tune, one that is not limited by very specifically religious imagery in the words, and you might have a perennial hit.”
“The main thing with Christmas music and holiday music is it’s the one time in music that the older you are, the cooler you are,” Trust says, highlighting that many songs are “passed down from generation to generation.”
“It’s a real bonding point where a grandparent and a grandchild both have grown up with ‘Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,'” he says.
Plus, holiday songs tend to be happy compositionally and thematically, though there are some exceptions.
“As happy as ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ by Mariah sounds, it’s really a song of longing,” says Trust, noting that songs with added “layers” draw listeners in.
Movie tie-ins, star power, church … and streaming play a part
Though the album featured familiar covers, as expected, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” became the rare post-mid-century original holiday hit. Listeners were given “a familiar sound in a brand new song with an artist who is on top of her game,” Mansfield says.
“A lot of the records we think of as Christmas standards, you can tie them to being in a ‘Home Alone’ or ‘Die Hard’ or something like that,” says Mansfield. “You need something in the larger culture that attaches to your song.”
Meanwhile, “Mary, Did You Know?” — which has been covered by groups like Pentatonix — “hung around the Christian music market, began to get sung in holiday programs at churches,” says Mansfield, adding that as those who sang it in church grew up and became artists themselves, they recorded the song.
“About 20 years in, you started seeing all these different people cover it, and it moved out of the church and into the mainstream,” he says.
“Holiday music is really big on streaming every year,” Trust says. “Without that big support from streaming, we might not see some [music] doing quite as well on the charts.”
When novelty songs and ‘alternative’ tunes join the holiday canon
Part of that is because Christmas and the holiday season overall are synonymous with kids, giving presents and family time, Starr says.
“We may be willing to put up — even embrace silliness as part of a holiday aesthetic — that we wouldn’t necessarily welcome in other ways,” he says.
Other times, artists associated with genres not normally linked to holiday music, will attempt a new seasonal release or do a cover of something tried-and-true. New Wave band The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” (1981) still makes the rounds every holiday season. Indie bands like The Raveonettes have released entire Christmas EPs.
“No matter what style of music you do… we’re all people, we all like the holidays,” says Trust, noting that such recordings offer artists a chance to do something fun and new — either by recording a Christmas standard within the constraints of their genre, or by stepping outside their comfort zones and recording a Christmas ballad, even if their performance style is otherwise loud and angry.
Meanwhile, Mansfield points out that the novelty of songs like “Christmas Wrapping” is very different from those that are more explicitly goofy.
“The Waitresses’ record is a good record, it’s a good story — it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s got interesting production,” he says. “I don’t think you get tired of that the way you get tired of some others.”
The ‘new classics’ and the future of holiday music
Taylor Swift has released original tunes like “Christmas Tree Farm,” while a cappella group Pentatonix has released multiple Christmas albums featuring a mix of covers and original compositions.
Songwriters like Elizabeth Chan — who has written more than 1,000 songs but is selective about the ones she releases — remain determined to make new holiday music that strikes a chord with listeners. She’s already started to accomplish that, as seen with a couple who used her song “Ghost of Christmas Past” for their first dance at their wedding before the groom was deployed over the holidays.
“You don’t know how people will connect,” says Chan, adding that she sometimes receives YouTube videos from people using her music for performances like ballets or figure skating tournaments. “Being interpreted so beautifully by people who love the song is just the biggest honor in the world. And I know that I’ve done my job right because my whole job in writing Christmas music is to bring people together.”
Ultimately, there may still be room for surprise holiday hits to get added to our annual playlists — as Starr points out, there is no explicit formula that determines what listeners will latch onto next. After all, even the 20th century songs considered “standards” today weren’t necessarily expected to have that kind of lasting impact.
So stay tuned — the next “White Christmas” may already be out there.