History of Christmas Music


Every year as the end of November draws near, turn on the radio, open Spotify, or walk into any retail store, and familiar yuletide tunes will greet you. These festive songs often spark memories of the past and make us nostalgic for home. And we can categorize them into two distinct styles: Carols and more modern secular songs.

Carols often predate the 20th century and relate to the birth of Jesus. Though there are non-religious exceptions such as “Jingle Bells” or “12 Days of Christmas.”

Modern secular songs, mainly from the 20th century, highlight the anticipation of the season’s comforts and joys, gifts, traditions, homecoming, and loved ones. They are performed by everyone from Rock and Roll singers (Elvis), to pop stars (WHAM!), to big band crooners (Bing Crosby).

A musicologist named Joe Bennett analyzed dozens of Christmas songs and found some stylistic commonalities across all Christmas music. Ninety percent is about nostalgia. Unsurprisingly, words like “snow,” “Santa,” “love,” “home,” and “cold” are common. Musically, the genre tends to be written in major key, occasionally switching to minor. Featuring 4/4 time and 115 beats per minute, and of course, sleigh bells.

A perfect example of many of these qualities can be found in the track “Retro and Positive Christmas” by composer Play Again from the Ukraine, which wastes no time launching in the ever-familiar bells of Christmas time.

Where did Christmas music originate?

Across the cultural history of Christmas, numerous antecedents such as Saturnalia from the Romans, Yule from Scandinavian, and nativity and Pagan customs from across Europe coalesced during the Renaissance era. (Spanning from the 14th to the 17th century). In the process, music came to be associated with festivities and heartened their celebrations. Some cite early examples like carols contributed in the works of an English chaplain named John Awdlay in the mid-15th century or a Finnish songbook with carols published around 1582. However, it was throughout the 1800s that well-known (religious) songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Holy Night,” “The 12 Days of Christmas”, and O Christmas Tree first emerged to celebrate the ever more popular holiday.


How did Christmas music become popular?

The first boost of societal popularity came in 1867 when John Stainer published Christmas Carols New & Old. The music collection cataloged, tweaked, and included old and emerging contemporary songs. In the process, it created something of an official canon of holiday songs.

That canon received a second, more substantial, boost in the early 20th century with the release of an influential work called The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928 and the mass adoption of radios and record players. The latter further enabled people to fall in love with Christmas music beyond churches, living room pianos, or snowy doorsteps.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, radio and records, along with their eager consumers, enabled a wave of American composers, lyricists, and singers to usher in a new Golden age of Christmas (non-secular) music. The beauty and customs of the season inspired an abundance of songs, from magical to humorous to melancholy. However, it’s often those tunes with an upbeat jingle jangle that so readily remind us of the pleasures and magic of Christmas. For example, something like composer FxProSound’s 11-second “Christmas Appear Logo” tune.

Throughout the Great Depression and WWII, songs like “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow,” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” invaded radio airwaves. Thanks to the strong desire for goodwill and better times, these songs were eagerly received and quickly became genre canon.

The portrayal of holiday customs and traditions in the popular mediums of film and television further embedded holiday tunes into the collective spirit. It ushered in a Golden Age of Christmas music that evolved with every subsequent musician and continues to build today.

Case in point, Mariah Carey earns about $2.5 million per year just from “All I Want For Christmas” alone!


Where can you listen to Christmas music now?

Starting sometime after Halloween, often mid-November, places like SiriusXM, KOST 103.5 in Los Angeles, 106.7 Lite FM in New York, and Sunny 99.1 Houston offer dedicated Christmas listening. Shopping malls and big-box stores play holiday music to create a festive atmosphere as you shop. Spotify offers no shortage of Christmas music tailored to your preferred style. TV commercials, social media ads, and Instagram stories will all feature Christmas music this time of year. Church choirs, acapella groups, carolers, and musicians continue to partake for those looking for a more local experience. Then, of course, popular musicians write music all the time to challenge best-selling Christmas artists like Michael Bublé and Pentatonix.



Tips for using Christmas music in your creative projects

    1. Don’t be afraid to play with the classics to suit your project needs. One example is how you use an existing, popular Christmas tune. Some films have done that by using holiday music ironically in comedies or ominously in horror films. Another example is tinkering with a song’s musical arrangement to adapt it to your needs. What can that look like? Consider how composer STMUSIC renders “Deck the Halls” into something that sounds far more epic than its traditional incarnation.
    2. While it’s good to consider out-of-the-box ways to use Christmas music, it’s no accident that producers use much of it to evoke what it has always meant: joy. It makes most of us feel good to hear it. So it’s perhaps most ideal for projects intended to make audiences get the warm fuzzies. Explore 11,655 results for Upbeat Christmas music in the Pond5 Music collection.
    3. Be sure to pay close attention to the musical qualities of whatever holiday music you select. Notably, it is key and tempo. Many Christmas songs have a pretty fast pace. Therefore if you are editing images to music, you’ll want to be careful they sync well.

If you’re interested in adding Christmas music to your next project, a Pond5 music subscription gives you access to original Christmas music tracks, including music from the artists we’ve highlighted here and more of the world’s top musicians.

Visit the Pond5 Playlist to explore more niche and unexpected music. Each month will feature a different genre, and a new free track is available for your next project!