December is here, and that means we’re only a few weeks away from Christmas. The festive season comes with its fair share of traditions, from putting up trees to exchanging gifts. One of those traditions is listening to Christmas music. Yet every year, we listen to the same old tunes – you’d be hard-pressed to reach 2022 without hearing a bit of Slade or Mariah Carey. Very few newer songs ever break through into our Christmas playlists but, every year, people grumble about the same old songs. So what’s going on – why don’t we listen to new Christmas music?
Older songs also benefit from the inherent feeling of nostalgia that comes with Christmas.
If you think about Christmas songs, what comes to mind? Whatever you think of, there’s likely to be one thing in common – all the songs that we associate with Christmas are (to varying degrees) old. Researching this article, I looked up a lot of Christmas song lists, and you rarely see anything from this millennium. In a RadioX piece that looked at which festive tunes have been played the most, the most recent pick was East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’, and that came out in 1994. That’s nearly 30 years old.
This is not to say that newer artists have failed to have hits with Christmas songs. Kylie Minogue rode up the charts with ‘Santa Baby’ in 2000, and Sam Smith had great success with ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. Michael Bublé always has tons of Christmas hits, but much like these examples, they’re normally covers of older songs (and their big band arrangements evoke the music scene of the 1940s too). The only modern example I could find of a genuinely new Christmas song with a decent amount of love was Leona Lewis’ ‘One More Sleep’. The 2013 track reached number two in the singles download charts.
Most of the Christmas tunes we listen to come from the generation before us, so our Christmas flops may be our children’s festive favourites.
Older songs also benefit from the inherent feeling of nostalgia that comes with Christmas. The biggest-selling song of all time is ‘White Christmas’, a tune about Christmases in the past, and it evokes that sense of imagined happy childhood memories in its lyrics. Songs like ‘Fairytale of New York’ or ‘Last Christmas’ were part of our Christmas celebrations growing up, and so any nostalgia for the season also links to nostalgia for these tunes. Much of your musical sense of Christmas will have been shaped by your parents listening to these songs.
However, employing a nostalgic bent and filling your song with sleigh bells and major keys isn’t enough in itself. In 2017, British songwriters Harriet Green and Steve Anderson teamed up with a musicologist, Dr Joe Bennett, to create “the happiest Christmas song” ever. They analysed the recurring elements of popular Christmas songs and then created a song that followed the exact formula that supposedly made these tunes work. However, it didn’t really work – the song failed to enter the charts that year and has certainly not stuck around as an earworm.
Perhaps it’s just the case that new Christmas songs take a while to really establish themselves. Most of the Christmas tunes we listen to come from the generation before us, so our Christmas flops may be our children’s festive favourites. If you look at something like Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, it only reached number one for the first time in the US in 2019 – 25 years after its release. This suggests that it takes years for a song to become part of the Christmas canon, and that the music we listen to is the music that is already well-established. For a song to really take hold, it needs to be repeated a lot, year on year. A recent festive tune simply hasn’t had the time.
Successful Christmas songs could still be written – they just need to appeal to a broad spectrum of people and be played often enough, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t happen in the future. Who knows what music the kids of tomorrow will associate with Christmas? But it’s also probable that the old tunes will remain popular because they’re now part of our traditions. Don’t shy away from the classics, but if you find a new song you like, share it far and wide – that could be the first step towards making it a new Christmas essential.
For a mix of the best Christmas songs old and new, check out The Boar‘s very own Christmas playlist below!