Well, Christmas is almost here. And by now, many of you have heard all those inescapable Christmas songs that you just can’t avoid if you turn on the car radio or do any Christmas shopping. What is it about Christmas that inspires so many songs, (which, in turn, get covered by so many people that you’ll likely hear different versions of the same song within the same hour)?
I really can’t answer that one. But what I do know is that the Christmas songs we hear on the radio fall into several different subgenres. I’ll try to describe just a few of them, though I’m sure there will be plenty of subgenres I didn’t think of. Feel free to mention those subgenres in the comments if you like.
First, there’s the ‘anticipatory’ song. This is a song about anticipating the coming of Christmas. These come in many varieties, and are set at various different points during the holiday season.
“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” clearly belongs early in ‘the holiday season’, around Thanksgiving and the first week of December. On December 20th (the day this blog installment was originally posted), it doesn’t make sense anymore, since it’s no longer beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The decorations have been up in all the stores, malls, suburban neighborhoods, and so forth for weeks now.
On the other end of the scale, we have ‘The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)’, made famous by Nat King Cole. This song is clearly set on Christmas Eve, which (if you’re seeing the holiday season as one big month-long musical that we’re all in) is the last day that songs of the ‘anticipatory’ subgenre make sense. Other songs of this subgenre include ‘Silver Bells’, ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’, and a few others that slip my mind. These can be set anywhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, and all are about people singing of what a wonderful time they’ll be having when Christmas Day comes.
Then we have songs about the religious significance of the holiday. Songs such as ‘Silent Night’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, ‘O Holy Night’, ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’, and ‘We Three Kings’ are all, in one way or another, about the miracle of Christ’s birth. And they’re good for just about any point in the holiday season.
Then we have songs about Santa Claus. ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’, ‘Up on the Housetop’, ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas’, and of course ‘Santa Claus is Coming To Town’ all celebrate the man in the red suit whom parents give all the credit to for all the Christmas presents. And of course there’s ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’, probably the best known song about reindeer aside from ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’.
After that, songs about Santa start to get a little weird. I’ve already discussed ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ in last year’s Christmas blogs, but it bears repeating that if the Santa the kid saw Mommy kissing was NOT Daddy in disguise, then it probably would NOT be a laugh if Daddy had seen Mommy kissing Santa last night. And then we have things like ‘Santa Baby’ (made famous by Eartha Kitt) which overlap with the next subgenre…
Another subgenre is what Dr. Demento (the radio show host and collector of novelty songs who gave Weird Al Yankovic his first big exposure) has referred to as the ‘gimme’ song. These are songs about people telling what they want for Christmas. ‘The Chipmunk Song’ is a good example of this, as is the aforementioned ‘Santa Baby’. After that, things get weirder, with stuff like Gayla Peevey’s ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’.
Then, there are a number of songs about winter and snow that don’t mention Christmas or Santa at all, but we hear all the time in December anyway. Songs like ‘Jingle Bells’, ‘Sleigh Ride’, ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Let it Snow’, and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ are all about snow and the fun activities winter gives us. And for some reason, even though winter goes on for two more months after Christmas, all these songs end up going back in storage with the Christmas decorations after New Years Day. This happens despite the fact that there’s nothing in the songs themselves tying them in specifically to the December holidays.
I suppose songs like ‘White Christmas’ are ways of bridging the gap between ‘winter/snow’ songs and Christmas songs.
Aside from these, we’ve got the general ‘Merry Christmas’ songs such as ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, ‘Deck the Halls’, and my personal favorite of this subgenre, ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ (made famous by Burl Ives and its inclusion in the Rankin Bass ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ special). I think I like it because of the line “I don’t know if there’ll be snow, but have a cup of cheer”. Since where I live, a white Christmas is never certain (and I’ve had more non-white Christmases than white Christmases) the sentiment that we should have a Merry Christmas whether there’s snow or not is a welcome one as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, I think this covers many of the subgenres we hear on the mainstream radio during the Christmas season. There may be a few subgenres I didn’t think of, so once again, feel free to mention them in the comments.
Here’s wishing everyone out there a happy holiday season.
When originally published, this article received the following comments:
9:34 AM on December 20, 2013 Great breakdown. Though if I may offer a suggestion for a subgenre you missed, the “anti-Christmas” song, where the singer expresses disdain/disinterest in the holiday, or plays up the season’s darker aspects. A few examples I can think of are Barenaked Ladies’ “Green Christmas”, The Kinks’ “Father Christmas”, and that eternal classic “Fairytale of New York”
8:53 AM on December 20, 2013 Though you may have room for them in the categories you set up, I think there needs to be room for humorous Christmas songs, the songs that view the holiday with irreverence. “You Ain’t Gettin’ Shit for Christmas” and “Merry Christmas from the Family” are a couple of my favorites. Just a thought. Good work
12:01 PM on December 20, 2013
Jim Bevan says…
Great breakdown. Though if I may offer a suggestion for a subgenre you missed, the “anti-Christmas” song, where the singer expresses disdain/disinterest in the holiday, or plays up the season’s darker aspects. A few examples I can think of are Barenaked Ladies’ “Green Christmas”, The Kinks’ “Father Christmas”, and that eternal classic “Fairytale of New York”
Well, I was focusing mostly on the songs that get a lot of airplay in the ‘all Christmas songs till at least December 26th’ mainstream radio. As far as ‘Anti-Christmas’ songs and ‘humorous’ songs go, I could do a whole other blog post about those, and list a few notable examples and personal favorites.
I did mention a few ‘humorous’ songs in the article, but those are ones that get a lot of mainstream airplay. At least in my area. Songs that may be inescapable in one area might not be quite as inescapable in others.
11:24 AM on December 24, 2013 Hi Chris Lang. Excellent synopsis of the various “sub genres,” for the traditional and non-traditional Christmas songs. I’d add one more genre to this: The Christmas/pop/rock mash up.
While I don’t have the names of the artists, a good example of this would be one of the Beatles tribute bands that do a version of “Santa Claus is coming to town, but use the instrumentation and music from “When I’m 64.” It’s brilliant! Another guy takes the Black Sabbath song “Iron Man” and changes the lyrics to tribute Santa Claus “I am Santa Claus.” Google them, or youtube them, and you’ll see what I mean, my friend. Peace.
EDIT July 30th, 2014: These comments inspired me to write a follow-up article, Unconventional Christmas song subgenres, which I posted a day or two later.