I’m dreaming of a bestseller: what makes Christmas songs stick?

We analyse the most popular festive songs to find that all we want for Christmas is mid-century nostalgia

Comment: Do they know it’s Christmas?! Why today’s meek festive pop lacks the crucial chaos element

When composer Irving Berlin finished writing White Christmas in 1940, he reportedly told his musical secretary: “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”

If musical greatness can be measured by record sales, he was correct. Recorded by Bing Crosby and released in 1942 on his compilation album Merry Christmas, White Christmas would go on to become the bestselling single of all time. The song is still one of our most-listened on the 24 and 25 December, more than 80 years later.

The longevity of White Christmas is not a one-off. The Guardian took every Christmas song that had charted in the UK Top 100 since 1952, and selected the 100 most popular of those on Spotify. Two-thirds were released at least 30 years ago.


But why are we still listening to the same old songs? According to Prof Joe Bennett, forensic musicologist at Berklee College of Music, the answer is nostalgia. Christmas “is a time for returning to where we came from” and that has an impact on the music, he says.

Bennett categorised our list of 100 Christmas songs using the same method he used in his 2017 paper, looking at the lyrical and musical themes.

The most recurrent lyrical categories were homely themes – related to family, open fires, gifts under the tree and coming home for Christmas – or party-related, such as dancing, mistletoe or being with friends. Common festive musical tropes included sleigh bells (found in 46% of songs) and tubular bells (found in 21%).

A throwback to the mid-20th century

The genres of Christmas songs are also rooted in nostalgia. More than half of our songs are in genres popular during the mid-20th century, with around a quarter in a style of pop influenced by the American record producer Phil Spector’s 1963 album “A Christmas Gift for You” (Spector was later convicted for murder in 2000s).

Even later artists and songs reference the mid-20th century. Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You, released in 1994, “is partly a throwback to the Phil Spector sound of the early 60s,” says Bennett. “It’s not really doing mid-90s pop. It’s doing 60s pop with mid-90s recording quality.”

Ed Sheeran and Elton John’s Merry Christmas, released last year, also alludes to Spector’s sound, while Michael Bublé, the king of the modern Christmas song, uses contemporary production techniques to hark back to the 1950s big-band sound.


The domination of older genres means more popular modern ones are left out.

“One of the fascinating things about Christmas music is the almost complete absence of hip-hop. It hardly appears in holiday playlists, despite being the world’s most popular musical form by most measures,” says Bennett.

There have been attempts to create hip-hop Christmas classics – perhaps most notably Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis, released in 1987 and included in our list. But these are rarely successful.

One successful example of a fresh take on a Christmas classic is the Jackson 5’s version of Santa Claus is Coming To Town. “That is pure pop disco,” says Bennett. “It updates an old song with a modern arrangement. It’s the opposite to the Mariah Carey approach, of applying a retro arrangement to a new song.”

Same songs, different artists

Another sign of the lasting influence of nostalgia over Christmas music is the fact many of the same songs are covered over and over again by different musicians – White Christmas has more than 20,000 versions listed on Spotify.

Some covers are more innovative than others, however. Using Spotify’s music classification algorithms, we found popular versions of Silent Night are more similar than versions of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town or Mary’s Boy Child.


There’s a musical explanation for this. Silent Night is a waltz – with a 3/4 time signature – and it is more difficult to increase the tempo or add energy to a waltz, says Bennett. Waltzes are generally rare in pop music, but are less rare among Christmas songs (they made up 6% of our list, with a further 8% of songs in 12/8 time).

Rise of the festive female artist

Although Christmas songs are a reminder of the past, the data also shows some changes through the decades.

Modern songs are increasingly likely to be sung by female artists. This is partly down to a rise in solo artists across the music industry in recent decades – and a decline in male-dominated band music.

“Record labels these days are much more comfortable investing in solo artists, as opposed to bands. This is probably ascribable to the decline of rock (and albums) and the rise of streaming (and singles), meaning that it’s economically lower risk to invest in a solo artist – and a lot of the solo artists are women,” says Bennett.


Spotify data also shows an increase in “danceability” over the years, with songs interpreted by female singers higher up in the score. Spotify classifies danceability based on “a combination of musical elements including tempo, rhythm stability, beat strength, and overall regularity”.

There has also been an increase in “energy” but a decrease in “acousticness”. This isn’t so remarkable – recording techniques and a rise in digital music means that these changes reflect the broad arc of modern music.

But what is remarkable, says Bennett, is that “we are still listening to songs from the 40s, 50s and 60s at Christmas time, which we don’t really do during the rest of the year. So the data does tell us something”.

He added: “It reminds us that these older songs are still culturally valued, whoever is singing them.”


Carmen Aguilar García, Michael Goodier, Lucy Swan and Pamela Duncan

The GuardianTramp

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