In any year, Hollywood creates several hundred new films, networks churn out
dozens of new TV series, and the music industry releases several thousand new
songs. Yet when it comes to Christmas music, we dial up the same traditional
melodies year after year. Curiously, the good old days for holiday pop music
seem to have occurred during a 20-year stretch, beginning in the early 1940s.
Much of the American Christmas music tradition took root during World War
II, a period that saw the release of “Holiday Inn” (1942), in which
Crosby first sang Irving Berlin’s heart-string tugging “White Christmas.” It
was a time when live music ruled the radio networks, giving prominence to pop-standard
stars of the time, who recorded the songs that remain popular today as holiday
classics. Soldiers far from home, and families awaiting their return, shared
these tunes that stressed home, hearth and family. Back then, most people heard
the same radio shows and saw the same movies. It was all a shared experience,
quite unlike with today’s fragmented media.
The war era was a golden age of holiday spirit, not only for Christmas music,
but also for the holiday films still cherished at this time of year—“It’s
a Wonderful Life,” multiple versions of “A Christmas Carol,” “Miracle
on 34th Street” and many etceteras. It was a time of relative innocence
that many folks regard with a sense of deep nostalgia.
In the 1950s there was a burst of pop holiday creations, such as “Rockin’ Around
the Christmas Tree,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Jingle
Bell Rock.” These too are staples on the 2012 holiday playlists.
It’s hard to imagine that today anyone would write such a simplistic
ditty as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which first appeared in
story form in 1939 as part of a printed promotion for Montgomery Ward department
stores. Ten years later, songwriter Johnny Marks—who was also responsible
for “Holly Jolly Christmas”—converted it to the tune that Gene
Autry would record, selling two million copies in 1949. Today, it remains an
indelible favorite, the second-biggest holiday hit behind “White Christmas.”
Contemporary artists still record new holiday albums each year. Yet these
contain almost exclusively tunes from the golden age. The recent release by the
country-pop trio Lady Antebellum, for example, includes just one new song, the
title track “On This Winter’s Night,” plus 11 covers of surefire
favorites including “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943), “Have
Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1943) and “Blue Christmas” (1948).
Rolling Stone asked its readers to pick the greatest Christmas song of all
time, and they came up with the more than three-decades-old “Happy Xmas
(War Is Over)” by John Lennon. The same year, 1979, Paul McCartney wrote
and recorded “Wonderful Christmastime” which, according to Forbes,
has earned him roughly $500,000 every year since.
Despite the potential payoff, newly composed holiday music is rare. Mariah
Carey’s 1994 release “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is one
of the few monster holiday hits in recent decades. The song ranks highest among
all digital downloads of Christmas music since 2003, but in second place is “The
Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” from 1958.
A generation that wouldn’t recognize the cars, can’t fathom the
fashions, and might never buy other music of the 1940s is in the shopping malls
again this season, humming along with Gene Autry. Would they ever imagine that
he was known as “the singing cowboy” and often performed with a guitar
Our special fondness for decades-old holiday music seems immune to forces
that change almost everything else around us. Now that’s a holly jolly
(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.