How did Mariah Carey do it?
Her All I Want for Christmas Is You was released in 1994, and it has since become a holiday perennial. It’s now the most downloaded holiday single of all and has been No. 1 on the Billboard Holiday 100 for 31 weeks.
In the intervening quarter century, not one pop song–seriously, not one–has managed to accomplish that feat of joining Bing’s White Christmas and Nat’s The Christmas Song as tunes you are likely to hear every day when you turn on your streaming service or local Christmas music radio station.
It certainly wasn’t always this way.
The basic holiday-music canon was established by the early 1950s with the likes of Let It Snow, Rudolph, Frosty, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. But, in almost every year through the mid-60s, there was always room for one or two more.
Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms become a perennial in 1957; The Little Drummer Boy by the Harry Simeon Chorale and Run Rudolph Run by Chuck Berry in 1958; The Chipmunk Song in 1959; Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee in 1960; It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Andy Williams, Little Saint Nick by the Beach Boys and Do You Hear What I Hear? by Bing Crosby in 1963; and A Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives in 1964.
In the ensuing decades, more songs would sporadically join the canon. The Carpenters achieved the feat quickly with their 1970 single Merry Christmas, Darling, which they re-recorded for their 1978 Christmas album. John Lennon was actually protesting the Vietnam war when he wrote and recorded his standard “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” in 1971.
Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 live version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town was eventually released as a single in 1982 and is not going away anytime soon. The Eagles resurrected Charles Brown’s Please Come Home For Christmas in 1978 and made it a perennial. George Michael’s Wham! hit it big with Last Christmas in 1984, and it’s seemingly been covered by other artists every year since.
Joni Mitchell’s River (1971), on the other hand, took a long time to go from a beloved album cut on Blue to a much-covered Christmas favorite. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (1966) by Thurl Ravenscroft has gradually become a standard thanks to a TV special and two Grinch movies.
All of these songs are still played heavily in 2018, but today there seems to be little chance for a new song to join them in the permanent rotation. New Christmas albums get sampled, and radio stations will fill out their playlists with contemporary stars—Michael Bublé, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood—reinterpreting hoary old Christmas standards.
But if this year holds true to form, no new Christmas composition will become a bona fide hit.
There are a variety of possible reasons: Radio itself is not the cultural force it used to be; the public isn’t interested in new music at Christmas, preferring to listen to the old comfortable standards; or the new Christmas songs simply don’t measure up to the old ones.
Yet the artists keep trying. Success means that you will be remembered long after your career—or even your life—is over.
How many of us would remember Bobby Helms(Jingle Bell Rock) or Eartha Kitt (Santa Baby) or Vince Guaraldi (A Charlie Brown Christmas) were it not for their immortal Christmas songs? Would Darlene Love have enjoyed a spectacular late-career comeback were it not for her magnificent Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)?
There are a few candidates trying to find room at the inn. Usually, a song takes a few years to join the canon, as witnessed by the songs below.
Colbie Caillat’s Mistletoe (2007) seems to garner a bit more airplay each season, though it’s a long way from becoming a standard. Train’s Shake Up Christmas (2015) is a left-field rouser that seems to appeal to the indie-rock crowd. Kelly Clarkson released a strong Christmas album in 2013 that has yet to fade into oblivion, with the title song Wrapped In Red, popping up on playlists now and then.
In 2014 Ariana Grande wrote and recorded the fun, frothy Santa Tell Me, which could eventually break through. Sia’s 2017 album Everyday Is Christmas has spawned two songs that are becoming familiar, if not ubiquitous: Candy Cane Lane and Santa’s Coming For Us.
And, for better or worse, there’s Michael Bublé, the neo-crooner whose 2011 album Christmas gets widely sampled each year, though it eschews any new compositions for soft-peddled versions of holiday chestnuts – including a spectacularly wrong-headed snooze through Christmas (Baby Please Come Home.)
The most likely candidate for success in the 2018 holiday sweepstakes is Katy Perry’s Cozy Little Christmas. It’s also the most calculating. Kicked off with a bouncy piano figure and sleigh bells, the song swells to typically grandiose proportions as Katy rejects luxurious presents for “a cozy little Christmas here with you.”
(“Mr. Santa, take the day off, get a massage, cause we got this one all under control. A little whiskey, we’re getting’ frisky, slow dancing to Nat King Cole…you can’t buy this feeling.”)
Except that, to listen to Cozy Little Christmas, you have to buy it (from Amazon) – or hope to hear it on the radio. It’s not available on YouTube or music streaming services like Pandora or Spotify. Like the popular 45s back in the day, it costs $1.29.
It’s such an old-fashioned idea, it just might work.