Why the Christmas-Song Canon Has a Baby-Boomer Bias

There's no conspiracy to recreate 1940s and 1950s childhoods. Rather, one era produced more enduring pop Christmas tunes than any other for social and technological reasons.

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White Christmas / Paramount Pictures

Titled simply “Tradition,” the popular web comic xkcd recently offered a theory about Christmas pop songs—specifically, the ones that never seem to go away. With a chart showing the years of release for the 20 most popular songs according to 2000-2009 radio airplay, the caption from Randall Munroe read, “Every year, American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ childhoods.” It’s a snappy-sounding idea, and indeed, all of the top 20 songs were published and first performed during the 1940s and 1950s. But it can’t be that simple, can it? Does the Christmas canon have a boomer bias, or are there other reasons why we can’t escape “White Christmas” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer?”

While it’s true that the majority of Christmas pop music played on mainstream radio stations was originally published and recorded around mid-century, and naturally the culture of that time will permeate these songs, that does not directly equate to a modern nostalgia for that era. The cultural work of holiday tradition-building often won’t let that happen. When we sing “Happy Birthday” multiple times per year, we’re not transported back to the 1893 Kentucky schoolhouse where the song originated. And when, say, a teenager today hears “Silver Bells” or “White Christmas,” odds are they’re thinking of recent Christmases, not of the 1951 Bob Hope film The Lemon Drop Kid or Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (odds are on Lady Gaga’s take on the latter during her recent Thanksgiving night special). For story-songs like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” which children perform annually, memories of Gene Autry’s 1949 and 1950 recordings of the tunes aren’t even in the equation, eliminated by the sheer force of repetition.

To be sure, many of these songs do hold a strong connection to the era in which they were recorded. It’s no coincidence that the boom in Christmas tunes came during World War II, when tens of thousands of American soldiers were abroad defending their country, no doubt longing for the simple warmth of home. Irving Berlin invested “White Christmas” with the sort of meterological longing that comes from living in Southern California, but troops picked up on the sentiment, making the song a classic in this regard. The same effect happened with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” first sung by Judy Garland in the film “Meet Me in St. Louis” to her sad little sister (though how many teens and 20-somethings only know the Christina Aguilera version?). But perhaps no song is more tied with the Second World War than the Bing Crosby-sung, undeniably melancholy “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” which was written in 1943 from the perspective of a soldier missing home. With the last of our soldiers recently returning from Iraq, this is one song that could certainly be reimagined for the current moment. Perhaps Kelly Clarkson fits the bill?

The 1940s and '50s are a crucial time for the formation of a popular Christmas canon for other, more technological and sociological reasons, as well. Commercial radio—a free alternative to buying records and sheet music—took off dramatically during the Great Depression. By the 1940s, radios were a default presence in most American homes. And by the late 1940s television was growing out of radio, and through the 1950s the pair set holiday living rooms around the country aglow with musical performances. The rise of rock and roll and the establishment of youth culture, starting in the mid-‘50s and continuing apace through the ‘60s, put a halt to the uniform dominance of the sweet, adult pop that was the default mass music for the first half of the 20th century, however. That’s part of why the canon of pop Christmas standards drops off precipitously after the 1950s, despite the efforts of professional hacks adapting this new form for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”—recorded by a 13-year old Brenda Lee in 1958—and “Jingle Bell Rock,” written by two admen and first recorded in 1957. Indeed, the style and structure of these two songs is certainly redolent of the early rock era, however much that may be dampened by subsequent cover versions and updates.

The historical reasons for the creation of musical canons also help explain why it’s so hard to add new songs to them. American society is split more thinly into demographic segments than ever before, we’ve got endless musical options on the Internet to split our attention spans, and big radio stations are loath to take chances on new or interesting music, in favor of tried-and-true tunes. So, no matter how great or popular they are—Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” Britney Spears’ “My Only Wish (This Year),” even the Boomer-era Hawaiian tune “ Mele Kalikimaka”—induction into the popular musical canon, even more so than that of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, requires the passage of time and that necessity (or bane) of holiday celebrations, infinite repetition. Christmas pop music might not automatically trigger nostalgia for the ‘40s and ‘50s, but it seems that the music of that era isn’t loosening its grip on Christmas anytime soon.