How Christmas records took over the world

Christmas records have a special place in the history of recorded music. Not only have they been around since the very start of recording, but their special ideals – and, yes, their commercial appeal – have seen them spread around the world and into the nostalgic conciousness of millions. Welcome to Records.Christmas – a website dedicated entirely to their fascinating story.

Phonograph Cylinders

Phonograph cylinders. Photo: Jonathunder CC BY-SA

In 1889, commercial recording was born, when Edison started selling pre-recorded wax cylinders. And it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Christmas record was born along with it. The very first one, recorded in september of that year, was “Banjo Jingle” – a version of Jingle Bells – by banjo player William B. Lomas, who went under the stage name Will Lyle. No copies of it are thought survive.

In the century and a quarter since, recorded Christmas has followed the history recorded music along its tortuous journey forward. Through new technology, to the far reaches of the world, across different musical cultures and through eras with different values and ideals. It has been deeply religious and highly secular, deathly serious and full of jokey novelty. It has reached back a millennium and more, in a flight to eras gone long before the idea of recording, putting to groove folk carols passed down through generations and the finest art music of the most refined composers. But it has also constantly innovated, following pop trends, going off on unstable new tangents and occasionally even breaking new ground.

And yet despite all this diversity, the best recorded Christmas music has always embodied a unique set of values, seemingly constant in the face of time, not really like any of the eras it has passed. Standard music criticism struggles to capture it. This is music where self-distance is no virtue, nor abrasiveness, nor intellectual subtext. On the flip side, fussy arrangements, sentimental longing and child-like emotions, often scorned the rest of the year, are reimagined as things of beauty.

Elvis' Christmas album

Elvis’ Christmas album by Elvis Presley is the best-selling Christmas album of all time, with over ten million copies sold in the US alone. Photo: Kenneth Hagemeyer CC BY-ND

At no other time of year do people indulge so wholeheartedly in cosiness, in starry-eyed innocence, in nostalgia, and do it without guilt or scorn. And indulge they do. Christmas music is not just values and musical diversity but also a multi-million-euro business, in dozens of big music markets from Trinidad to Japan. The biggest-selling record of all time is, of course, famously a Christmas record. (As are five of the next twenty.)

Hundreds, occasionally thousands, of hopeful new Christmas records are released every year, competing for the monetary attention of the public and radio by branching out widely in style and content. This cornucopia of commerce is probably the reason so many Christmas records are lavished with expensive arrangements and productions that otherwise would be rare.

The Christmas record allows musicians to break their mold and try something uncharacteristic. Many of the greatest do. Together with the sheer mass of records released, the attention record companies often give Christmas recordings, and the cultural significance the holiday itself holds for many, this has resulted in a fantastic diversity, and in a history of amazing Christmas records of sometimes staggering quality, some of the finest records in any genre put to disc. And of course, this history in itself compels musicians to attempt producing even more and even better music.

This website was created with the purpose of contextualising and explaining this multi-faceted phenomenon, and, especially, to catalogue the very best of the resulting albums. You can read more about the contents and the purpose of the website in the about section.

The website is run out of Stockhholm, Sweden, but the intention is to cover as much of the globe as possible. Christmas music is not uniform: it varies greatly even within indivudal countries, and is nonexistent in large parts of the world, irrespective of whether christianity is presnt or not. In other places, multi-layered, complex traditions exist, carried across the world by members of different diasporas and meeting new ideas on the way. Some of the best Christmas albums are the product of this kind of journey.

The site also strives to cover all sorts of genres and traditions. Almost every type of popular music, art music and folk music over the decades has touched on Christmas as a topic or interacted with the rich history Christmas music offers, some with risible results but many quite successfully.

Many traditions of Christmas music stretch back to a time before recorded sound, but practically any that survive have been recorded at some point over the years. We hope to cover the Christmas music of every age, as recorded from the very earliest cylinder recording to the newest digital stream. That very first Christmas recording, 126 years ago, still echoes today in the multitudal successors and marvellous ideas it has spawned.

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