Why is Christmas music from the 1940s and 1950s so popular?

Christmas music means many things. In a world where Christmas has travelled deep into cultural context thousands of years and several continents away from its West Bank birthplace, its music is inevitably varied and complex. And yet, almost everywhere, there’s an awareness of and a fascination with the Christmas music of the United States from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. And it’s worth considering why.

Evacuee American children provided with a Christmas party in Oxfordshire, England, in 1941. The sheer importance of Christmas nostalgia in a crisis keeps showing up through these press images, and it’s little wonder White Christmas had its stupendous breakthrough precisely during some of the darkest times of the second world war. Photo: Library of Congress

The United States is, in an era of globalization, a constant cornerstone of the world’s culture, referenced and related to far beyond its borders. And yet, the music that constitutes what one might think of as the American Christmas standard repertoire, the old Tin Pan Alley Christmas hits from the 1930s to the 1950s, is prevalent even beyond most pop culture phenomena. Just look at the top 50 most covered songs in every genre in the covers database SecondHandSongs – Ten of them, including three in the top ten, are Christmas songs from this period. (Another 17 are traditional carols. Christmas music gets covered a lot.)

And it’s not just the songs themselves – even if they do get constantly repurposed – but the recordings as well. Starting with the extreme, record-breaking success of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” in 1942, there are dozens of records from the subsequent 20 years that endure, year after year, with the Christmas charts still full of them. These, and just a precious few hits since, are the songs that seem to truly endure.

Why was there suddenly a strong explosion of enduring Christmas music coming out in the middle of the 20th century? Why are we still listening to them today? And just as importantly – why didn’t it continue, with more and more songs added to the standard Christmas repertoire, even after the 1950s? (That this happens to be the cut-off date of the American Standard repertoire as well is, of course, absolutely no coincidence.)

Just before Christmas in 1941, the Japanese armed forces launched a major surprise attack on the US navy base at Pearl Harbour, pulling the United States full-scale into the Second World War. In a time of major upheaval and disruption, Big Crosby’s “White Christmas”, released the following year, managed to give some measure of assurance, radiating home life, family and nostalgia, and became a musical phenomenon of unrivalled stature.

It’s hard to overstate how well this record did: It’s not only, by far, the most successful song in the Great American Songbook, but the biggest-selling single of all time, clocking in at an astonishing 50 millions singles sold and never beaten despite the record industry still having some forty years of constant growth ahead of it. Sure, Tin Pan Alley did have a history of successful Christmas songs before “White Christmas”, like 1937’s “Santa Claus is Coming To Town”, but the absolute sales tsunami of Irving Berlin’s song produced a host of copycats. Much of what we think of as the Christmas pop music repertoire was written in the subsequent decade, from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. “White Christmas” was a touching point throughout. In his autobiography, Tin Pan Alley great Sammy Cahn memorably indicates the sheer reverence that the song was held in:

One day during a very hot spell in Los Angeles the phone rang and it was Jule Styne to say, “Frank wants a Christmas song.” Most Christmas songs, I should say, are written in the heat of June or at the latest July, in order to give the singer, publisher, the record company, the promotion people, and the weather a chance to get together. “Jule, we’re not going to write any Christmas song,” I said. “After Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’? The idea’s just ridiculous.” Jule said: “Frank wants a Christmas song.”

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye in the film White Christmas from 1954. In a way, this film was in itself a cover version, re-recording Bing’s enormous hit and creating a whole musical around it. Photo: Library of Congress

With a new wave of popular songs also came a new way of recording them. High-fidelity recording, the kind we’re used to today, started becoming viable in Crosby’s time, but didn’t really reach its full height until the second half of the 1950s. This period also saw “Hi-Fi”, high fidelity, become a significant marketing factor by record companies and record player manufacturers. The particular style we associate with Christmas songs of the era – soft crooner singing recorded by highly-sensitive microphones, full orchestras with large string sections, and so on – was simply not possible to achieve earlier, and earlier material suffers in comparison. As a result, much of what we think of as standard recordings of Christmas music were made relatively later than the songs were written, if in the same sort of contexts. Take “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole, where the (second) 1946 recording was the first hit version, but where a 1961 re-recording is almost universally the version ending up on compilations today.

Another major technological change that helped cement these recordings was the rise of the 12-inch LP album as a significant commercial format in the first half of the 1950s. Albums didn’t start outselling singles until a decade and a half later, but there was still a significant market for them, and Christmas albums, even more so than Christmas singles, were very successful in this period. (As a comparison, by 1960, three Christmas singles had reached #1 in the pop charts, besides “White Christmas” also Jimmy Boyd’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “The Chipmunk Song”. In the same period, six different Christmas albums had reached #1 in the album charts.)

The few years in the early 1950s helped cement what songs formed part of the Christmas music repertoire partially because this was when a lot of artists had to pick what to include on their Christmas albums from the previous decade of hits, and some songs became almost universal inclusions, while others remained in the dust. Your Frosty and your Rudolph got to stay onboard, while other somewhat successful novelty singles like “Angie, The Christmas Angel” or “Suzy Snowflake” got left out in the cold, and never really recovered.

It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t uncommon at the time to see three, four, five separate versions of the same song charting at the same time, and the idea of an “original version” simply had less traction. Both the re-recordings and the covers were a natural fit for the way the music industry worked at the time. The songwriters of Tin Pan Alley would write the songs, and they would be recorded by a host of bands and artists at the same time, as each major record label would want slices of the hit songs.

And then, in the mid-1950s, everything changed.

The breakthrough of rock’n’roll (and the near-contemporary commercial peak of doo-wop) represented a significant shift in the music industry. It allowed a set of previously unknown independent record labels to make huge strides up the charts. From the 1930s up until the mid 1950s, the four-to-five biggest record companies, the majors, completely dominated the market, being behind 97% of all the million-selling records between 1946 and 1953. But fast-forward a few years, and from 1955 to 1959, instead, it’s shrunk down to 30% of the top-10 records.

The move changed the idea of who records were for, too. It shifted the demographic that records were marketed to significantly younger, and cemented the teen market as the most significant earner for record companies.  And in a way, it brought the US together. This can be seen in the previously highly segregated Billboard charts (“Pop” for one set of urban white record stores and radio stations, “Rhythm & Blues” for black urban and “Country & Western” for white rural) that, for the briefest of moments in 1955 and 56, suddenly aligned, with this new music dominating all three.

In this new tradition, music suddenly belonged to a single performer. Their quirks, personal style and – eventually, from the mid-sixties onward – the personal message of their songwriting started becoming the centre of their value as an artist. The first recorded version was the original, everything afterwards was a cover, expected to be adapted and changed to fit the quirks of whatever performer covered it.

A sergeant in the US Fifth Army eats Christmas turkey while manning his machine gun position. This sort of promotional image shows another aspect of how much Christmas nostalgia is linked into the world war. Photo: The National WWII Museum Digital Collections

For the traditional pop songwriters of Tin Pan Alley and the major record labels, whose music had dominated the American music market since the major product was sheet music, this would prove a significant existential threat, and eventually lead to some major realignment. However, at the time, the prevalent attitude was rather more dismissive, with many looking down at the new music (Irving Berlin famously hated Elvis Presley’s version of Berlin’s “White Christmas” and tried to get it banned from the radio) or treating it as just another fad to crank out more novelty records for.

Hence those supposed rock’n’roll Christmas records, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and Bobby Helms’s “Jingle Bell Rock”. They are both part of this Tin Pan Alley response to Rock’n’Roll, both on a major label (Decca), both with young stars from their own assembly lines, and both recorded in Nashville with veteran backing musicians. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is written by deeply embedded Tin Pan Alley veteran Johnny Marks, most famous for writing “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer” but also “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and others. “Jingle Bell Rock” was written by two lesser-known ad men, but was still definitely part of the same sphere.

Of course, within a few years, the major labels had started to recapture the youth market, buying up indies and producing new generations of stars of their own. It’s worth noting that the relative chart success of “Jingle Bell Rock” was something of an anomaly, and many of these attempts failed, including Brenda Lee’s song originally, only charting in 1960 by the time they’d figured out how to make her a real teen idol.

The major labels caught up and became significant drivers of music again. The songwriters of Tin Pan Alley never really did. But even with the driving force of popular music being lost to them, they still had a market in an older audience, a more conservative audience, a nostalgic audience, often a wealthier audience that owned hi-fi systems and twelve-inch record players. An audience happier with crooners, old songs about Christmas, home and family, and different artists recording the same songs over and over again.

This other audience, which still created an opportunity for selling many millions of records even if they were not at the top of the pop charts, became enshrined in 1961 as the “easy listening” audience with the creation of the Billboard chart of the same name. They were absolutely interested in the old Christmas hit songs of yesteryear, and in the later 1950s and 1960s plenty of Christmas albums containing substantially no newly-written material, recorded in an older traditional style, ended up being marketed very successfully.

Easy listening would itself peter out eventually, in what Christmas music scholar Ronald D. Lankford Jr. calls “the tumult and confusion” of the 1960s and 70s. But that particular productive period, from “White Christmas” to its faltering in the rock n’ roll era, remains a chief American source of Christmas popular songs to this day. In the 1980s, Lankford suggests, growing conservatism and resurgent pop culture nostalgia would cement the songs as the Christmas music, and by that time they were impossible to dislodge.

The traditional pop standard period in the 1940s and 1950s, and its encouragement of endless re-recordings, has become a canon – the reference all future Christmas music in the West has had to relate itself to, for good and for bad. Something like “All I Want For Christmas Is You” couldn’t exist without it. The precariously balance time where Tin Pan Alley was fading and the hi-fi album was becoming the norm was the only time it could have happened. For those of us who love Christmas music, it’s lucky that it somehow, improbably, came to pass.

This article is a compilation and partial rewrite of three posts I made on the forum site Reddit, in the subreddit r/askhistorians.


Brownlee, Nick, Bubblegum: The History Of Plastic Pop, London: Sanctuary 2003

Cahn, Sammy, I Should Care: The Sammy Cahn Story. New York: Arbor House 1974

Lankford Jr., Ronald D., Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs. Gainesville: University Press of Florida 2013

Miller, James, Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977, New York: Touchstone 2000

The Vinylmint History of the Record Industry


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