Monday, December 23, 2013

The Golden Age of Christmas Songs?

If anyone spends much time listening to Christmas songs on the radio, on the internet, or in the many stores that play them during the season, they might soon realise one thing. The vast majority of popular Christmas songs played today are fairly old. "White Christmas" was first released in 1942. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" dates to 1949. "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is actually one of the younger Christmas standards. It only dates to 1963. Why do so many of the popular Christmas songs to which we still listen go back several decades? The reason is simple. The mid-20th Century saw something of a Golden Age of Christmas songs.

Indeed, the bulk of the most popular Christmas songs date from a period lasting from the early Forties into the mid-Sixties. This is not to say that there weren't Christmas songs recorded earlier. "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" dates to 1922, while both "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "Winter Wonderland" came out in 1934. And there have certainly been a few hit Christmas songs in more recent years. John Lennon's  "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" dates to 1971, while Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" was released in 1994. That having been said, the mid-20th Century appears to have been a boom time for Christmas songs. From 1942 to 1964 there was at least one Christmas song that became a huge hit each year, and in some years there were many more.

If there can be any doubt that the period of 1942 to 1964 was a Golden age for Christmas songs, one must consider that not only were there a huge number of hit Yuletide tunes released during that time, but some of them would become the best selling singles of any genre. In fact, the biggest selling song of all time is still a Christmas song, "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby. Released in the year 1942 it became the best selling single of all time, a position it had kept to this day. For several years the second best selling single of all time was another Christmas song. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Gene Autry, released in 1949, sold more than 12.5 million copies and still numbers among the best selling singles of all time. Among the other Christmas songs from the era that rank among the top selling singles of all time are "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" by The Chipmunks and "The Little Drummer Boy" by the Harry Simeone Chorale, both released in 1958.

Of course, the years 1942 to 1964 are not only remarkable because it saw some Christmas songs sell phenomenally well, but also in that many years would see multiple Christmas songs become hit records. The year 1949 alone saw "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (multiple versions of the song, at that), "Blue Christmas" (also multiple versions), "Sleigh Ride" by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and, one of the all time champs when it comes to Christmas songs, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" all become hits. The year 1958 saw the releases of "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" by The Chipmunks, "The Little Drummer Boy" by the Harry Simeone Chorale, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee, and "Run Rudolph Run" by Chuck Berry. What is more, these were not the only years in which multiple Christmas songs ranked high on the American singles charts.

A portion of the Golden Age of Christmas songs also coincided what could be considered the Golden Age of Christmas films. It was a period from about 1942 to 1950 that saw the release of some of the most popular Christmas films of all time, including It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the Christmas songs of the era came from movies. "White Christmas", the biggest Christmas song of all time, originated in Holiday Inn (1942), as did "Happy Holiday". "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" also originated in a movie, namely Meet Me in St. Louis (although it isn't really  a Christmas film). "Silver Bells" originated in the holiday themed Bob Hope vehicle The Lemon Drop Kid (1950).  "Santa Baby" was recorded by Eartha Kitt in 1953, but there can be no doubt that its inclusion in the 1954 film New Faces helped popularise the song.

Of course, in the latter part of the Golden Age of Christmas songs television would play a role in popularising Christmas songs as well. For the Rankin/Bass, stop motion animated special based on his hit song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Johnny Marks wrote several new songs. One of the songs from the special, "A Holly Jolly Christmas", became a huge hit for Burl Ives in 1964, while "Silver And Gold" from the special would also become something of a Christmas standard. Andy Williams' song "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" also emerged from television. George Wylie, the choral director on The Andy Williams Show, wrote the song specifically for the show's second Christmas edition.

Following 1964 the number of Christmas songs that became huge hits, let alone Christmas standards, declined a good deal. "We Need a Little Christmas" from the Broadway musical Auntie Mame, released as a single in 1966 featuring Angela Lansbury and the cast, went onto become a Christmas standard, while the novelty song "Snoopy's Christmas" by The Royal Guardsmen from 1967 is still played to this day, but for the most part the years following 1964 would see far fewer Christmas hits than the years before them.

It might seem curious that the mid-20th Century would produce so many hit Yuletide songs, but the reasons it did so are not hard to find. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Golden Age of Christmas songs began in 1942. The United States was embroiled in World War II and there can be no doubt that both those on the homefront and the soldiers at war could use some Christmas cheer. Following the war there was a general boom in Christmas. It was during this period that decorating one's house with lights for the holidays became common. It was also the period during which many classic Christmas films (It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, Miracle on 34th Street, and others) were released. It seems likely that soldiers returning home from the war wanted a Christmas like those they had when they were young. And if they went a bit overboard in celebrating the holidays, well, that was perhaps because they had been denied a typical, family Christmas for many years. With a demand for anything Christmas related, it should not be surprising if songwriters and recording artists weren't happy to fill the demand.

As to why the Golden Age of Christmas songs ended, that is harder to say. I doubt it was the advent of rock 'n' roll. The Golden Age continued until 1964, many years after the arrival of rock 'n' roll on the scene. It must also be pointed out that rock 'n' roll artists would make their own contributions to the genre during the era. Elvis Presley covered several Christmas standards. Chuck Berry recorded "Run Rudolph Run", while Darlene Love recorded "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)". That the Golden Age of Christmas songs ended in 1964 might lead one to believe that the British Invasion was responsible for its demise. While The Beatles did make Christmas records, these were only issued to members of their fan club and, except for "Christmas Time is Here is Again", contained no original Christmas songs. Other British Invasion bands recorded little in the way of Christmas songs in the Sixties, although many would do so later (the most famous perhaps being "Father Christmas" by The Kinks in 1977).

Of course, even given the British Invasion bands recorded little in the way of holiday tunes, it seems unlikely the British Invasion was solely responsible for the end of the Golden Age of Christmas songs. In fact, it might not have had much impact at all. The fact is that from 1942 to 1964 there were several Christmas songs produced a year and an inordinate number of them became hits. If one were to look at a list of the hit Christmas songs one might well be surprised at how many there actually were. Given the Golden Age of Christmas songs lasted around 22 years and given the number of hit songs released during the period, it seems possible that there was simply a glut created on the market. Quite simply, then, the reason there have been far fewer hit Christmas songs since that time may simply be because there were so many in the years from 1942 to 1964. Not only must a newly released Christmas record compete on the charts with non-holiday offerings, but it must also compete with the old standbys for airplay. And I rather suspect that the majority of times the old Christmas standbys will win out.

Regardless, there can be no doubt that the years 1942 to 1964 produced some of the greatest and most popular Christmas songs of all time. A huge number of the holiday classics that we sometimes take for granted stem from those years. While Christmas seems to wax and wane from time to time in popularity, it seems unlikely we will see another period like the Golden Age of Christmas Songs, a time when a holiday themed song could become the biggest hit of all time.

1 comment:

Mythical Monkey said...

You know, I never thought about it before, but it's probably no accident that the Golden Age of Christmas music coincides with the Golden Age of film noir. They're sort of flip sides of the same coin, a way of coping with the anxiety and dislocation of the war and post-war eras.

And then the '60s came along with a new generation and a new set of concerns, and different kinds of music and film to cope.

Interesting stuff. Good post.