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No One Writes Great Christmas Songs Anymore

If you listen to YouTube holiday playlists or FM radio during Christmas time, you’ll surely notice that most of the songs are old. Not centuries old, like the best church hymns, but old enough that your WWII-veteran grandfather probably heard them as a young man. And aside from mediocre covers of the midcentury classics, there’s not much else.

In fact, American Christmas and holiday music is virtually frozen in time. Not since Mariah Carey belted out “All I Want for Christmas is You” in 1994 has a newly-written Christmas song entered the popular playlist (1984’s  “Last Christmas” by supergroup Wham! found modern success—and endless radio play—and first landed [1]on the Billboard charts in 2016). Aside from those, in more than a quarter-century, our nation of more than 300 million has not crafted a single worthwhile song for what is arguably our most important holiday and cultural celebration. The vast majority of popular Christmas songs date from about 1940 to 1994 [2]; but very few were written in the 1970s or 1980s. Most are clustered during the big band/jazz and Golden Hollywood period between the 1940s and the 1960s.

Spiritual and cultural bankruptcy might explain the dearth of new tunes. A less apocalyptic angle is that the stubborn endurance of midcentury Christmas music is one more facet of the trend towards “retro” and “vintage” and “analog.” [3] After all, 1950s housing fixtures command big money for people restoring their tract homes to the original Levittown style, and one of the hottest gifts this time of the year is a portable phonograph or a stereo turntable. Next thing you know, Gene Autry’s scratched-up Rudolph album from the thrift store will be commanding top dollar.

Yet there is even another aspect to the “freezing” of holiday-related cultural production. A society that sings is a society that is happy. Perhaps we aren’t writing cheerful holiday ditties these days because we are not happy. Surveys suggest that American happiness peaked in the early postwar years [4] (the same is true of Britain [5]). Many of the advertisements from this period were jingles; almost every notable product had one, and anyone who grew up in the ’50s can still be caught humming them. The jingle or musical commercial is now mostly relegated to parodies [6] or to local, low-budget commercials [7]. And God forbid we could let one holiday season go by without a witless and vulgar rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

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Of course, those cheerful, peppy jingles were inducements to consumption in a decade of growth uber alles, and even the actual Christmas songs from that era bear a surprisingly strong imprint of their time. Their simple lyrics and catchy melodies, for one, often resemble advertising jingles. In terms of their content, there is wistfulness that echoes the war and the Great Depression (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”). And there is plenty of commercialism.

“Home for the Holidays,” penned in 1954, could easily have been a jingle for the auto industry, encouraging folks to jump in their vehicles and visit family—no matter where in the country that might be:

Put the wife and kiddies in the family car
For the pleasure that you bring
When you make that doorbell ring
No trip could be too far

A Christmas song using an idealized notion of the family gathering to promote endless motoring? For all that may have been good about the ’50s, that was the ’50s too.

Also striking is the number of lines about toys, described in great enough detail that they resemble advertising to children.

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” starts off the trend in 1951 with the following lines straight from a Saturday morning commercial:

A pair of hop-along boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the wish of Barney and Ben
Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jen

“Up on the Housetop,” whose tune dates to 1864, was updated with new lyrics for its 1953 Gene Autry release, including these: “Give her a dolly that laughs and cries; One that will open and shut her eyes.” And for the boy: “here is a hammer and lots of tacks; Also a ball and a whip that cracks!”

“Run Rudolph Run” (1958) humorously features a “rock and roll electric guitar” for the boy and—is it not a little creepy too?—“a little baby doll that can cry, sleep, drink and wet” for the girl.

Yet this seemingly insatiable and rather odd desire for hulking tail-finned cars and crying dolls was only a logical reaction to the end of nearly 20 grinding years of war and depression. Automobiles, appliances, toys, and other consumer goods were barely manufactured and certainly not widely purchased from the onset of the Depression up until 1945. One can sense a sort of warm, post-disaster glow in these songs, the intense joyfulness of people who have been devastated and are finally making their way back. Today, the economic conditions of the 1950s are distant, but the sociology of that era may be even more distant. It was a time when Americans could finally simply be. No more ration booklets, no more days of agony waiting for a call or letter from the Army, no more waiting on a soup line in a tattered suit. What a luxury it must have been to drive to the newly-built supermarket, put away groceries in an ice-cold fridge, turn on the radio, and cook for your family on a warm, gleaming stovetop. From 1929 to 1945, Americans could not do that.

We know where that ended, however: the loneliness of America’s burgeoning suburbia and the restrictive gender norms of the period led, for many women, to depression, Valium, and ultimately feminism. No cultural moment can last forever, and those who believe that the 1950s were a golden age must also recognize that they spawned what came later.

Yet surveys tell us these were the years of peak happiness in the United States. If happiness really has declined, perhaps it is paradoxically because we suffer less. War- or depression-level privation is a distant memory or even unimaginable for most of us. Consider that the wistful words of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” could only be written in a world where many of the soldiers who heard that melancholy crooning never did come home. And when every big box store is piled to the rafters with cheap toys and games [8], the gifts that used to excite us now conjure about the same level of enthusiasm as gray flannel underwear. Browse a Life Magazine issue from the ’50s, and the sort of gifts that were then considered appropriate or even extravagant illustrate that it really is the thought that counts. Manufacturers of quotidian goods like electric razors and even ballpoint pens regularly took out full-page color ads.  

December 12, 1955 Life Magazine ad. Copyright Google Books.

Ultimately, those midcentury Christmas songs were really not Christmas songs at all—and not because they were written largely by Jewish composers who compromised with the cultural hegemony of Christmas by penning secular tunes [9]. They were, rather than Christmas songs, songs about the long-awaited return of normalcy and domesticity. Few of us would wish to exactly reproduce that social milieu, yet the songs live on.

We cannot help but be thankful we are not in a position to write them again, underpinned as they are by deprivation and tragedy. But a little wistfulness for that time is not out of place either.

Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro [10].

66 Comments (Open | Close)

66 Comments To "No One Writes Great Christmas Songs Anymore"

#1 Comment By City Dweller On December 23, 2017 @ 7:40 am

DC Wanker – Stop with this self-pity for being a jew. Regardless of race, creed, or national origin most people had to struggle. We mostly all struggled.Have you forgotten, for example, the signs “Irish need not apply?” ETC I am disappointed that Jewish people having attained such preeminence use this new found muscle to overly populate key government posts etc.(Supreme Court. Federal Reserve Bank – the song goes on) On diversity, people are now asking, do they practice what the preach? Not from my observations?

#2 Comment By charlie On December 23, 2017 @ 7:48 am

Clint Black “Looking for Christmas” 1995
Very strong album. Check it out.

#3 Comment By Keith Kelly On December 23, 2017 @ 9:30 am

in case my previous attempt of this post got lost

steve earle “nothing but a Child”

#4 Comment By Suzanne Nussbaum On December 23, 2017 @ 10:07 am

Little Drummer Boy (or the Carol of the Drum) is earlier than some of the commenters here think–it was written in the early 1940s (check Wikipedia) and the first recording of it, I believe, was by the Trapp Family Singers:

#5 Comment By Lafcadio On December 23, 2017 @ 10:54 am

I’ll join Bob S and FL Transplant in adding my favorite Christmas music from the past few decades. There IS fascinating, challenging, and moving creative output from our contemporary cultural moment.

1. The New Pornographers – “Joseph Who Understood” (2007)
2. Sufjan Stevens – “Sister Winter” (2006)
3. Matisyahu – “Miracle” (2010) [for Hannukah]
4. Morten Laurdisen – “Sure On This Shining Night” (2005)
5. The Pogues – “Fairytale of New York” (1982)
6. Dolly Parton – “Hard Candy Christmas” (1982)

Here’s the link to “Joseph Who Understood,” a song that joins the tradition of the old French carol “Joseph est bien marié” in depicting St. Joseph’s doubts and anxieties about his role in the nativity narrative.

#6 Comment By Dale McNamee On December 23, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

Here are my “Christmas songs” :

Every Year My Christmas List Gets Shorter” -Bill Anderson

“Christmas at Denny’s”- Randy Stonehill

Christmas Song – Jethro Tull

Happy Christmas – John Lennon

Circle of Steel- Gordon Lightfoot

I Believe In Father Christmas – Greg Lake/ELP

I Think That It’s Going To Rain Today -Randy Newman

I personally dislike the “saccharine, syrupy, commercialized” Christmas that has been and is currently “celebrated”…

I detest the playing of “Christmas” music from Thanksgiving until Christmas because by the time Christmas arrives, I am sick of it !

I do love my church’s Christmas services, especially the evening service on Christmas Eve !

#7 Comment By Youknowho On December 23, 2017 @ 9:26 pm

To appreciate villancicos you need to know Spanish. The lyrics are all about the Birth of God, the manger, the Virgin, and Joseph. No Santa Claus. And the Magi don’t show up into the 6th of January.

Even the old standby “Feliz Navidad” has lyrics that celebrate the Birth of the Savior.

But then they are traditional songs, and no one asks why there are no new ones. The old ones cannot be improved.

#8 Comment By Anne (the other one) On December 23, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

Wait, Charlie Brown’s Christmas with wonderful songs dates from 1965. As of November 2014, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the tenth best-selling Christmas/holiday album in the United States.

Frosty the Snowman theme song was from 1969. At this minute, we are listening to the sound track to the Snowman from 1982.

My two favorites are “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg from 1980 and “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses from 1981.

#9 Comment By Keith Kelly On December 24, 2017 @ 11:33 am

anybody who responds to an article about Christmas songs with an immediate comment about obamacare ……. phewwww!?!?!?!

#10 Comment By Ansonmac On December 25, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

‘I’ think a lot of the “bitter” modern XMas songs are due to the Poop kinda economy we have right now, and the 80s / 90s hyper consumerism of Xmas…

I couldn’t WAIT to get back from work this morn and play with my Boys.

But hearing nonstop Xmas songs since thanksgiving….. Irritated me……

It’s all soo…….

Corporation based anymore.

And that is reflected in the music….

This is a ‘fleeting’ culture right now… On the OTHER HAND Soo many ppl are saving and tweaking their own memories to make new ones for the next gen

My fav songs for Christmas are Dropkick Murphy’s [11]

And Blink182 [12]

But for all of us “forgotten people”…. IE the ones who Dolt45/ Donald(I’m a scam artist) Trump promised to fight for….

There is ONLYone song for this year…. Ladies and Gentlemen… Dolly Parton [13]

#11 Comment By mrscracker On December 26, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

Nobody writes great Christmas songs anymore & virtually nobody sings them after December 25th-which is only the 1st Day of Christmas. That annoys me more than “Santa Baby.”
🙂

#12 Comment By Mia On December 26, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

Well, I think you need to analyze the popularity of this Christmas song:

[14]

It actually notes “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” beat out “White Christmas” for a time as top Christmas single.

I myself only listen to the post-war/old Hollywood tunes and don’t even want to listen to the modern renditions anymore.

#13 Comment By DRK On December 27, 2017 @ 12:11 am

According to that XKCD chart “The Little Drummer Boy” is the only religious Xmas song to appear in the top 20.

And it is a “religous song” commemorating an event – a child with a drum playing a lullaby for the Christ child while the stable animals keep time – that occurs exactly nowhere in scripture. Just saying.

#14 Comment By JAC On January 1, 2018 @ 9:04 am

Some of the best modern Christmas songs are about Christ, of course – written by contemporary Christian artists. A few of my favorites, the first of which is probably familiar to many by now:

Mary Did You Know – Mark Lowry
[15]

Welcome to Our World – Chris Rice
[16]

Strange Way to Save the World – Mark Harris/4him

#15 Comment By Elmer Lang On January 1, 2018 @ 1:38 pm

Stepping outside my doorway in NYC’s East Village years ago, I saw a Lutheran hymnal that had been tossed in the street. Inside I found many songs I hadn’t heard growing up in a country Baptist church, but plenty with fabulous, passionate lyrics. So I wrote melodies to some of them, sometimes reworking the lyrics, and when I got tired of that, new melodies to, or rearrangements of, old favorites.

You might venture the links below:

Wake, Awake

The Hills Are Bare At Bethlehem

Cold December Flies Away

1st Snow (secular)

The World In Solemn Stillness Lay (ex-It Came Upon A Midnight Clear)

O Holy Night

#16 Comment By Rob G On January 2, 2018 @ 10:21 am

~~~And it is a “religious song” commemorating an event – a child with a drum playing a lullaby for the Christ child while the stable animals keep time – that occurs exactly nowhere in scripture. Just saying.~~~

I once got into a debate with a Fundamentalist who said that “We Three Kings” was “unscriptural” because the Bible doesn’t say they were kings and never said there were three. Uh, who cares?