Singing carols is one of the oldest folk traditions that dates back to when Christians began celebrating Christmas.
Some of the earliest music was in the form of chants and hymns, and there initially was criticism from the Christian church that those customs were rooted in pagan celebrations.
Whatever the origin, Christians adapted the music to celebrate Christmas with simple lyrics about the holy season.
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi introduced carols into the formal worship of the Christmas Midnight Mass held in a cave in Greccio, Umbria. After that, carols were popular parts of the Christmas mass in the Middle Ages, and that custom continues.
Secular holiday music emerged centuries later, and by the early 20th century, people were writing songs about Santa Claus, snowmen, reindeer and winter wonderlands.
A website called ranker.com lists the current most popular holiday music. “White Christmas” tops the list in general, and also for women, for men, baby boomers, millennials, Generation Xers and Gen Z demographics. It’s just that popular with everyone. In fact, Bing Crosby’s version is considered the world’s best selling record of all time, with 50 million sold. Add other versions and the sales topped over 100 million. Ironically, the world’s favorite Christmas song was written by Jewish composer Irving Berlin.
The general audience ranks “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” as number two, followed by “Silent Night,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “O Holy Night.” The male audience likes “Silent Night” and “Winter Wonderland” for second and third choice, and women pick “Peace on Earth/Drummer Boy” and “Rudolph” for two and three.
There are regional preferences, too. “Last Christmas You Gave Me Your Heart” is number one on the West Coast, “Jingle Bell Rock” is the favorite in the western mountain region, “White Christmas” tops the list in the Midwest, Southerners like “Silent Night” best, and people in the Northeast and in places outside of the United States count “O Come Emmanuel” as number one.
Every song has a story. “Three Kings” was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr., an Episcopal priest who was born in Pittsburgh. He wrote it in 1857 for a Christmas pageant that was held in New York City.
“Jingle Bells” was written the same year by James Lord Pierport of Massachusetts. The song became popular when it was performed by black face minstrel Johnny Pell.
The music for “Silent Night” (originally for guitar) was written in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber. The lyrics are by Father Joseph Mohr, pastor of the parish in Austria where it was first sung.
The lyrics for “O Holy Night” were written by Placide Cappeau of France in 1847 when a parish priest asked him to write a poem for Christmas. The lyrics fell into disfavor when Cappeau caused scandal as an anti-clerical social radical. The poem was redeemed when a Unitarian minister did a vocal version of it for a Christmas Eve service in 1855.
“O Holy Night” went on to make history on Christmas Eve of 1906 when Reginald Fessenden read from the gospel, played the violin and sang it for the first live radio broadcast from the Brant Rock radio tower in Marshfield, Massachusetts.
“Twelve Days of Christmas” has a double meaning necessitated by the Puritan ban on Catholicism in England from 1558 to 1829. The song that celebrates maids a milking and geese a-laying referred to religious symbols or practices. For instance, three French hens meant the three gifts of the Holy Spirit — faith, hope and love.
Holiday music became more lighthearted with songs like “Frosty the Snowman” and “I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas.” The latter was sung by 10-year-old Gayle Peevey of Oklahoma and its popularity sparked a fund raiser to actually buy a hippo for her. She donated it to a zoo where it lived for 50 years. That song unofficially is one of the most popular ones that provoke changing the radio station until it’s over. Ditto for “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer,” a strange narrative of the death of a drunken grandmother.
The are other obscure holiday songs that, fortunately, remain unsung for the most part. Actual songs like “Christmas In Prison,” “Santa Got Lost in Texas,” “Kidnap the Santa Claws” and, no joking, Tom Waits’ gritty “Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis.”