Long before the rise of streaming, Christmas songs like “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Jingle Bell Rock” were among the most popular of their genre, racking up charts for weeks in the 1960s without ever making it to the top. 10.
Now, Christmas carols from years past are seeing new life and climbing the charts decades after their debut.
Most famous, Mariah Carey scored her 19th No.1 hit after “All I Want for Christmas Is You” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in 2019 – more than 20 years after its first release in 1994.
Other holiday songs follow suit.
How the most popular Christmas songs in 2020 have changed their position over the years
Mariah Carey’s # 1 song ranks against other Christmas songs with the most entries in the Billboard Hot 100. The dormant hit was released in 1994 and didn’t reach the Hot 100 until 2000, where it entered at # 83. The song went on to reach No. 1 in 2019, 2020, and early 2021.
Christmas songs with the most entries on the Hot 100 by 2020
Record producer Sammy Chand said popular holiday music like “All I Want for Christmas” mixes upbeat pop and rock with traditional sacred music. These songs evoke nostalgia with holiday sounds and instruments like sleigh bells and chimes and use the ever popular theme of “love” to dominate the charts.
“The sound evokes as much nostalgia as any other sense we have,” Chand said. “It’s an important part of everything visual that a lot of these songs evoke through their lyrics and that feeling of love, that feeling of family and that feeling of wanting to belong.”
Wham’s “Last Christmas”, depicting a holiday heartbreak, plays on the theme of love and, like Mariah’s song, has seen drastic jumps in the charts with each passing holiday season. The song was released in 1984 and just landed on the Hot 100 for the first time in 2017. It peaked at 9th place in January 2021.
The best holiday songs also carefully adhere to the line of not being too religious or “Christian” so that their reach can extend to a wider audience who also find new ways to appreciate and identify with music. .
“Each of them becomes culturally ambiguous between people who are religious and those who are not,” Chand said. “These songs blur those lines.”
In addition to incorporating elements of pop music, the most popular Christmas songs also share similarities in tone and mood according to a Spotify API analysis.
Spotify measures “energy” by the intensity and activity of a song. Songs with higher energy are faster and louder. Valence describes the mood of a song. A higher valence sounds happier and more positive, while a lower valence indicates a sadder tone. Dancing ability describes how easy a song is to dance based on traits such as tempo, steady rhythm, and strength of beats.
The most popular Christmas carols today tend to be more biased in these three areas. Songs that have lost popularity in recent years tend to lack all of these characteristics.
Upbeat and cheerful Christmas songs dominate today’s charts
Spotify API analysis shows how the top five Christmas songs with the most entries in the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100s compare musically to other Christmas songs with the most entries overall. All of these songs also appear in the bar chart above.
Chand said that like rock music there will also be an emergence of modern themes in holiday albums like “trap” due to the genre’s rise in popularity over the years.
Artists like Ariana Grande have experimented with this sound in Christmas tunes, but “Santa Tell Me” – her most popular holiday song – still sounds a lot like the top five holiday songs. Although the track dates back to 2014, it follows the trend of successful vacations and just peaked at 17th place earlier this year. Lyrically, Grande asks Santa to prevent her from falling in love if this doesn’t last.
Grande’s second Christmas record ‘December’ has a heavier influence on the traps, but the racy melody doesn’t quite have the same popularity as the more family-friendly ‘Santa Tell Me’.