Christmas music is pretty forgiving stuff. As one loyal listener to Kringle Radio recently told us, “What else besides Christmas music can take you from country to jazz to rock to choral in under an hour?”
But artists abuse the flexibility of Christmas music by including Christmas songs that are not, at least in their original intent, Christmas music.
Perhaps the biggest abuser of this most recently is Pentatonix. In 2016 the acapella group released Hallelujah as part of their album A Pentatonix Christmas:
We admit – it’s a great song and the performance is spectacular. But it is not a Christmas song. It is a song about a love gone wrong. There is nothing Christmas about it. Zip.
That being said, Hallelujah was previously reimagined as a Christmas song. The words had to be changed entirely to do it. Check it out:
But one is a non-Christmas song you get on a Christmas album. The other is a Christmas song you can only access on YouTube.
Christmas music has a long history of such abuse. Consider for example the most famous Christmas song of all time: Jingle Bells.
The song was written in 1857 and first performed for a Thanksgiving celebration. It does not mention Christmas once in its famous lyrics. At it’s core, Jingle Bells is about a singularly American thing: driving fast and picking up girls.
But it’s not about Christmas.
How did Jingle Bells then become a Christmas song?
Back in the day sleighing was a Christmas sport. In fact, James Lord Pierpoint, who wrote the song, said he was inspired to write the song due to his nostalgic memories of sleighing at Christmas.
Sleighing was so prolific during the 19th century that when the song came out it was embraced not only for its easy-to-sing tune but also because young and old could identify with the song as a Christmas activity.
You could argue, in a 21st century sense, that “bells” have long been a Christmas theme.
With movies and books like the Polar Express, that makes some sense.
But bells were not the thing then that they are now in terms of Christmas symbolism.
In fact, the argument could be made that Polar Express likely could not have been made without Jingle Bells having given bells their Christmas identity.
Take for example the song Carol of the Bells. It was originally a non-Christmas song that was, ironically, sometimes performed around the holidays.
In 1916, a Ukrainian composer by the name of Mykola Leontovich was commissioned to write a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies.
Using the simple four note melody the song told the hopeful story of a swallow flying into a home to proclaim a bountiful new year for the family living there.
Ukraine, just as most Russian and European governments of the time, was in upheaval.
The government there was trying to promote Ukrainian music in major cultural centers of the West. Touring across Europe and North and South America a Ukrainian chorus performed more than 1000 concerts featuring this song.
The song was first performed in the United States in October of 1921 to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall.
It was there that it was heard by famed American composer Peter Wilhousky, who felt the haunting tune reminded him of bells – Christmas bells, in fact. Wilhousky, just as we saw with Hallelujah above, repurposed the song, gave it new lyrics and then started performing it at Christmas concerts.
Here we are now nearly a century later and the song is only used in a Christmas context on albums, in movies and perpetually part of Christmas concerts.
Again, this is nothing new.
George Handel’s Messiah is performed these days at Christmas time like it was made for the season. Only it wasn’t. It was written for Easter and, thankfully, that beautiful work still gets some love during that Spring season.
Messiah, or more specifically, the Hallelujah Chorus, gets Christmas love because it is a religious work. “For Unto Us a Child is Born…” is about as Christmasy as it comes.
In fact, we are also seeing a trend where classic Christian hymns are being included more and more on Christmas albums.
When Home Free started their Christmas tour in November 2016 they had just gone viral with their video of How Great Thou Art:
And why not? It is a song in praise of God. What do we think the heavenly host was doing when they announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds? Songs of praise are Christmas music.
Guess who agreed? Pentatonix.
In 2017, in a deluxe release of a Christmas album, guess what song they included? Yup, How Great Thou Art.
Christmas music can be sneaky that way.
Take, for example, the song My Favorite Things.
This song is most commonly associated with The Sound of Music, for which it was written. Although it was not written as a holiday song, there were lyrical references to sleigh bells, snowflakes, silver-white winters and brown paper packages tied up with strings.
In other words, you could, in theory, get away with it as a Christmas song in the same way that Winter Wonderland and Baby It’s Cold Outside are considered Christmas songs.
But check this out.
In 1961, Julie Andrews, who would become famous for singing the song years later in The Sound of Music, sang this song for a Garry Moore TV holiday special:
Here’s a notable example in a rare video of the song from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ only Christmas album:
Well, it’s 2021.
New Christmas albums are coming out. Including a new one, like clockwork, from Pentatonix.
Look at what they are calling a Christmas song now: