The most popular Christmas songs change from year to year, but the list provided annually from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers is a good representation of what people are playing during the holiday season. Popular works also include those not on the ASCAP list, such as carols, traditional music and “behind-the-scenes” pieces. Location and culture influence what people consider to be popular for Christmas.
Most Popular Music by Recording Frequency
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers releases an annual list of popular Christmas songs that have been recorded and played most frequently in the 21st century. Many of these works capture the spirit of the holidays but do not have much to do with the origins of Christmas. For the 2012 season, the 10 compositions that made the ASCAP list were:
Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish)
Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith)
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Show! (Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin)
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie)
Do You Hear What I Hear (Gloria Shayne Baker, Noël Regney)
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) (Mel Tormé, Robert Wells)
Jingle Bell Rock (Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe)
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (Johnny Marks)
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (Meredith Wilson)
All of the pieces on the ASCAP list have been recorded by multiple artists. Some versions are vocal, while others are instrumental. Some recordings have become more popular than others over time, turning into Christmas music staples. Although many people have sung Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, for instance, the version by Bruce Springsteen is the most popular.
Carols and Traditional Music
The ASCAP list notes only those compositions written or co-written by ASCAP members. It therefore isn’t a comprehensive view of the most popular Christmas tunes. To get a better idea of everything people listen to, it’s necessary to look at carols and traditional music, as well.
Music that falls into the carols and traditional category often has been recorded, similar to the music listed by ASCAP. A major difference is that this music is often performed live. It is heard frequently in churches, for example. Almost everyone knows the melody and words to these compositions, so people like to sing them on the street, while visiting friends or family and while participating in holiday activities such as tree decorating. Many organizations use them as part of Christmas pageants or shows, although some groups are very careful to be politically correct with the texts of the pieces they pick.
Examples of popular tunes in this category include Hark the Harold Angels Sing, Deck the Halls, The Twelve Days of Christmas, Silent Night and O Holy Night. These can be sung by one person, but because they are so well known, groups often sing them. They have been arranged in many ways, but they usually are sung in unison or in full four-part harmony. They may or may not use accompaniment, with unaccompanied versions being better suited to “mobile” singing like caroling.
Some popular Christmas tunes have become favorites because they were paired with another medium, such as those that have appeared as soundtracks. These “behind-the-scenes” Christmas songs generally have not been remade by other artists, with the original recordings remaining the most popular. The instrumental music for A Charlie Brown Christmas featuring the considerably talented Vince Guaraldi Trio is an example. The original disc for the animated feature was remastered and sold at Starbucks® stores in 2006.
Influence of Location
Location has a large affect on what music people accept as most the popular Christmas songs. In the United States, for instance, Mele Kalikimaka is well known in Hawaii and is often sung when people want to happily exchange the traditional white or snowy Christmas with a tropical, warm one. Feliz Navidad has been at the top of the charts since its release in 1970 and is played often in Puerto Rico and other Spanish-speaking countries.
Influence of Culture
Culture also determines the songs that people put on their Christmas lists. Perhaps the most notable example is Chocolate Salty Balls (P.S. I Love You) performed by Isaac Hayes. This song is part of an episode of the American animated comedy, Southpark. In 1999, the composition was the most popular single played at Christmas in both Ireland and the United Kingdom, showing the influence of American pop culture.