Why Christmas Music is Good For Us

Written for Acculturated

December 25th, 2017

The song “All I Want for Christmas is You” is everywhere this time of year. It plays constantly on the radio, in stores and malls across the country, and no doubt serves as the soundtrack of the dreams (or nightmares) of those poor store workers who are forced to listen to it dozens of times a day. And now, “All I Want for Christmas is You” is even in the news. The Mariah Carey holiday hit has been popular since its release in 1994, but never more so than it is right now. Just this week it entered the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, the list of the most listened-to and purchased songs of the week across all genres, something a Christmas song hasn’t done since 2000.

That statistic ought to tell you a little something about the staying power of the ubiquitous holiday tune. It’s topped the holiday charts nearly every week since Billboard started the Holiday 100 list back in 2011, making it one of the most popular and well-known Christmas songs of all time (and the main source of Mariah Carey’s retirement fund) all wrapped up in one three minute fifty-five second package. It’s estimated that Carey makes a cool half a million dollars off the song each year. At the end of a divisive year, it’s nice to find at least one thing that has remained constant: America’s love of “All I Want for Christmas is You” and Christmas music in general.

My parents are fond of telling me that “back in the day” everyone watched the same television shows, listened to the same music, and saw the same movies—in other words, there was a common pop culture. They didn’t have hundreds of channels to choose from or personalized Pandora playlists, but people bonded over having a shared culture, something we simply don’t have anymore. Our movies, TV shows, and even our news have splintered, so now everyone can live in their own little bubble, never having to interact or engage with any of the other cultures that exist outside their own community. But Christmastime is different.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, sometimes even sooner, people transition from one holiday season to the next and put on some festive tunes. It’s an interesting time of year musically, in that, for the most part, everyone in the nation is listening to the same songs. No longer divided by genre, rap, country, and pop lovers alike tune into the radio or Pandora or Spotify to listen to some holiday music. And the people who don’t like holiday music hear it anyway simply because of how pervasive it is in public places. Essentially everyone has heard “White Christmas,” or “The Christmas Song” or, my favorite, “Last Christmas” and everyone has an opinion on the song. The same can’t be said of other seemingly big elements of our popular culture. Stranger Things, for example, is arguably the most popular show of the year, yet only 1% of the total U.S. population watched each episode. It might be good, but Stranger Things has nowhere near the reach of “All I Want for Christmas is You” or the other songs that comprise the holiday music genre.

A 2014 New York Times article noted that approximately 500 radio stations around the country switched to an all-holiday music format in December, many of which reported massive increases in listening. The same piece reported that nearly 30 million people tuned in to a Christmas station in 2013, with Pandora reporting that a similar number of listeners, around 25 million, went to one of their Christmas station selections in 2012. And those just represent the radios, phones, or computers that were tuned to one of those channels, not the number of individuals who heard the music. It only takes three or four people near each source of music to suddenly increase the reach of the music into the hundreds of millions, not an unfair estimate considering the popularity of Christmas parties, malls, and public spaces. It is impossible to track just how many people have heard a song, but when was the last time you met someone who had no idea who Rudolph was? Or Frosty the Snowman? Certain songs are ingrained so deeply within our culture that it is simply impossible to avoid them.

So this holiday season, don’t just celebrate Christmas, celebrate the music that comes along with it. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some have no strong feelings one way or the other. But everyone knows it. We have it in common—and there aren’t many things about which that can be said these days.