Children are humming them, shopping centres are playing them, and the genre’s iconic poster girl has just released her fifteenth studio album, so it seems about time to ask the question: what makes a Christmas hit? From its roots in the Great American Songbook to its current manifestation as a nostalgic happy-sad singalong, Finlo Cowley tracks the history of the Christmas tune and finds out why we can’t stop listening to Mariah at Christmas.

“I hate Christmas songs, its’s true,” Sam Smith announced live on Boston radio in 2014. “But [‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’] is the only song I would ever attempt to sing. To me, it sounds more like a classic jazz standard.” Smith’s cover of the Judy Garland classic recalls the early days of Christmas pop; sentimental ballads of mainly American origin which reference the growing boom in musical culture in the years following the Great Depression. Smith is completely correct in saying that ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ sounds like a ‘classic jazz standard’ because most of our favourite Christmas songs today hark back to this era, where songs were written predominantly for the stage, normally by members of the Tin Pan Alley songwriting and publishing group which dominated popular music in the late 19th and early 20th century. The fact that these songs were written for musicals meant that the context was often lost in a non-theatrical setting, which perhaps explains the enduring character of Christmas music; these songs can be understood whether performed on stage or off. The moods encapsulated in these songs is also typical of the era, with pronounced bitter-sweet undertones. Below are the original opening lyrics for ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,

It may be your last.

Next year we may all be living in the past.

These lyrics are dark and pessimistic about the future, so it is no wonder that the director of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ – the film in which the song was to appear – pleaded with Hugh Martin, the songwriter, to change the lyrics. However, it proves a good example of the well-renowned bitter-sweet undertones encapsulated in so many Christmas songs, including Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ and Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’.

In fact, it was ‘White Christmas’ that benefited greatly from new recording technology and a boom in record sales. As the jazz music of the Great American Songbook segued into the rock and roll era, ‘White Christmas’ was seen as the perfect balance; a cover of a popular American composer, Irving Berlin, combined with the modern recording techniques associated with popular chart acts such as Glenn Miller. It may come as no surprise then that ‘White Christmas’ is the world’s best-selling single, with an estimated 50 million sales worldwide, largely due to a heart-warming vocal performance by Crosby and the Christmas theme, which allows the sales to pick up again year after year after year.

As music trends shifted, more artists decided to capitalise on the Christmas music market, albeit in very different ways. Chuck Berry tried his luck with the 1958 single ‘Run, Rudolph, Run’, which utilised the same chord progression – the twelve-bar blues – as his most recognisable song ‘Johnny B. Goode’, while songwriter and actress Cyndi Lauper released her Christmas album, ‘Merry Christmas… Have a Nice Life’ in 1998, charting poorly, possibly due to its inclusion of one of the worst Christmas songs, ‘Christmas Conga’. However, what is undisputed is that the most widely known Christmas song among those living today is Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’, a testament to the lush harmonic and melodic devices used by Irving Berlin and the production of genre icon Phil Spector. If you don’t know already, Phil Spector is widely regarded as recording one of Christmas music’s finest albums, his 1963, ‘A Christmas Gift For You’, which features the brilliant ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’, sung by Darlene Love. What makes Spector’s production so influential is his controversial ‘Wall of Sound’ technique, in which he strived to create the largest sound possible within a studio recording environment. The effects of this are clear to see in Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’ and are so pronounced that Mariah covers ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ on the same ‘Merry Christmas’ album. What is undeniable is that the catchy, repetitive melody is easy on the ear, and makes ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ a very special pop song. All that’s left to ask is when it will reach number 1.