Cast your mind back, if you will, to Christmastime eighty years ago, and imagine which holiday songs would have been in the air — or rather, which ones wouldn’t have been. You certainly wouldn’t have heard the likes of “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” rock-and-roll itself not yet having emerged in the form we know today. Even the thoroughly un-rocking “Silver Bells” wouldn’t be recorded until 1951, for the now-forgotten Bob Hope film The Lemon Drop Kid. What of children’s favorites like “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman”? None were popular until Gene Autry laid them down in 1947, 1949, and 1950, respectively.
Even “The Christmas Song,” whose most beloved version was recorded by Nat King Cole, wasn’t written until 1945 (as was “Let It Snow”). The year before that brought “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”; the year before that, “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” That was recorded first and most definitively by Bing Crosby, the singer most closely identified with the 1940s Christmas-music boom. That boom began, as the Cheddar Explains video at the top of the post tells it, with Crosby’s Christmas Day 1941 rendition of “White Christmas,” just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“It’s no coincidence that the boom in Christmas tunes came during World War II, when tens of thousands of American soldiers were abroad defending their country, no doubt longing for the simple warmth of home,” writes The Atlantic‘s Eric Harvey. “Irving Berlin invested ‘White Christmas’ with the sort of meterological longing that comes from living in Southern California, but troops picked up on the sentiment, making the song a classic in this regard.” This also happened to be the zenith of the golden age of radio (a compilation of whose Christmas broadcasts we featured last year here on Open Culture). “By the 1940s, radios were a default presence in most American homes. And by the late 1940s television was growing out of radio, and through the 1950s the pair set holiday living rooms around the country aglow with musical performances.”
That most popular Christmas songs still come from the 1940s and 50s (a Spotify playlist of which you can find here) has given rise to theories of a Baby-Boomer conspiracy to preserve their own childhoods at all costs to the culture. But then, as Christopher Ingraham writes in The Washington Post, “the postwar era really was an exceptional time in American history: jobs were plentiful, the economy was booming, and America’s influence on the world stage was at its peak.” Thus “what we now think of as the holiday aesthetic isn’t just about a particular time of the year — it’s also very much about a particular time of American history.” This aligns with the perception that Christmas has turned from a religious holiday into an American one. But take it from me, an American living in Korea: even on the other side of the world, you can’t escape its songs.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.