Music

All we want for Christmas is ... these songs. Here’s why.

For a few weeks every winter, popular music tumbles into a time warp.

Old-school trumps cutting edge. Greatest Generation artists rule millennial playlists. A 25-year-old song leads the pop charts — and it’s considered a “new” entry into the Christmas canon.

Twenty-three songs have been in the top half of Billboard’s Holiday 100 nearly every week since the list began in 2011, and 15 of them were written before 1970. Two others, both instrumentals, are new mashups of old tunes.

Top holiday songs according to Billboard

These songs have ranked among the top 50 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 list during at least 90 percent of the December and January weeks the list covers, starting in 2011. Click on each row to hear a clip of the song.

Click to expand

Source: Billboard Holiday 100 list.

Why even Grinches get warm fuzzies from old holiday songs

What is going on here? The answer is nostalgia, said literally every person contacted for this story.

“Generally, popular music is about putting yourself out there, new relationships, new beginnings, being young and single and dancing,” said Joe Bennett, professor of musicology at Berklee College of Music. “Christmas music is almost the reverse of that, conceptually and lyrically. It is about homecoming, nostalgia, looking back to a more innocent time in one’s life or cultural history.”

We could argue nonstop about what constitutes the holiday canon, but the top of the top is pretty clear — and pretty old. Most were written in the 1950s and earlier, and many of the most popular versions of those songs were released that long ago as well.

Only 1 of the top 23 holiday songs was released this century, and it’s a cover of a song written in 1951

0

2

4

6

8 songs

8

1940-1959

9

1960-1979

5

1980-1999

1

2000-2019

Michael Bublé’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is the only song released after 1999, but it was written in 1951.

0

2

4

6

8 songs

8

1940-1959

9

1960-1979

5

1980-1999

2000-2019

1

Michael Bublé’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is the only song released after 1999, but it was written in 1951.

0

2

4

6

8 songs

8

1940-1959

9

1960-1979

5

1980-1999

1

2000-2019

Michael Bublé’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is the only song released after 1999, but it was written in 1951.

The oldest song on this list, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” was released in 1942.

0

2

4

6

8 songs

8

1940-1959

9

1960-1979

5

1980-1999

1

2000-2019

Michael Bublé’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is the only song released after 1999, but it was written in 1951.

The oldest song on this list, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” was released in 1942.

Source: Billboard Holiday 100 list.

Holiday music burrows into a sweet spot in our brains’ wiring, said Brian Rabinovitz, a lecturer at the College of William & Mary whose expertise is the neuroscience of music.

All music can stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers, he said, but holiday music can evoke treasured memories on top of that, courtesy of the brain’s filing system. Tonal patterns and autobiographical events are processed in overlapping regions of the medial prefrontal cortex.

That means that even though you might be into avant-garde jazz, death metal or emo, the rest of the year, you may involuntarily turn to mush when you hear “White Christmas” because your brain associates that song with baking cookies in grandma’s kitchen when you were 6.

So how does a new song break in?

“For obvious reasons, it’s a real challenge to add something new to that canon,” said Mark Simos, Bennett’s colleague and a professor of songwriting at Berklee, in an email, “because it’s by intention not a contemporary style — and because those songs carry lots of specific cultural associations for listeners.”

But getting into that rare air is hugely profitable, so artists keep trying, and every decade or so, someone succeeds.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono did it with their 1971 duet “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” So did Paul McCartney’s 1979 song “Wonderful Christmastime” and Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” which debuted in 1984.

And sitting pretty in a red elf suit atop them all is Mariah Carey’s 1994 blockbuster, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (AIWFCIY for short).

“It’s almost like buying a lottery ticket and burying it in the backyard,” said Post music critic Chris Richards. “If your song ends up striking gold, you end up in heavy rotation every December until the end of time.”

Mariah Carey. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Ariana Grande. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Songs that make the top of the list tend to have certain similarities.

They usually have short, repetitive lyrics and standard holiday themes. They don’t even really have to make a lot of sense. Mel Tormé’s “A Christmas Song” is just a litany of images: chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping, carolers, mistletoe, yadda yadda yadda. And we love it.

Bennett analyzed the lyrics of U.K. Spotify’s top 200 streams from Christmas week in 2016 and found 78 were holiday songs, most of which also show up on U.S. lists. The lyrics of those 78 fell into at least one — and often more — of eight thematic buckets. (He put an instrumental in a ninth category.)

Holiday song lyrics share a few common themes

Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” includes multiple lyric themes found in the most popular holiday songs. Some examples:

0

4

8

12 songs

14

Home

14

Santa

12

In love

12

Snow

9

Lost love

7

Party

Peace on

Earth

5

4

Religious

1

Instrumental

“Make my wish come true

Baby all I want for Christmas is you”

“Santa won't you bring me

The one I really need”

“I don't care about the presents

Underneath the Christmas tree”

0

4

8

12 songs

14

Home

14

Santa

12

In love

12

Snow

9

Lost love

7

Party

Peace on

Earth

5

4

Religious

1

Instrumental

“Make my wish come true

Baby all I want for Christmas is you”

“Santa won't you bring me

The one I really need”

“I don't care about the presents

Underneath the Christmas tree”

0

4

8

12 songs

“I don't care about the presents

Underneath the Christmas tree”

14

Home

14

Santa

“Santa won't you bring me

The one I really need”

12

In love

“Make my wish come true

Baby all I want for Christmas is you”

12

Snow

9

Lost love

“I won't ask for much this Christmas

I won't even wish for snow”

7

Party

Peace on

Earth

5

4

Religious

1

Instrumental

0

4

8

12 songs

“I don't care about the presents

Underneath the Christmas tree”

14

Home

14

Santa

“Santa won't you bring me

The one I really need”

12

In love

“Make my wish come true

Baby all I want for Christmas is you”

12

Snow

9

Lost love

“I won't ask for much this Christmas

I won't even wish for snow”

7

Party

5

Peace on Earth

4

Religious

1

Instrumental

Source: Data based on Joe Bennett’s analysis of top 200 U.K. Spotify song streams from the week of Dec. 25, 2016. Most of these songs overlap with the same set as seen on Billboard’s Holiday 100 lists.

Nearly all of the songs Bennett analyzed were in a major key, and 90 percent were 4/4 time, the most danceable time signature (4 beats to a measure, quarter-note gets a beat). They averaged a tempo of 115 beats per minute — “not frenetic,” Bennett said, “but it’ll get you a little bit of cardio.” (AIWFCIY is 150 bpm, one of the fastest holiday songs.)

Subtlety is not a requirement. Nearly half featured audible sleigh bells.

Both Richards and Bennett cited Ariana Grande’s 2014 song “Santa Tell Me” as one that might someday claw its way to canon status, and Bennett mentioned Leona Lewis’s “One More Sleep” as well. Both share certain characteristics with Carey’s hit, but neither is a sure thing.

Song similarities based on Spotify attributes

Low

Med

High

Mariah Carey

Leona Lewis

Ariana Grande

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994)

“Santa Tell Me” (2014)

“One More Sleep” (2013)

Positivity

Tempo

Energy

Danceability

The three songs have similar danceability and energy, but vary greatly in other attributes.

Low

Med

High

Mariah Carey

Ariana Grande

Leona Lewis

“Santa Tell Me” (2014)

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994)

“One More Sleep” (2013)

Positivity

Tempo

Energy

Danceability

The three songs have similar danceability and energy, but vary greatly in other attributes.

Low

Med

High

Danceability

Energy

Tempo

Positivity

Ariana Grande

“Santa Tell Me” (2014)

Leona Lewis

“One More Sleep” (2013)

Mariah Carey

“All I Want for Christmas

Is You” (1994)

The three songs have similar danceability and energy, but vary greatly in other attributes.

Low

Med

High

Danceability

Energy

Tempo

Positivity

Ariana Grande

“Santa Tell Me” (2014)

Leona Lewis

“One More Sleep” (2013)

Mariah Carey

“All I Want for Christmas

Is You” (1994)

The three songs have similar danceability and energy, but vary greatly in other attributes.

Source: Spotify data and analysis. All values are on a scale from 0 to 1. Tempo was converted from beats per minute.

“[In 2014] I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is going to enter the bloodstream,’” Richards said of “Santa Tell Me.” “And I’m still waiting.”

The deal with covers (a.k.a. your brain on Michael Bublé)

Of the 23 songs that dominate Billboard’s list, 10 are covers, including three different recordings of Meredith Wilson’s 1951 song, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”

Because we are enamored with the old stuff, it’s not surprising that the canon is littered with newer versions of classics.

The most recent is by the current king of holiday covers, Canadian crooner Michael Bublé, whose 2011 album “Christmas” provided 10 of the songs in Bennett’s 78. What the album lacks in original songs and title creativity it makes up for in production values, Bennett said.

Covered in Bublés

Not Michael Bublé

87%

Michael Bublé

13%

Source: Data based on Joe Bennett’s analysis of top 200 Spotify UK song streams from the week of Dec. 25, 2016.

“He’s choosing very old songs played with classic old school, big-band arrangements, but he’s recording them with contemporary technology that makes them radio air-play friendly,” Bennet said. That way, people can “have all of the sound quality they expect in a modern recording from a contemporary artist while getting all the nostalgic feelings that we want from the songwriter.”

Rabinovitz provided a neurological explanation for why we like covers: They meet our expectations.

Our brains feel rewarded when they correctly predict what happens next, and if a prediction is wrong, we feel momentarily discombobulated. But if the surprise is not too drastic, he said, our brains might decide they like the change — and then they are often happier than if there had been no surprise in the first place. It’s why many of us like surprise parties and roller coasters even though they’re initially terrifying.

It works the same with music, Rabinovitz said. “You can have your prediction violated but find it wonderful.”

Michael Bublé. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Johnny Mathis. (Brian Calvert/AP)

This is why cover artists tinker a little but don’t usually stray wildly from the original arrangements.

For instance, from the first raspy syllables of Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” you know you’re not hearing Fred Astaire’s version from the 1970 TV show, which was itself one of many covers of the 1934 song. The timing between words is different; some notes stay down when your brain thinks they should go up. But you also hear those sleigh bells and you know those words, and well, your brain decides that the Boss’s version is pretty darn good after all.

The original “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was recorded by Judy Garland in 1944. That version appears in the Holiday 100 along with eight different covers.

Covers of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Originally

performed by

Covered by

Judy Garland

Meet Me In St. Louis

1944

The Carpenters

Christmas

Portrait

1978

Frank Sinatra

Christmas Songs

by Sinatra

1947

Christina Aguilera

My Kind

of Christmas

2000

James Taylor

James Taylor

at Christmas

2006

Jewel ft. Home Free

The Sing-Off

2013

Michael Bublé

Christmas

2011

Cat Power

Have Yourself a

Merry Little Christmas

2013

Sam Smith

Have Yourself a

Merry Little Christmas

2014

Note: Songs included appeared at least once on

Billboard’s Top 100 Holiday list, from 2011 to 2019

Originally

performed by

Covered by

Judy Garland

Meet Me In St. Louis

1944

The Carpenters

Christmas

Portrait

1978

Frank Sinatra

Christmas Songs

by Sinatra

1947

Christina Aguilera

My Kind

of Christmas

2000

James Taylor

James Taylor

at Christmas

2006

Jewel ft. Home Free

The Sing-Off

2013

Michael Bublé

Christmas

2011

Cat Power

Have Yourself a

Merry Little Christmas

2013

Sam Smith

Have Yourself a

Merry Little Christmas

2014

Note: Songs included appeared at least once on

Billboard’s Top 100 Holiday list, from 2011 to 2019

Originally

performed by

Covered by

Judy Garland

Meet Me In St. Louis

1944

Frank Sinatra

Christmas Songs by Sinatra

1947

The Carpenters

Christmas Portrait

1978

Michael Bublé

Christmas

2011

James Taylor

James Taylor at Christmas

2006

Christina Aguilera

My Kind of Christmas

2000

Jewel ft.

Home Free

The Sing-Off

2013

Sam Smith

Have Yourself a

Merry Little Christmas

2014

Cat Power

Have Yourself a

Merry Little Christmas

2013

Note: Songs included appeared at least once on Billboard’s Top 100 Holiday list, from 2011 to 2019

Originally

performed by

Covered by

Judy Garland

Meet Me In St. Louis

1944

Frank Sinatra

Christmas Songs by Sinatra

1947

The Carpenters

Christmas Portrait

1978

Michael Bublé

Christmas

2011

James Taylor

James Taylor at Christmas

2006

Christina Aguilera

My Kind of Christmas

2000

Jewel ft.

Home Free

The Sing-Off

2013

Cat Power

Have Yourself a

Merry Little Christmas

2013

Sam Smith

Have Yourself a

Merry Little Christmas

2014

Note: Songs included appeared at least once on Billboard’s Top 100 Holiday list, from 2011 to 2019

Hippos, donkeys, menorahs and death by reindeer

Just like there is a canon for traditional holiday songs, there’s a canon of sorts for novelty songs, which are too goofball-niche to enter the Serious Traditional Canon but are also too much fun to not play every year.

Rather than aiming for universality, novelty songs address a specific theme or appeal to a certain slice of people. The genre is not new — it developed right alongside the canon during the creative exploration of songwriters in the 1950s, Simos said.

For example, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” recorded in a startlingly Ethel-Merman-like voice by 10-year-old Gayla Peevey in 1953, has a clever conceit: a child making an unreasonable demand.

“It gives you that charming feeling of what a nice idea,” said Bennett, “but it’s not a universal sentiment.”

New York-area earworm “Dominick the Donkey,” recorded by Lou Monte in 1960, is sprinkled with Italian vocabulary and tells the story of a donkey that delivers Brooklyn-made presents to kids in Italian hills too steep for reindeer. It’s a hoot, but a little of the chorus’s “ee-HAW, ee-HAW” goes a long way.

Elmo & Patsy’s 1979 tale of a Christmas Eve tragedy, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” is a bit too twisted to jibe with many people’s idea of the Christmas spirit.

Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” (1994, plus three updates) offers up a litany of famous Jews, a few PG-rated lyrics and some pretty great rhymes — “marijuanica,” “gin and tonica,” “Tijuanica” — and requires a certain sense of humor (a working knowledge of Hanukkah tradition helps, too).

Ah, but once in a while, a supposed “novelty song” turns out to be universal after all.

José Feliciano feared his 1970 cultural mashup “Feliz Navidad” would never get U.S. airplay, but the ridiculously simple song — six words in Spanish and 14 in English, set to a Latin beat — is now among the most popular holiday songs of all time. Its entire message: I want to wish you a Merry Christmas.

The vanilla theme, the peppy beat, the endless repetition and the easy-to-remember lyrics make a powerful combination — and it doesn’t hurt that the triangle and maracas together sound a lot like sleigh bells.

These are the voices you’ll hear the most

These artists have had the most songs appear at least once on Billboard’s Holiday 100. The a cappella group Pentatonix has had 16 songs appear, one more even than Bublé. Below is how each artist’s top songs ranked over time.

Pentatonix

16 songs, with 3 of their best:

“Hallelujah”

“Little Drummer Boy”

“Mary, Did You Know?”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Michael Bublé

15 songs, with 3 of his best:

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

“All I Want for Christmas is You”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Bing Crosby

10 songs, with 3 of his best:

“White Christmas”

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

“Adeste Fidelis (Oh, Come All Ye Faithful)”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Frank Sinatra

8 songs, with 3 of his best:

“Jingle Bells”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Note: Songs included appeared at least once on

Billboard’s Top 100 Holiday list, from 2011 to 2019.

Weekly rankings for December and January

only are shown.

Pentatonix

16 songs, with 3 of their best:

“Hallelujah”

“Little Drummer Boy”

“Mary, Did You Know?”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Michael Bublé

15 songs, with 3 of his best:

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

“All I Want for Christmas is You”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Bing Crosby

10 songs, with 3 of his best:

“White Christmas”

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

“Adeste Fidelis (Oh, Come All Ye Faithful)”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Frank Sinatra

8 songs, with 3 of his best:

“Jingle Bells”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Note: Songs included appeared at least once on Billboard’s

Top 100 Holiday list, from 2011 to 2019. Weekly rankings for

December and January only are shown

Pentatonix

Michael Bublé

16 songs, with 3 of their best:

15 songs, with 3 of his best:

“Hallelujah”

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

“Little Drummer Boy”

“All I Want for Christmas is You”

“Mary, Did You Know?”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Bing Crosby

Frank Sinatra

10 songs, with 3 of his best:

8 songs, with 3 of his best:

“Jingle Bells”

“White Christmas”

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

“Adeste Fidelis (Oh, Come All Ye Faithful)”

“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Andy Williams

Ariana Grande

8 songs, with 2 of his best:

7 songs, with 2 of her best:

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

“Santa Tell Me”

“Happy Holiday/Holiday Season”

“Last Christmas”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Note: Songs included appeared at least once on Billboard’s Top 100 Holiday list, from 2011 to 2019.

Weekly rankings for December and January only are shown.

Pentatonix

Michael Bublé

Bing Crosby

16 songs, with 3 of their best:

15 songs, with 3 of his best:

10 songs, with 3 of his best:

“Hallelujah”

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

“White Christmas”

“Little Drummer Boy”

“All I Want For Christmas Is You”

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

“Mary, Did You Know?”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

“Adeste Fidelis (Oh, Come All Ye Faithful)”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Frank Sinatra

Andy Williams

Ariana Grande

8 songs, with 3 of his best:

8 songs, with 2 of his best:

7 songs, with 2 of her best:

“Jingle Bells”

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

“Santa Tell Me”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

“Happy Holiday/Holiday Season”

“Last Christmas”

“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

1

25

50

75

100

1

10

20

30

40

Weeks since list started

Note: Songs included appeared at least once on Billboard’s Top 100 Holiday list, from 2011 to 2019.

Weekly rankings for December and January only are shown.

Bonnie Berkowitz

Bonnie Berkowitz is a reporter in the Graphics department at The Washington Post who often focuses on Health & Science topics.

Chris Alcantara

Chris Alcantara is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post, where he uses code and data to tell visual stories on a variety of subjects, including politics and technology. He joined The Post in 2016.

Shelly Tan

Shelly Tan is a graphics reporter and illustrator specializing in pop culture. She designs and develops interactive graphics.

About this story

We couldn’t let all these experts go without asking their favorite holiday songs.

Music professor Joe Bennett’s is 1985’s “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl. Neuroscientist Brian Rabinovitz cited the eerie “Carol of the Bells,” specifically the version by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Post critic Chris Richards chose Carey’s AIWFCIY: “Dancing to it at a wedding reception in December was like the fifth dimension of this song for me. It was so cool to know that there was still some unharvested happiness to get out of this song.”

We asked for your faves in a Post Graphics Twitter callout but got mostly responses from inside the newsroom. However, shout-out to follower Maia Nolan-Partnow for reminding us that the John Denver and the Muppets version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” is fantastic.

As for us, editor Danielle Rindler loves just about any version of “Silver Bells.” Editor Ann Gerhart listens to the album “Latin Jazz Christmas” even in July, particularly Arturo Sandoval’s instrumental version of “Jingle Bells.” Copy editor Panfilo Garcia went with “Father Christmas” by the Kinks. Graphics reporter Chris Alcantara picked “Just Like Christmas” by Low. Writer Bonnie Berkowitz couldn’t decide between old-school and older-school, choosing both Johnny Cash’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” and Mahalia Jackson’s “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” Graphics reporter Shelly Tan said she doesn’t really listen to much holiday music and declined to give an answer, so we unilaterally chose “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Thurl Ravenscroft for her. But she’s actually a lovely person.

Additional sources: Billboard spokesman Jamie Warner; ASCAP.

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