This time of year, Run-D.M.C.’s Darryl McDaniels doesn’t like to leave the house. “I’m scared to go to the mall, because every five steps somebody’s screaming, ‘It’s Christmastime in Hollis, Queens!’ Kids, grandmothers, it’s crazy,” McDaniels says. “I can’t be going shopping till after Christmas.”
Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” is a modern holiday standard, making McDaniels a member of a vanishingly small club: Most lyricists of classic Christmas songs are dead. “Christmas in Hollis” was originally released in 1987, during a 10-year span that produced two other classics, Wham’s “Last Christmas” (1984) and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994). There hasn’t been an enduring holiday song released in the 20 years since.
No one, not even such superstars as Taylor Swift, Coldplay or Beyoncé, has managed to turn a temporary seasonal hit into an evergreen since Carey’s tune. Some recent songs that showed promise, like Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?” or Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe,” couldn’t survive their singers’ waning popularity. Others, like Christian group NewSong’s tearjerker-turned-novel-turned-TV-movie “The Christmas Shoes,” flamed out early.
Some, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ newly perennial “Christmas All Over Again,” released in 1992, have taken decades to gain any traction. Petty’s song follows many of the rules laid out by holiday songwriters over the years: It mentions things like presents and mistletoe. It’s jolly and Christmas-positive (depressing Christmas songs are thorny things, best left to Joni Mitchell and Irving Berlin). Christmas hit-making has more rules, more boxes to check off, than rest-of-the-year hit-making.
Many of the rules contradict the other rules: Don’t gloss over the religious nature of the season, but avoid specific mentions of Jesus. Be upbeat, but if you must write a somber holiday song, make sure the song’s subject is sad merely because everyone around him/her has forgotten the True Meaning of Christmas. Audiences like personal details, but don’t leave out classic tropes like snowmen and chimneys.
It’s a wonder new holiday songs get written at all. Vocal group Pentatonix’s new album of holiday standards, “That’s Christmas to Me,” contains one original, the title track. Writing the new song was a source of great anxiety. “We were so nervous going in,” says Scott Hoying, one of the group’s lead vocalists. “It’s hard to come up with great lyrics. Everything has been expressed so eloquently. To come up with something new is really tough. It’s about a balance between being creative and risky and new, and also keeping that classic nostalgic feeling of what Christmas is about.”
Less than two months after its release, Pentatonix’s album has already gone gold. Holiday albums are a lucrative business; artists often find that the inclusion of new material is artistically and financially unnecessary. Many Christmas songs are old enough to be out of copyright, meaning their composers don’t need to be paid. To write a would-be classic is an exercise in delayed gratification, the opposite of writing a hit. A hit registers almost immediately; standards can take years to make themselves known. Hits channel the moment; classics must sound timeless.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” was modeled after Phil Spector’s early 1960s girl-group hits, says its co-writer and producer, Walter Afanasieff. “It’s an immortal sound. It’s not hip-hop or pop or the flavor-of-the-month production. It’s not what we were doing in 1994. It goes against every rule.”
From its earliest days, Carey and Afanasieff guided the song with an eye toward posterity, rarely allowing it to be licensed. It eventually turned up during a memorable scene in the 2003 film “Love Actually,” cementing its status as a classic for a new generation of listeners.
By then, the record industry had begun to reconsider the view that Christmas albums were where the careers of old-timers went to die. “In 1994, no one was running to go do Christmas albums. That was something you did at the end of your career, like when [people would] play Las Vegas,” Afanasieff says. “It’s different now. Everyone does a Christmas album first and foremost. Look at Pentatonix. The highest-selling albums for people in their careers are Christmas albums. At that time it was reversed, so it was a very bold and daring move. . . . We weren’t thinking: Oh, this will be a really big single. We were thinking: God, I hope this makes it. This is kind of cute.”
Kelly Clarkson’s 2013 hit “Underneath the Tree” is a close cousin to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Both are upbeat love songs that draw inspiration from the Wall of Sound era. “We were cautious, like, let’s not get too close” to Carey’s song, says Greg Kurstin, the song’s co-writer and producer. “The standards of writing back then were so different. You have to get in that mind-set, I think. When you write a modern Christmas song, it’s very different. The chords have been simplified over the years. You have to find those memorable, complex melodies and chord changes.”
Many artists seeking holiday-song immortality reach even further back in the Christmas canon for inspiration, to the golden period from the 1940s to the 1960s, when such evergreens as “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and “Silver Bells” were born. That is a mistake, says Mitchell Kezin, who directed “Jingle Bell Rocks!,” a new documentary about the pleasures of offbeat Christmas songs. He cites Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?” as a particularly egregious offender. “Terrible,” Kezin says. “And Olivia Newton-John recorded (an album) a couple of years ago called ‘Christmas Wish.’ Again, sappy, sentimental.”
To ostensibly sophisticated modern audiences raised on snark, heartfelt Christmas ballads can seem self-conscious and saccharine. “They feel calculated. They’re referencing those familiar tropes and all those cliches, and they’re grasping at the kind of songwriting that no longer exists,” Kezin says. “There was a golden age [of songwriting], and interestingly enough, the majority of them were Jewish songwriters who wrote all those classic chestnuts. The reason they’ve endured is because they were so well crafted, and they were so deeply expressive in capturing the holiday experience in a way songwriters these days are unable to do.”
Cheery novelty songs can be equally divisive. In historical polls of the most loathed Christmas classics, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” usually finishes second, bested only by the chorus of dogs barking “Jingle Bells.”
Liz Phair recently contributed a lighthearted original, “Ho Ho Ho,” to the Amazon Prime digital-music playlist of holiday tunes “All Is Bright.” “Because I chose to take a different angle, I had a ladder in the chutes-and-ladders sense,” the indie/alt-rock favorite of the ’90s says. “If I tried to take on something meaningful — images of Robert Frost’s ‘the snowy fence between neighbors’ comes to mind — you can’t quite get there. But because I decided to do something dystopian about how Christmas can actually suck sometimes, it was easier. I could find my way into that much quicker.”
The thing to remember about a Christmas song, Phair says, “is that it has to have Christmas. It is a Christian holiday, so there’s some sort of nod either to or away from Christian values . . . charity, generosity, forgiveness, humility.”
Last year, veteran punk band Bad Religion released “Christmas Songs,” a religious-hymn-heavy standards collection. “No one is less of a theist than me,” says Brett Gurewitz, the band’s guitarist. But “I love Christmas songs, and Christmas, too. I absolutely adore them. . . . I’ll take ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ over ‘Rudolph’ any day. It’s just a better song. It’s more powerful.”
Holiday standards often include an appeal to what Gurewitz calls the “yearning to be our better selves.” The most enduring ones transcend racial and generational barriers.
“Music succeeds where politics and religion fails,” McDaniels says. “It brings us together.” McDaniels is partial to Bing Crosby. “The same way everybody talks about how special ‘Christmas in Hollis’ is to them, the song that’s special to me is Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas.’ I’m a black American hip-hopper from the hood, and ‘White Christmas’ is gangsta to me.”
Stewart is a freelance writer.