Billboard isn’t quite old enough to have reviewed the angels heard on high or the mountains in reply, but it had a front-of-the-fireplace seat for the birth of Christmas music as we know it. Like the holiday itself, seasonal songs gradually grew into commercial silver and gold, as well as sentimental favorites, and by 2018, streaming had made the business worth a Billboard-estimated $177 million in the United States alone. The most popular holiday recordings are hits every year — gifts that keep on giving.
Irving Berlin, a Jewish-Russian immigrant who became a beloved American songwriter, did Bing Crosby a mitzvah when he wrote “White Christmas” for the 1942 movie musical Holiday Inn. Billboard was quick to notice the song’s “peaceful, gracious” charm, and the Aug. 8, 1942, issue predicted that “this tune will become more and more important.” That was an understatement: Crosby’s 1942 recording, released on Decca, is said to have sold 50 million copies worldwide, making it the biggest physical single ever.
As rock n’ roll took over radio, Crosby faced competition. A column in the Dec. 8, 1958, issue mused that “Christmas disks are stemming from more and more outré types of sources and places, such as, for example, Chuck Berry.” Other staffers were more enthusiastic: Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” got the Billboard review panel “jumping and shouting and stomping around in their record room like few recent records have done.”
The following week, Billboard declared “Yuletide Keys Happy Boom For Pop Singles Market” as songwriter-producer Ross Bagdasarian’s Christmas-themed “The Chipmunk Song” became “the fastest moving disk of the year, and possibly, in the history of the record business.” Amid their fur-flying faceoff against Rudolph, chipmunks Alvin, Simon and Theodore became so popular that when a New York DJ joked on-air that Alvin was thinking about going solo, Billboard reported that “he received calls from credulous listeners asking him to tell Alvin not to do it.”
“Catalog Sales Dominate Christmas Action” declared a Dec. 22, 1979, headline, but the season delivered a seminal first in the form of Kurtis Blow’s hip-hop holiday hit, “Christmas Rappin,’ ” co-written by former Billboard staffer Robert Ford Jr. According to the same issue, “This novelty rapping record has found immediate acceptance on New York radio, something that has eluded the majority of rapping dee-jay records.”
Mariah Carey’s 1994 album, led by “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” came with all the sleigh bells and whistles. “Columbia Records isn’t treating Merry Christmas as just another holiday album,” reported the Oct. 8, 1994, Billboard. Even Carey didn’t realize the gift she had. “It was a priority for me to write at least a few new songs,” the singer said, but “people really want to hear the standards at Christmas, no matter how good a new song is.” In this case, being wrong was a positive: The new standard topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 2019, then again in 2020 and early 2021.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2021, issue of Billboard.