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Who Took the Christ Out of Christmas Music? Holiday Hits Are More Secular Than Ever

From 2015 to 2022, religious music's share of the top 100 holiday recordings' total consumption dropped from 18.2% to 4.4%.

This time every year, enduring favorites by Mariah Carey, Brenda Lee and Bobby Helms rise to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 as Americans turn to holiday streaming playlists and Christmas-focused radio stations. However, these evergreens, celebrating the biggest Christian holiday of the year, are more secular than in years past.   

It used to be that contemporary takes on traditional songs about the birth of Christ — “Little Drummer Boy,” “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” — were among the most popular holiday songs. Listeners enjoyed Nat King Cole’s “O Come All Ye Faithful” as much as his version of “Deck the Halls.” Kenny Rogers had a popular take on “Mary, Did You Know?,” first recorded in 1991 by Michael English of the Christian group the Gaither Vocal Band. Martina McBride’s rendition of “O Holy Night,” a Christmas carol from the 1840s, was among the top 100 holiday songs.   

In 2022, as streaming playlists drive listening, the top 100 holiday songs are more likely to conjure images of Santa, sleigh bells and cold weather than a baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Through Dec. 8, religious music had only a 4.4% share of the top 100 holiday songs’ total consumption — tied with 2021 for the lowest since 2010, according to a Billboard analysis of Luminate data. The top religious song since the first week of November, “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Nat King Cole, ranks only No. 50, the lowest for a No. 1 religious song since 2010. “Mary, Did You Know?” by Pentatonix ranks a mere No. 68 and Rogers’ version of the song has fallen to No. 255.  


In terms of market share, religious holiday songs peaked in 2015 with 18.2% of the top 100 holiday tracks’ total consumption, which measures digital downloads and streaming. Vocal group Pentatonix owned six of the 13 religious songs in the top 100 holiday tracks, including No. 3 (“Mary, Did You Know?”), No. 25 (“Little Drummer Boy”) and No. 30 (“White Winter Hymnal”). The combined consumption of two versions of “Mary, Did You Know?” by Jordan Smith (No. 2) and Pentatonix (No. 3) that year was 17% greater than that of the No. 1 recording, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”  

Religious songs captured the most number of spots in the top 100 in 2013, with 14 of the top holiday songs for the final two months of the year being religious in nature. There were two versions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” by Pentatonix (No. 3) and Harry Simeone Chorale (No. 74). Recordings of “Silent Night” by Kelly Clarkson (No. 21) and The Temptations (No. 44) were popular at the time. There were four versions of “O Holy Night” in the top 100: Celine Dion (No. 48), Mariah Carey (No. 77), Martina McBride (No. 96) and Pentatonix (No. 97). And Amy Grant’s original song “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” ranked No. 82.   

To categorize holiday music as secular or religious, Billboard considered each track’s lyrical content. Religious songs contain references to Biblical characters (e.g., Jesus, God or the Virgin Mary) or Christian themes (the nativity scene). Billboard counted Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukuh Song” as religious for its references to Judaism. A song like “Hallelujah,” written by Leonard Cohen and covered countless times by the likes of Pentatonix and Carrie Underwood, has a religious-sounding title but is classified as secular.  

How holiday music is consumed — like all music — has changed over the years. From 2015, when religious holiday music reached its peak market share, to 2022, downloads’ contribution to total consumption of the top 100 holiday songs dropped from 49% to just 1.4%. This year, numerous religious songs, including For King & Country’s “Little Drummer Boy” and Lauren Daigle’s “Light of the World,” have relatively strong download sales but too few streams to make the top 100.  

Radio stations favor a different slate of religious holiday songs than streaming platforms, such as versions of the 1962 song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood and Whitney Houston that fall outside of the top 100 holiday streaming recordings. Traditional songs like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," recorded by the likes of Barenaked Ladies and Mannheim Steamroller, consistently perform well at U.S. radio. “Songs like ‘O Holy Night,’ ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ and ‘The First Noel’ still test equally well for us," says Tom Poleman, chief programming officer for iHeartMedia, in an email to Billboard.

But the data show U.S. radio airplay of holiday music has also become more secular in recent years. In November and December of 2015, there were 16 religious songs in the top 100 holiday recordings as measured by spins. The top religious recording, “The Little Drummer Boy” by Harry Simeone Chorale, ranked No. 25 and was closely followed by two versions of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Houston and Bing Crosby at No. 33 and No. 34, respectively. Rogers’ and Pentatonix’s covers of “Mary, Did You Know?” also ranked in the top 100.  

This year, through Dec. 8, there were only six religious songs in the top 100, and the top track, “The Little Drummer Boy” by Harry Simeone Chorale, had fallen to No. 72. Christian artist Amy Grant still makes the top 100, but her versions of “Winter Wonderland,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” have performed better than her top religious song, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

The final rankings could have more religious songs come Christmas, however. Radio stations tend to play religious-themed songs more often as Christmas nears, says Sean Ross, author of the Ross on Radio newsletter. That would mean tracks such as “The First Noel” by Andy Williams and “Joy to the World” by Nat King Cole, both top 100 tracks in 2021, could get more plays and rise through the ranks in the coming week.