The sounds of the season

How did music come to be such a big part of Christmas — and why do we keep hearing the same songs?

Carolers.
(Image credit: Keystone / Stringer/Getty Images)

How old is Christmas music?

It arguably predates the holiday itself. In Europe, pagans created the tradition of singing songs to brighten up the Winter Solstice, which was widely adopted by early Christian evangelists, especially after A.D. 1000. During the Protestant Reformation, the Puritans considered carol singing unbiblical and suspiciously cheerful, and at least one Calvinist minister deemed it as grievous a sin as fornication. Still, the tradition continued — albeit sometimes in secret. Public door-to-door caroling gained popularity during the 1800s, and several of the most enduring carols, including "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," and "Jingle Bells," date from that period. Today, Christmas music is a huge business. Of the 125 artists on Billboard's Greatest of All Time list in 2019, nearly half — including chart-topping singers such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Taylor Swift — have released at least one Christmas album, and more than 80 percent have recorded at least one holiday song. In the U.S. alone, seasonal tunes fueled a $177 million industry in 2018. "The appetite for Christmas music keeps growing every year," said veteran radio industry consultant Dan Vallie.

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