What Makes a Christmas Song a Christmas Song?

Is it bells? Is it winter? Does it even have to be about Christmas?

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Ask 100 songwriters or musicians what makes a great song, and you’ll get 100 answers. If you ask those same writers and performers what makes a particular kind of song, and you may get more answers than that. Songwriter Harlan Howard is credited with saying that country songs consisted of “three chords and the truth,” but David Allan Coe, on his country classic, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” insisted that the perfect country song must also include “mama or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting’ drunk.” In terms of rock and roll, it would be easy to define rock simply in terms of Chuck Berry or Little Richard, but the genre is so elastic that it contains wildly different compositions on the order of “Stairway to Heaven” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” suggesting that rock might be more of a feeling than a set of rules.

So what makes a great Christmas song? Do they need to at least mention Christmas? Some songs that we consider holiday standards don’t reference the 25th at all. Let’s unravel the question: what makes a Christmas song a Christmas song?

How About Christmas?

This seems obvious, but that should be the baseline, right? To be a Christmas song, you’d think the tune would have to reference Christmas in some meaningful way. However, a lot of perennially played holiday tunes like “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Let It Snow,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and “Winter Wonderland” don’t mention Christmas at all. In theory, the association that most of those have with the holiday makes sense, since they are all at least winter-based and mostly deal in good-time outdoor activities.

The two performances of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from Neptune’s Daughter (Uploaded to YouTube by MrDraft)

The outlier of those songs is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which suggests a very different kind of indoor activity. It was originally written by songwriter Frank Loesser in 1944 for he and his wife, Lynn Garland, to sing at their NYC housewarming party. The pair sang it on the party circuit for years before he sold it to Hollywood for use in 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter; it subsequently won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It’s largely hung around the holidays for its winter setting, even though its meaning has been subject to debate after a 2004 humor piece on the song in Canada’s National Post.

Is It Just Winter?

The six songs above indisputably take place at winter without specifying Christmas, but they’ve been absorbed into the holiday playlist nonetheless. But does that mean any winter song can qualify for the holidays? The dividing line seems to occur between good-time intent and the use of winter to evoke deeper, darker feelings. No one really considers “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas to be a Christmas tune, although it’s one of the most popular songs about winter ever recorded. Similarly, Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” is largely metaphorical, but its mention of the Salvation Army Band conjures a holiday season association; nevertheless, you don’t hear it lumped in with Christmas tunes. And even though “Winter” by Tori Amos, “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor, Taylor Swift’s “Back to December,” and Counting Crows’ “A Long December” play on that winter feeling, none really get pulled into the seasonal playlist.

The video for “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes  (Uploaded to YouTube by Sub Pop)

Strangely enough, one song with a winter setting that has been absorbed into Christmas playlists is “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes. That didn’t really happen until both Kim Wilde and vocal group Pentatonix covered the 2008 song for their respective Christmas albums, 2013’s Wilde Winter Songbook and 2014’s That’s Christmas to Me. Ostensibly, the song has nothing to do with Christmas at all. Robin Pecknold, who wrote the song for his band, is as mystified as anyone as to why the piece has been perceived as a Christmas song. In a 2021 interview, he said, “The universe has a sense of humor. Sometimes there’s just these little cosmic flukes.” Though Pecknold insisted the song didn’t really have a particular meaning, he loved that it’s been done by children’s choirs and acknowledged, with a laugh, “That’s a Christmas song at this point.”

How About Sleigh Bells?

Depending on the version, most of the winter songs assigned to Christmas do prominently feature sleigh bells. While the bells themselves don’t necessarily signify Christmas, perhaps they are so associated with Santa Claus that they pull songs over the line. Their connection to “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” is obvious, and the first two words of “Winter Wonderland” are, in fact, “Sleigh bells.”

Bing Crosby’s take on “Winter Wonderland” (Uploaded to YouTube by Bing Crosby)

Maybe It’s Magic

“Frosty the Snowman” certainly takes place during winter, but there aren’t any sleigh bells to be found. However, the song does repeatedly reference the magic that brings Frosty to life, a fact that may establish parallels with Santa Claus and the overall sense of wonder that children feel during the season. Christmas magic as a theme runs throughout the holiday genre, particularly in association with characters like Jack Frost, the reindeer, and Santa, of course.

The Ronettes version of “Frosty the Snowman” (Uploaded to YouTube by The Ronettes)

Every year, the cultural canon of Christmas songs grows just a little bit. There are always deliberate additions, but in the case of songs like “White Winter Hymnal,” some tunes are just claimed and absorbed. Whether certain songs belong on the list is a topic that’s up for debate. Maybe you do consider “A Hazy Shade of Winter” a Christmas song, and you’ll happily mount your defense at your next holiday gathering. What ultimately matters is that it’s a Christmas song to you, just like Die Hard is 100 percent a Christmas movie.

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