How the Christmas pop song has evolved over 70 years, from Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey

Artists from various genres have harnessed the seasonal spirit, producing a collection of wildly eclectic tracks

Mariah Carey performs during her holiday special "Mariah Carey's Magical Christmas Special" available Friday on Apple TV+. (Apple TV+ via AP)
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While the annual tradition of holiday-themed carols may go back more than 700 years, the rise of popular music over the past 70 has led to the Christmas song evolving faster than ever before.

Over that time, singers and composers used the subject matter to compose various tributes, observations and laments about what it means to be human and the state of the world around us.

Inspiring artists in a wide range of genres, from pop and punk to hip-hop, Christmas continues to be the gift that keeps on giving for each generation.

Here are 10 examples of how the popular Christmas song evolved over the years.

1. White Christmas by Bing Crosby (1942)

Regarded as a cultural milestone in the US, the song was composed by Irving Berlin and performed by Crosby in the 1942 film Holiday Inn.

In addition to its seasonal lyrics, White Christmas's timeless melodies struck a chord for its yearning sense of nostalgia.

In addition to becoming an immediate hit and one of the highest-selling singles of all time, White Christmas's legacy extends to the the end of the Vietnam War, when it was broadcast on the US's Armed Forces Radio in 1975 to signal the start of the US evacuation of Saigon.

2. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! by Vaughn Monroe (1945)

While White Christmas focuses on the memory of winter holidays past, this jaunty track celebrates the moment, whenever that may be.

That versatility has allowed the song to be used in films and campaigns not limited to Christmas in the years since its release, becoming an anthem of the winter season.

The track has also experienced enduring success over the decades, with covers by Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Carly Simon and Rod Stewart all becoming hits in the US.

3. Run Rudolph Run by Chuck Berry (1958)

Coming off the success of 1957’s Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms, Chuck Berry cemented rock ’n’ roll’s contribution to the Christmas songbook with the influential Run Rudolph Run.

While basically a carbon copy of Berry's hit Little Queenie, recorded the same year, the blistering guitars, locomotive groove and Berry's irresistible performance all contributed to the song’s enduring appeal.

Run Rudolph Run’s success and Berry's stature as a genre pioneer encouraged more rock acts to try their hand at Christmas tracks in the following decade, including The Beach Boys with Little Saint Nick and The Beatles with Christmas Time (Is Here Again).

4. Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto by James Brown (1968)

Christmas can also sound funky, courtesy of this classic by James Brown.

Released as part of his holiday season-themed album A Soulful Christmas, Brown pairs his taut rhythms and squalling horns with reflective lyrics about poor families struggling over the holidays.

Written as a letter to Saint Nick, Brown urges him to spread happiness in these struggling communities: “Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto. Tell 'em James Brown sent you.”

5. River by Joni Mitchell (1971)

Is this really a Christmas song?

While popular culture seems to think so, this is essentially a stark ballad about the dissolution of a relationship during the Christmas period.

Nostalgia pervades this track that went on to be covered more than 400 times by artists ranging from James Taylor and Barry Manilow to Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding.

6. Do They Know It's Christmas? by Band Aid (1984)

Released in response to famine in Ethiopia, British singers Bob Geldof and Midge Ure corralled more than 30 artists for this charity single.

Those lending their voices to the track were a who's who of the pop scene at the time, including Wham, Bono, Phil Collins, Duran Duran, Bananarama and Sting.

The song's immediate success, with five weeks spent on top of the UK charts, led to the establishment of the Live Aid concert the following year.

7. Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC (1987)

One of the biggest crossover pop groups at the time, Run DMC was tapped to record a Christmas song for the charity album Soul Christmas.

The trio explored how the season was celebrated in their neighbourhood of Queens, New York.

Judging by the lyrics, the Adidas-wearing group indulged in quite the feast: "Mom's cooking chicken and collard greens / Rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese / And Santa put gifts under Christmas trees."

8. Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight) by The Ramones (1989)

This punk anthem was written from the point of view of a warring couple who cease hostilities for the Christmas period.

Fun, manic and powered by Joey Ramone's sneering vocals, this has become a December staple of the punk music community.

9. All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey (1994)

For the US singer, Christmas has become one of the defining themes of her more than three-decade career, thanks in large part to this enduring bop.

For many, the annual re-emergence of this song on the pop charts is a sign that the Christmas season has arrived. Carey has embraced its growing stature atop many a playlist, unleashing the song a day after Halloween via increasingly elaborate annual videos on her social media channels.

Initially released as part of Carey's first Christmas album Merry Christmas, it took the song 25 years to finally top the US charts in 2019 before repeating the feat for the next two consecutive years.

10. Mistletoe by Justin Bieber (2011)

Not every Christmas track has to be slathered with saccharine melodies and lyrics.

With Mistletoe, Bieber brings to the tradition some welcome pop panache with its warm acoustic guitars and playful falsetto.

While the song is an original, written by Bieber with Adam Messinger and Palestinian singer Nasri Atweh, contemporary pop stars would go on to update existing Christmas tracks with a similar modern approach, including efforts from Ariana Grande and Kelly Clarkson.

Updated: December 22, 2023, 6:02 PM