When is it Okay to Start Playing Christmas Music?

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by Kate Brunotts

If you’re anything like me, you adore Christmas. The abundance of food, presence of family and mass consumerism; something about it is equally charming and awful. Nevertheless, the child in me always gets a kick out of the holiday season, particularly the music that comes with it.

However, I’m not naive enough to think that my feelings are universal. I have friends who detest Christmas music, and although I could never figure out why, I know they will do anything to escape the ominous drone of “Jingle Bells”. 

Why does Christmas music evoke such strong emotional responses from different types of people? And more importantly, when can I start jamming out to Burl Ives? 

So… When Can You Play Christmas Music? 

According to 2015 study by the Huffington Post comparing campaign ads to holiday music preference, 43% of Americans prefer to start listening to Christmas music about a month before the big day, or November 25th. 

There’s no doubt that this is correlated directly with the timing of Thanksgiving. While Thanksgiving 2019 fell on November 28th, most American Thanksgivings fall right before or on November 25th. In fact, from 2010-2019, 6 out of the 9-holiday dates fell before or on the 25th. Clearly, Thanksgiving seems to be a huge social signal for embracing holiday tunes. 

Interestingly enough, the same study found that Republicans are more likely to enjoy Christmas music earlier than Democrats. While I suspect this may be to the common Christian religious affiliation with the conservative party, this is all speculation. 

As it turns out, our liking of Christmas music has a lot more to do with who we are as collective groups than our individual preferences. 

Generational Differences 

As it turns out, your preference towards holiday music may have a lot to do with what generation you were brought up in. According to a 2017 study by Nielsen, Millennials make up for a stunning 34% of Christmas music listeners. 

Though Gen Z and younger generations have somewhat declined in their holiday cheer, jamming out to Christmas classics continues to perpetuate Boomers and those from Gen X. 

The development of Christmas/Halloween bender classic The Nightmare Before Christmas was released in 1993, right within the Millennial window. While I don’t have data to back my suspected claims, there’s no doubt that this cultural classic encouraged fans to start associating Halloween with the early advent of Christmas.

While Millennials’ affinity for Christmas music appears to be somewhat of an anomaly, there’s no doubt that Christmas continues to be pushed earlier and earlier by corporate entities. This concept of “Christmas Creep” is exacerbated by retail holidays like Black Friday, with some listeners beginning their Christmas listening around Halloween. 

Moreover, the retail world has taken advantage of our feelings around Christmas: As it turns out, Christmas music and smells can sometimes encourage shoppers to buy more. While this may deter retail workers from enjoying Christmas music on its own time, the nostalgic feel of Christmas music makes us relaxed and willing to spend a little more time at the mall. 

The Power of Nostalgia

If you’ve tracked music over the years at all, you’ll commonly see some of your favorite popular artists release a holiday-themed single or cover, often with little success. 

However, it makes perfect sense that artists continue trying. After all, having a staple Christmas song brings in royalties long after its release. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has grossed an estimated $60 million dollars since its original 1994 release. 

Unfortunately for most artists, this doesn’t happen, but why? As it turns out, the way we write music has changed drastically over the years. Recreating the classic feel of Christmas music in today’s modern age is quite difficult. Some people even categorize “Christmas Music” as a genre of its own, adding to its characteristically cheery sound. 

One of the biggest aspects that may explain our inability to craft new music is our shift in key preference. In general, a major chord progression makes us feel “happy” while minor chord progressions evoke much more dismal feelings.

The 1950s, the common birthplace of many of our favorite Christmas classics, saw a large surge in major-keyed music

Nowadays, pop music has broken down that structure, notably in 2017 with 80% of number 1 hits hitting minor or modulated keys

Therefore, a modern pop artist crafting a typically major crafted Christmas song may feel inauthentic, or somewhat gimmicky to the listener. 

One thing is for sure— Christmas certainly evokes strong feelings of joy and euphoria, so it makes sense that we seek out a soundtrack to match that. Our memories are deeply tied to the music we listen to, so our choice of holiday music could simply be traced back to our love of tradition. 

Regardless of how you feel about Christmas music, there’s no sign of it phasing out of style soon. Happy listening and happy holidays! 

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