The idea to celebrate the winter season with music is not a new one. Civilizations have been celebrating the winter solstice since the Neolithic period, but the rise of Christianity in the fourth century gave way to one of the earliest known hymns in honor of the Nativity.
By the Middle Ages, carols like “What Child is This?” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” were penned, and by the 1800s, Christmas staples such as “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” were already gaining popularity.
But it wasn’t until the 1940s and 50s that Christmas music really started to become a pop culture phenomenon.
The 1930s were considered the golden age of radio, with nearly 28 million households owning a radio by the end of the decade. But that also created a need for more radio programming.
“In 1934, there were two songs recorded and released not only in the same year, but I think recorded within weeks of each other,” said JT Griffith, the in-house music supervisor at Nike. “And that was the song “Here Comes Santa Claus” and also “Winter Wonderland”. These were songs written for radio shows, but then also recorded onto 78′s and sold really quickly.”
Griffith is a huge fan of Christmas music and music in general. Along with his Nike work, he spent 11 years as a DJ on OPB Music and is a longtime curator of holiday music with programming for the Oregon Zoo’s ZooLights, as well as for OPB and KMHD holiday takeovers.
OPB’s Crystal Ligori spoke with Griffith about the rise in popularity of Christmas music, new holiday songs for 2020, and how some tunes have taken on a different feeling during the pandemic. Here are the highlights:
Crystal Ligori: What is it about Christmas music specifically that has captured your attention? Because it seems like you not only know a lot about Christmas music, but also really enjoy it.
JT Griffith: That’s true. I think that Christmas music is part of this annual tradition, and it’s something of that nostalgia for it, but also the discovery of new songs or new recordings has been a really fun challenge for me. For every Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, or Eartha Kitt, there’s a modern version, whether it’s Mariah Carey, John Legend, or Taylor Swift. And it’s been really fun to dig into this genre — it’s a category of music that has jazz, indie rock, vocal groups, funk, country. Any type of music exists within Christmas songs.
Crystal Ligori: You made a playlist of Christmas music ahead of our conversation and there were a few songs that really affected me in a way I didn’t expect, like “Maybe This Christmas” by Ron Sexsmith.
JT Griffith: Absolutely. I think historically when people think about Christmas music, the common divide is religious or secular, but I think even broader is the division between songs that are joyful or even silly [like] “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and songs that have a deeper heart, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and things like that. “Maybe this Christmas” is one of my favorite Christmas songs for sure. It updates the main theme of “Winter Wonderland” with this conspiring to make plans for the future, but also saying “maybe this Christmas will mean something more, maybe it’ll be more accessible to everybody.” Maybe it will be about making up with people, and grace and kindness.
Crystal Ligori: There are some new holiday songs that came out this year. Can you talk a little bit about new Christmas songs for 2020?
JT Griffith: I’ve been putting together a playlist of really timely and new Christmas releases for the past few years on the OPB music blog sharing, mainly an indie-rock sort of focus of songs that have come out. But in 2020 there are three projects that I think are really noteworthy because they take that idea of the classic American songbook [and] adapts it to the new times. And those three are soundtracks that coincide with new holiday movies.
One of the ones I’m most excited to talk to you about is the movie Happiest Season, which the soundtrack for it is the first, all LGBTQ major holiday soundtrack with the likes of Tegan and Sara and Sia providing new holiday songs for the soundtrack.
The other is Jingle Jangle and was, among other producers, a John Legend produced film with a mostly Black cast where race is neither a plot device or a theme. It’s a story about a family, and children, and toys. The original music for that soundtrack included songs from John Legend and Anika Noni Rose and there’s much more of a pop or Broadway-type approach. A really great movie with a really original soundtrack approach.
And the last one, the last one is called Christmas on the Square, and it’s most obviously a Dolly Parton vehicle. It’s a twist on the Scrooge tale produced by Dolly and directed by Debbie Allen and stars Christine Baranski. So it’s a largely female-produced and written project and a full soundtrack written and recorded by Ms. Dolly Parton.
Crystal Ligori: We could talk Christmas music for at least a couple of hours, but let’s just end with three songs that you’d love to make sure other folks are hearing this Christmas season.
JT Griffith: I have three songs that are dear to my heart in part because they sound great, but also they have a lot to say and are meaningful in their existence. The first one is “Winter Wonderland” — one of the oldest and most popular Christmas songs — for the lyrics, “Later on we’ll conspire as we dreamed by the fire, to face unafraid the plans that we’ve made walking in a winter wonderland.” It’s really about taking this dark season and looking forward to a really positive future.
Another song that I think is really special and worth loving and celebrating is the Donny Hathaway song “This Christmas.” It’s become a Christmas standard. It’s written by a wonderful African-American soul singer and it’s the kind of song [that] I think is worth elevating in our listening habits, but also celebrating because the Christmas songbook is written by a variety of people and I think that’s really important to celebrate.
And the last song is something that is really important, but also really fun and funny. And that is the Mariah Carey song that has become a Christmas standard. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” it’s over 25 years old when it became 25, it hit number one for the first time. As we speak right now, it’s the number one song in the UK. And there’s something really exciting about kind of a pop fun song, being a joyful occasion every year. It’s a great song that still persists.