Every year around this time, enduring hits by Mariah Carey, Brenda Lee, and Bobby Helms reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 as people resort to Christmas-themed streaming playlists and radio stations. These evergreens are more secular than in previous years, even though they are honouring the biggest Christian festival of the year.
Historically, popular Christmas songs included modern renditions of carols celebrating Christ’s birth, such as “Little Drummer Boy,” “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Both Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Deck the Halls” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” were well received by listeners. “Mary, Did You Know?” was first recorded in 1991 by Michael English of the Christian group the Gaither Vocal Band. Kenny Rogers gave the song a well-known rendition. One of the top 100 holiday songs was Martina McBride’s version of the 1840s Christmas hymn “O Holy Night.”
The top 100 holiday songs are more likely to evoke images of Santa Claus, sleigh bells, and cold weather in 2022 as streaming playlists drive listening than a baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. According to a Billboard review of Luminate data, religious music’s 4.4% percentage of the top 100 holiday songs’ overall consumption through Dec. 8 was tied with 2021 for the lowest level since 2010. “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Nat King Cole, which has been the top religious song since the first week of November, is at No. 50, the lowest position for a No. 1 religious song since 2010. Pentatonix’s version of “Mary, Did You Know?” is only at No. 68, and Rogers’ rendition of the song is now No. 255.
Religious holiday songs reached their market share peak in 2015, accounting for 18.2% of all digital downloads and streaming of the top 100 holiday songs. Six of the 13 religious songs in the top 100 holiday tunes were held by the vocal group Pentatonix, including the top three (“Mary, Did You Know?,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “White Winter Hymnal”). The combined consumption of the two versions of “Mary, Did You Know?” by Pentatonix and Jordan Smith, which peaked at Nos. 2 and 3 in that year’s charts, was 17% higher than that of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which peaked at No. 1.
The top 100 songs of 2013 had the most religious music, with 14 of the top holiday songs for the last two months of the year falling under this category. There were two renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” performed by Harry Simeone Chorale and Pentatonix (No. 3). (No. 74). The Temptations (No. 44) and Kelly Clarkson (No. 21) both had “Silent Night” recordings that were well-liked at the time. Four renditions of “O Holy Night” in the top 100: Pentatonix (No. 96), Martina McBride (No. 96), and Celine Dion (No. 48). (No. 97). The original song “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” by Amy Grant came in at number 82.
Billboard evaluated the lyrical content of each song to classify holiday music as secular or religious. Religious music often makes allusions to Christian themes or biblical figures (such Jesus, God, or the Virgin Mary) (the nativity scene). Due to its connections to Judaism, Billboard classified Adam Sandler’s song “The Chanukah Song” as religious. Even though it has a religious-sounding title, a song like “Hallelujah,” penned by Leonard Cohen and frequently recorded by artists like Pentatonix and Carrie Underwood, is considered secular music.
Like other types of music, the way that Christmas music is listened to has evolved over time. Between 2015, when religious holiday music attained its highest market share, to 2022, downloads’ proportion of the top 100 holiday songs’ overall consumption fell from 49% to just 1.4%. Many religious songs this year, such as Lauren Daigle’s “Light of the World” and For King & Country’s “Little Drummer Boy,” had reasonably significant download sales but not enough streams to crack the top 100.
Radio stations favour a different collection of religious holiday music than streaming services, for example, Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, and Whitney Houston’s cover of the 1962 song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” that doesn’t make the top 100 holiday streaming recordings. Barenaked Ladies and Mannheim Steamroller, among others, have recorded traditional tunes like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which consistently does well on American radio. Tom Poleman, chief programming officer for iHeartMedia, writes in an email to Billboard, “Songs like ‘O Holy Night,’ ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?,’ and ‘The First Noel’ still test similarly well for us.”
However, the records indicate that secular music has been playing increasingly frequently on American radio in recent years. 16 religious songs appeared in the top 100 holiday recordings in November and December 2015, as determined by spins. Two renditions of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Houston and Bing Crosby came in at Nos. 33 and 34, respectively, and were quickly followed by the top religious album, “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale, which debuted at No. 25. The renditions of “Mary, Did You Know?” by Rogers and Pentatonix also made the top 100.
Only six religious songs were in the top 100 this year as of December 8; the number-one song, “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale, had dropped to number 72. Although Amy Grant, a Christian singer, still ranks among the top 100, her covers of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Winter Wonderland,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” have done better than her top religious song.
When Christmas rolls around, the final ranks might include more spiritual tunes. According to Sean Ross, the creator of the Ross on Radio newsletter, radio stations frequently play music with a religious tone as Christmas approaches. That would imply that songs like “The First Noel” by Andy Williams and “Joy to the World” by Nat King Cole, both of which were in the top 100 songs in 2021, might receive more listens and advance in the rankings throughout the course of the following week.
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