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Christmas music on the radio: What gets played and why during the holiday season

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Holiday Festival of Lights (copy)

Still water reflects this Christmas tree at the Holiday Festival of Lights at James Island County Park. Wade Spees/Staff

Luke Mitchell of Charleston band The High Divers grew up on "A Very Special Christmas," a compilation of CDs featuring artists like Stevie Nicks, U2, The Smashing Pumpkins and Run D.M.C. Three editions were released between 1987 and 1997.

"Those CDs were so eclectic and original and bring (the spirit of Christmas) back immediately," Mitchell says.

The set inspired him to make a little of his own holiday music. The High Divers released an original Christmas EP this year, "A Very Divers Christmas." It was more about harnessing the joy of the holidays than trying to break into the Christmas music canon, he says.

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Which is probably a good thing, since that canon is hard to break into. Though artists still are releasing new Christmas tunes, nothing seems to stick, nothing achieves the lasting fame of the original songs of Christmas past.

Think Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" from 1942, Elvis's "Blue Christmas" from 1957, Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" from 1961 and The Beach Boys' "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" from 1964. You'll hear those hits far more often than Justin Bieber's "Mistletoe" from 2011 or Coldplay's "Christmas Lights" from 2015. 

Yet other new holiday releases are still vying for a coveted spot in the genre of music that perhaps has the most well-known catalog of any.

Why does it seem like mostly older holiday songs are played even though new Christmas albums come out every year?

Among Y102.5's Christmas index are some new holiday tunes from discs like "A Legendary Christmas" by John Legend and "You Make Me Feel Like Christmas" by Gwen Stefani. Yet, the majority of songs on the air during November and December are the classics that have been around for decades, many since the '40s, '50s and '60s. 

Scott Elingburg, a Charleston-based freelance writer, has been working on a book since 2015 that examines this disparity. 

His deep-dive into the niche subject of Christmas music began with a series of articles he wrote for literary journal McSweeney's. The first column was about the cultural "War on Christmas," the second on Vince Guaraldi's Christmas "Peanuts" special, the third on a meeting David Bowie and Bing Crosby had before recording "Little Drummer Boy" in 1977 and the fourth on an indie band from Minnesota called Low and their surprisingly successful '99 Christmas album. 

"There were two things I was really trying to tackle: One, expanding our listening habits when it comes to Christmas music, and two, a cultural analysis as to why is it all our Christmas music is stuck in the past," Elingburg says. 

Part of it, he and the program director at the "Lowcountry's Christmas Station" Y102.5 Brian Cleary both assert, has to do with the cross-generational aspect of it, co-mingled with nostalgia. Christmas songs tend to bring everyone together, though individual tastes differ. 

"For the most part, in a typical family, mom and dad don’t listen (or maybe even like) the songs their children listen to, but everyone likes the same Christmas songs," Cleary says. "So while not everyone agrees on Drake, Taylor Swift or Imagine Dragons, we can all sing along with 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town,' whether it’s sung by Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen or Kelly Clarkson."

There's something about a longstanding custom that conveys a feel-good sense of security. Though much has changed through the decades, Andy Williams' "Happy Holiday" will still be playing this time of year. 

"Christmas is built on tradition," Elingburg says. "Having those songs, knowing what to expect, gives us a good feeling that the tradition is still alive and well."

Will the Christmas music of today ever achieve the fame of older classics?

An abundance of new Christmas albums appear every holiday season, and then are promptly ignored or quickly forgotten. The holiday tunes released since the 2000s stand little chance of joining those timeless classics. 

"New Christmas music is very difficult," Cleary says. "There is comfort in Christmas music, so people want to hear songs they know and love. It’s very hard for a new Christmas song to break through to get to the level where you’ll want to hear it next holiday season."

And that's true particularly for original songs, which have an even harder time making it into the radio circuit than covers. According to Cleary, the last true Christmas hit that makes the cut as a "classic" is Mariah Carey's 1994 hit "All I Want for Christmas is You."

Since then, he says the closest anyone has come is Pentatonix, an a cappella group that gained fame during the 2011 season of reality show "The Sing-Off." The group's 2014 Christmas album "That's Christmas to Me" had a track that still plays on the radio at the holidays. 

Another example of an exception to the rule is Michael Buble's 2011 Christmas album, which hit the top of the charts, although that could be because his voice hails back to Sinatra. And most of the tracks were covers. 

Cleary says new Christmas songs typically will get radio play for only a couple years max before disappearing into the vault and making way for the tried-and-true favorites. According to him, a new Christmas song really only has four to six weeks to become a "hit," whereas during the rest of the year, that process takes between eight and 20 weeks.

Yet, bands — a lot of bands — are still trying to achieve eternal fame. And among them are celebrities whose tunes can't quite make the Christmas songbook. Just last year that list included Sia, Hanson, 98 Degrees, Blake Shelton and Fantasia. Ultimately, it's a large funnel with a tiny hole. Will any new Christmas song stand the test of time like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has? 

"People are trying to write new Christmas songs because once you get a song in the popular Christmas lexicon, it’s a moneymaker," Elingburg says.

Yet few will live on. Nostalgia is powerful force. 

"When you tune into radio stations for Christmas, you're listening to very solidified playlist," Elingburg adds. "There's no room for a new Ingrid Michaelson track. They have format. You can almost set your watch to it." 

Why start playing Christmas music so early?

But why is Christmas music, a cultural staple that transcends generations, played earlier and earlier every year? Won't the nostalgia start wearing off before Christmas day when the radio stations start blasting "Jingle Bells" a full two months before Santa Claus arrives? 

Y102.5 started playing holiday tunes on Nov. 7 this year, a full two weeks before Thanksgiving.

Listenership and advertisements pick up this time of year, according to Cleary. It's something that happens naturally as gift-giving season moves into full swing; playing Christmas tunes early correlates with the spirit of consumerism.

"Ads do pick-up for the holiday season both from the standpoint of regular advertisers being a little more aggressive and businesses that may not advertise much during other parts of the year doing what they can to get the word out for the holiday season," Cleary says. 

But perhaps the early play really comes down to something simpler: People want to feel cheerful, and there's no timetable for that emotion. 

"People love Christmas music so much because of the warm, positive feeling that’s associated with these songs," Cleary says. "How can 'The Most Wonderful Time of the Year' not put you in a better mood?"

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

Kalyn Oyer is a Charleston native who covers arts & entertainment and food & bev for The Post and Courier. She's a music festival & concert photographer and used to write about music for the Charleston City Paper, among other publications.