Why ‘Silent Night’ Will Never Go Quiet

TIME crunches the merry numbers behind the most popular Christmas songs of the modern era

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The names Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber have largely vanished into the annals of Christmas tormentors, but their greatest triumph lives on. “Silent Night,” which Mohr wrote the lyrics for (in German) in 1816 and Gruber put to music two years later, is the most recorded Christmas song in the modern era of the holiday’s substantial oeuvre.

To determine this fact, TIME crawled the records at the U.S. Copyright Office, which offers digitized registrations going back to 1978, and collected data on every Christmas album recorded since that time. “Silent Night,” it turns out, is not merely the most popular carol; with 733 copyrighted recordings since 1978, it is nearly twice as dominant as “Joy to the World,” a distant second with 391 records to its name.

As one might surmise, songs that are no longer under their original copyright are considerably more prominent on modern Christmas albums, given that one needn’t share the holiday windfall. This lends an obvious advantage to the ecclesiastical hymns and tunes, like “O Holy Night” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” As intellectual property lawyer Paul C. Jorgensen explains, this does nothing to prevent artists from copyrighting their own recording of a song and collecting royalties whenever a radio station wants to play it–assuming the other 732 renditions weren’t to taste. 

Nor is it strictly limited to American recording artists. “A lot of international artists will go ahead and register things in the United States,” Jorgensen said.

To determine secularity, TIME measured the likelihood that a song appears on the same album with either “What Child Is This?”, a decidedly devout 1865 tune, or “Jingle Bell Rock,” roughly it’s polar opposite. (The choice of those two songs is rather arbitrary, but proved in trial and error to offer the clearest dichotomy.) In true Christmas spirit, “Silent Night” aptly bridges that great divide: It co-headlines with just about anyone.

Methodology

This project began by downloading every copyrighted recording of “Jingle Bells,” then expanding to every song on the same album as “Jingle Bells,” and so forth until the universe of Christmas music was exhausted. The data only includes “sound recording” records from the Copyright Office, as opposed to sheet music arrangements, videos, and other formats in which one might copyright a song. Variations on the same material, such as “O Christmas Tree” and “O Tannenbaum,” where grouped as one song.

Design by Alexander Ho

9 comments
JohnnyTopside
JohnnyTopside

What about Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree? A poll taken last year by some other magazine/website said that was the most popular Christmas song. 

KarenTobin
KarenTobin

Also, it's Deck the Hall. No "s."

Fleisch
Fleisch

"roughly it's polar opposite".  Really, TIME magazine?  It's = it is.

BryanJ.Maloney
BryanJ.Maloney

Why is "Joy to the World" listed as being secular?

"Joy to the world, the Lord is come.

Let earth receive her King."

and

"Joy to the world, the Savior reigns"

and

"He rules the world with truth and Grace

And makes the nations prove

The glories of His righteousness"


Just how is that secular and not religious?

Openminded1
Openminded1

Who cares, people listen to what they like. 

WilmarMail
WilmarMail

When a song like "Little Drummer Boy" is categorized as more secular than faith-based, earning a green (albeit a light one), it's easy to tell that the research was poor.   Little Drummer Boy is on the same shade as Sleigh Ride although the earlier has no mention of snow nor Santa yet plenty of references to baby Jesus and specific mention of Mary and the ox and the lamb.  Great idea, but the lyrical research could use more depth.

therantguy
therantguy

What a weird system...by this system...a song like Mariah Carey's (All I want for Christmas is you) is woefully underrepresented because her version is very popular...In other words, sure lots of people record Silent Night...that doesn't mean anything more than lots of people record Silent Night...it doesn't mean the song is popular (although it might)...it just means it is recorded a lot...True popularity is measured in sales...if Silent Night "covers" sell millions of CD's or singles, then fine...but simply telling us how many times a song is recorded tells us relatively little.

mdmanning70
mdmanning70

@WilmarMail The same goes for Joy to the World, I Saw Three Ships, Bring a Torch, and a few others.