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History of Christmas Music

The golden age of popular Christmas music started, roughly, as the depression was ending and lasted for over 25 years. It was part of a phenomena fueled by the convergence of otherwise disparate developments, all coming together in a way that might be hard for us to envision today.

Although Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph over 50 years earlier, it took until the 1930's for a generally accepted format to become widely established. By this time, the 78 record was king. Any number of record companies could make a record, and it could be played on any manufacturers record player. Prior to this, each manufacturer produced both records and record players that were not interchangeable in the market place. The standardization of sound recording and playback was the first piece of the puzzle.

Then, about 1930, movies began to talk; or, in our case, sing. Although movies had been popular since the turn of the century, they were largely considered entertainment for children, and the working masses. With the advent of sound, movies had a surge of popularity, with an appeal to all people. The movie musical was born.

At about this same time, the microphone was invented. Amplified sound, ironically, lead to a singer being able to use nuanced phrasing to express the emotions of a song. Prior to this, a singer had to be a 'belter', so that the song could be heard in the last row of the balcony. Arguably, one of the early benefactors of this new technology was Bing Crosby. He had a big hit in 1935 of Silent Night; it foreshadowed the beginning of an era.

Although today, we tend to identify a single song with a particular singer, and perhaps a singer writing his or her own songs, that was not the case before the mid 1950's. During this earlier period, many singers recorded a song. The song was the hit; and there was plenty of work for songwriters. Even in the depression, when work was tough to find for many people, the entertainment industry had a need for songwriters to supply the demand for movie scores. The Broadway musical, as we know it today, was also developing in this same early period. And then, after W.W.II, came two huge trends: the baby boom, and a prolonged period of affluence which propelled a large number of people into the middle class. People had money to spend; they spent it on themselves, and they spent it on their children.

Put everything together, and we get a broad, prolific period of sophisticated, and skillfully written American popular music, with an attendant proliferation of Christmas tunes.

Collecting Christmas music can be broadly classified into two areas: the music itself; and then all the visual tools used to sell the music. Early on, sheet music established the practice of using attractive illustrations to sell music. Collecting sheet music is a sub-category onto itself. Almost all popular Christmas music of the period could be available in sheet music.

Developments in marketing led to the picture sleeve. This was a protective piece of paper, in envelope form, into which a record could be placed. The picture sleeve, starting with children's records after W.W.II, and spreading into all music shortly thereafter, became the way to visually attract the customer. They are often colorful and are collected in their own right. They developed at the same time the seven inch, 45 RPM record (the one with the big hole) became the standard for selling a single song.

During the 1930's and 1940's, when the 10 inch 78 RPM was king, a group of records could be purchased in an album. That is, the music from a movie or Broadway show was put onto a group of records, and the records were sold in a folder with pages that held the records and resembled a book or "album". Hence, the derivative of the word. The cover of the album was often a scene from the show, or some other illustration conveying visually what was inside musically. When the 12" LP developed in the mid 1950's, the word album was still used. This time, the large format gave illustrators a bigger area to ply their trade. These albums are also collectible, and a very important part of collecting music.

Some collectors enjoy the sound of the early records, and actually play their collections. Other collectors just like the appearance of the album, and collect them as such. A tremendous amount of early Christmas music is available in modern formats, and some collectors enjoy listening to early recordings in that way. Often, the illustration which was used on an early record is replicated on the cover of a modern CD.

Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer Record Sleeve

Collection of Vintage Christmas Records


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