Every year the holiday season seems to get longer. By the time Christmas actually arrives, you’ve heard more than your fair share of Christmas music—it’s practically inescapable. And every holiday playlist looks nearly the same as the next; if you search for “Christmas music” on any platform you’ll get similar results—including a bunch of songs that have become closely associated with the holiday but aren’t actually Christmas songs except by association.
Sometimes these non-Christmas Christmas songs make sense, because their lyrical imagery is all wintry and it’s easy to see the holidays implied within them. But if you pause for a moment to really think about those lyrics, it’s usually pretty obvious what is and isn’t an actual, bona-fide Christmas song. Here are eleven that snuck into the holiday season under false pretenses.
A constant on holiday playlists, “Winter Wonderland” started life as a poem composed by Richard Bernhard Smith as he recovered from a bout of tuberculosis in 1934. Isolated in a sanitarium due to his very contagious disease, Smith passed the time entering contests writing commercial jingles for companies. Waking up to a fresh snowfall one day, he wrote the words that would become this holiday classic. Music was composed for it that same year, and it became an instant hit—but there’s zero mention of Christmas in there, and the song was never really intended as a holiday song at all.
Composed in 1857 by James Pierpont, “Jingle Bells” was originally called “One Horse Open Sleigh.” It is technically a holiday song—it was originally intended to be a Thanksgiving-themed tune. The full song is actually kind of mischievous, telling a tale of young men racing their sleighs, trying to pick up girls, and getting into a violent crash. It’s essentially a call to sow those wild oats while you can, so it’s kind of remarkable that it’s become a Christmas classic.
“Jingle Bell Rock”
Written by a pair of middle-aged executives and recorded by an up-and-coming country music star named Bobby Helms, “Jingle Bell Rock” doesn’t just lack any sort of literal Christmas spirit—it purposefully lacks it. According to the Los Angeles Times, Helms came from a pretty religious background, and knew his mother wouldn’t approve of mixing religion with rock n’ roll (this was 1957, when rock music was still considered a dangerous trend corrupting the youth of America). So he made certain the lyrics were completely religion-free.
“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
Written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1945, “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (yes, the official title has the phrase repeated three times) was inspired by the very opposite of Christmastime: a heat wave. Sweltering in the California heat in the age before air conditioning was commonly available, the songwriters conjured up an image of a cold, snowy morning to cool their overheated nerves, and a holiday classic that never once mentions Christmas was born.
“Frosty The Snowman”
Perhaps the most irritating Christmas song of all time is associated with the holiday in large part due to the beloved 1969 television special built around the song, in which a snowman comes to life via magical hat and terrorizes a neighborhood. But the song itself was conceived as a more generic winter season song, written specifically for Gene Autry in 1950 as a follow-up to his smash hit “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” When the TV special was conceived, the plot of the song was expanded and the Christmas stuff was shoehorned in, including an altered final lyric that changed “back again some day” to “back on Christmas Day.”
“Linus And Lucy” By The Vince Guaraldi Trio
Originally composed to be on the soundtrack of a documentary, the song that became the jazz standard (and unofficial theme song of the Peanuts cartoons) has no lyrical content at all. The only reason we associate it with Christmas is its debut as part of the soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965. Even though the song appeared in all the subsequent Charlie Brown specials and doesn’t even feature bells or other holiday-esque touches, it’s considered a Christmas song as a result.
“Sleigh Ride” is another Christmas classic that is both inspired by a heat wave and has nothing to do with Christmas. Composer Leroy Anderson was cooped up in a hot cottage in Connecticut during a hot 1946 summer, and wrote “Sleigh Ride” while wishing for cooler weather. He describes it as “just another piece of music that I wrote.”
“My Favorite Things”
This classic song is now known primarily thanks to Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music, but it made its public debut in 1959 as part of the Broadway production of the story. It was not originally intended as a holiday-themed song, but when the film was poised to be released in 1965, producers worried that they didn’t have a hit song driving ticket sales, so they approached singer Jack Jones about recording one of the songs in hopes of landing on the charts. Jones was making a Christmas album, and liked “My Favorite Things,” but worried that it wasn’t really a Christmas song. The solution? “Just add sleigh bells.” It worked.