I’ve a Christmas playlist on Spotify which is full of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Karen Carpenter, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Kay Starr, and others. It’s not a very classical playlist. I’ve often found classical Christmas music to be not that Christmasy.
That probably stems from that fact that Christmas in the United States wasn’t a holiday until 1870, which means it has been largely separated from its musical roots in the Christian tradition of Europe. That is not to say there aren’t Christmas hymns and Christmas carols, but those aren’t classical music, even though “Hark the Herald Angels” is by Mendelssohn.
The only classical music which remains consistently popular at Christmas is Handel’s Messiah. However, it’s most famous piece is the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which is from the Easter section and is in response to the resurrection of Jesus not his birth.
There is Christmas music from the Catholic tradition. “O magnum mysterium” and “Alma redemptoris mater” by 16th-century composers Tomás Luis de Victoria and Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina are magically beautiful motets specific to Christmastide and worth a listen by any lover of beauty, Catholic or non-Catholic. But it’s the text, not the sound, that makes them Christmasy. Unless you were reading a translation of the Latin text, you wouldn’t know whether the piece were celebrating Christmas, Easter, or the Decollation of John the Baptist.
Victoria's "O magnum mysterium"
Let’s face it. Christmas, particularly in the United States, just isn’t a classical music festival. What holidays are for classical music? The Fourth of July does an okay job of appropriating The 1812 Overture but by and large classical music isn’t really a part of our national holidays.
The thing about Christmas is that music is an integral part of the occasion — just not classical music. The hymns and carols and secular songs are so effective we don’t need to find inspiration from the great composers.
Ralph Vaughan Williams put together a nice piece with his Fantasia on Christmas Carols and his Hodie is spectacular but requires a ton of resources. Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols is also quite effective.
There is J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio but it just sounds like Bach with a text about the Nativity. None of the classical composers were trying to create a Christmas sound such as we experience with popular Christmas music. I can say that I find the 14th-century German carol “Personent hodie” to be Christmasy enough to put on my playlist.