Ah, Christmastime, the season for pheasant dinners, fancy ties, the land of Toyland from which you can never return, the time of year when everyone falls in love, when snowmen fly away to Snowland to become Eskimos, and when kids run around crying “dickory dock!”

Right?

All of these are bits and pieces from old Christmas songs that have mostly been forgotten, whose imagery and language failed to take hold in the general imagination. It’s quite fascinating how such a small number of songs, from a very narrow moment in American life, have contributed so heavily to...

Ah, Christmastime, the season for pheasant dinners, fancy ties, the land of Toyland from which you can never return, the time of year when everyone falls in love, when snowmen fly away to Snowland to become Eskimos, and when kids run around crying “dickory dock!”

Right?

All of these are bits and pieces from old Christmas songs that have mostly been forgotten, whose imagery and language failed to take hold in the general imagination. It’s quite fascinating how such a small number of songs, from a very narrow moment in American life, have contributed so heavily to defining the mood and feel of our secular Christmases. The majority of the songs that make up the secular “Christmas canon” hail from the early postwar era, with most of the rest being written in the 1930s and ’40s.

Because this body of music has built on itself over the years and is somewhat self-referential, a handful of tropes and images get repeated a lot, sometimes thematically and sometimes literally. In the literal category, Rudolph, who comes from a Montgomery Ward promotional coloring book, ends up not just in his signature song, but in “Run Rudolph Run” and even in the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick,” which calls him “Rudy” because they didn’t hold the Rudolph copyright. (There’s another song for the list — where else has Santa’s sleigh ever been reinvented as a red hot rod, and in what country other than the United States?)

More broadly, a whole series of images — caroling, visiting friends, decorating trees, eating turkey and pumpkin pie, enjoying the holiday with a loved one or alternately begging them to come home, looking in downtown store windows, kissing under the mistletoe, building a snowman, envisioning what Santa might bring (no less than four popular Christmas songs describe creepily anthropomorphic dolls) — are so commonly deployed throughout the Christmas canon that one can barely match them to any specific song. To put it another way, almost every song that gets endless radio airtime around the holidays is constructed out of several of these images and themes.

Those, on the other hand, which diverge from this standard and are no longer widely played now represent a sort of Christmas song evolutionary dead end.

Curiously, Frank Sinatra’s iconic first Christmas album, 1957’s A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, features only two original songs — “Mistletoe and Holly” and the less forgotten “Christmas Waltz,” which recently received an Amazon Original release. But neither of these songs is played very much today. It’s actually not that easy to write a brand new Christmas song, much less try to swap turkey for pheasant.

Other entries covered familiar ground, but perhaps too much so. Nat King Cole’s “Caroling, Caroling” tries to turn singing carols into the sole point of…a carol. Perry Como’s “There Is No Christmas Like a Home Christmas” sounds a lot like “Home for the Holidays,” but even more saccharine. After all, lots of people don’t go “home” for the holidays, whether because they don’t travel, they host, or their parents are deceased. Trying to make Christmas synonymous with homecoming just doesn’t work thematically.

And “dickory dock”? It’s from Andy Williams’ riff on “Happy Holiday” (from the movie Holiday Inn), which is simply titled “Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season.” It probably gets more airtime than any other song I’ve mentioned, but it’s still singularly odd, as though it were written by someone with no first-hand knowledge of how Americans actually sang or talked about Christmas.

Williams refers to the “Christmas snow,” a term used by nobody else. He sings that Santa will be “coming down the chimney, down.” (I didn’t catch that, did you say “down”?) Santa’s bag of gifts turns into a “big fat pack upon his back.” Williams advises the kiddies to “leave a peppermint stick for old St. Nick,” because this version of Santa doesn’t like milk and cookies. And, of course, he welcomes the holiday season by crying “hoop-de-do and dickory dock.”

How a song like that got written, and how it ended up in front of an artist as great as Andy Williams, is probably worth another article by itself.

In any case, Christmas will always be a few things. It will always be Jesus’s birthday, of course, and at least in northern climes it will always be a winter holiday. But it’s curious to consider that if 20 or 30 different songs, of all the hundreds written, had become an alternate Christmas canon, there very well might have been no Rudolph, no Frosty, no chestnuts, no gloomy laments about being away for the war or having a blue Christmas, or any of the other images that began as bits of musical product and ended up as familiar and collectively shared pieces of culture.

It’s a curious thought experiment to wonder how the quirks of music production, radio airtime, and consumer preferences might have resulted in a very different holiday. As for me, I’ll be sticking with the turkey and the mistletoe, contra pheasants and ties. And contra Andy Williams, I’ll also be sticking to the ordinary holiday exclamation of “Merry Christmas!”