No song exists strictly within the milieu that the songwriter imagined for it. The magic of music is in the silent, but very real, interaction between the artist and the audience members, who are free to engage with and interpret the original work on their own terms, reframing it within the context of their own experiences, thoughts, and values. Somewhere, someone hears “My Humps” and is struck by an emotion they didn’t know existed, deep in their chest: That’s how I feel inside all the time, they think to themselves. This is simply how music—how all art, really—works. The alchemy when an idea that began with one person becomes something that belongs to the wider world is perhaps why we are compelled to create in the first place.
This fundamental truth explains—if only just barely—how Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a horny hymn for which the Canadian Jewish sometime Zen Buddhist spent five years composing nigh-endless draft verses (as few as 80 or as many as 180, depending on who’s counting), became, of all things, a Christmas anthem.
“Hallelujah” is a Christmas song now, though, however unlikely its journey to that status may have been. And for that we must acknowledge the contributions of Pentatonix, the Arlington a capella group. After winning the NBC reality competition show The Sing-Off in 2011, Pentatonix set off on a career of recording Christmas albums at a truly astonishing pace, a barely controlled frenzy of holiday joy the likes of which had not been seen before or since. Between 2014 and 2022, the group released a total of six Christmas albums, plus a deluxe-edition rerelease of one of those records with extra songs, as well as three additional compilations featuring selections from those releases. (For comparison, it took Christmas stalwart Mannheim Steamroller fourteen years to reach its sixth holiday-themed release.)
It was on the second of those albums—2016’s A Pentatonix Christmas—that the group covered “Hallelujah.” It was an unconventional choice. Lyrically, “Hallelujah” is not particularly jolly, themed as it is around religious ambivalence, sexual desire, and the interplay between the two that existed in Cohen’s mind. Nonetheless, the song, which was the only track from A Pentatonix Christmas to be released as a single, drove the success of the album. A Pentatonix Christmas peaked at number one not only on Billboard’s Top Holiday Albums, but also on the Billboard 200, one of only a handful of holiday albums to do so this century. The group’s rendition of “Hallelujah” reached number 23 on the Hot 100, and it’s the second-highest-charting version of the song ever recorded (Justin Timberlake’s improbable version hit number 13). A Pentatonix Christmas, which cast “Hallelujah” alongside explicitly religious Christmas hymns such as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” was released on October 21, 2016. Leonard Cohen died seventeen days later.
We must now pause for a brief interlude to explain a problem that, while not created by Pentatonix, has certainly been exacerbated by the group’s prolific output. The Christmas music industry is in a supply-chain crisis. Christmas music simply does not enter the canon at anywhere near the pace at which collections of holiday songs are recorded. Since 1971, one can identify perhaps five songs that stand alongside the giants of the genre: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” the 1979 novelty song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” the Pogues’s “Fairytale of New York,” and Mariah Carey’s 1994 masterpiece “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Others have attempted to add new songs to the mix, of course, but they’ve failed to break through, or—in the case of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”—been so terrible as to permanently mar the legacy of one of pop music’s finest songwriters. There are plausible, even scientific, theories for why this is the case, but regardless: in more than fifty years, we have added only a handful of new songs to the pool of Christmas music from which all artists who seek to record something that wasn’t around for Bing Crosby to sing must draw.
The effects of this are dire. Songs that have nothing to do with the holidays are being recast as Christmas songs regardless of how appropriate their actual contents may be to the celebration at hand. Here is a brief, nonexhaustive list of entirely secular songs that have nonetheless appeared on Christmas albums in the past several years: “A Long December,” by Counting Crows (a song about surviving being hit by a car); “White Winter Hymnal,” by Fleet Foxes (a song about . . . something, no one is quite sure what); “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed (about heroin); “Seasons of Love,” from the musical Rent (about AIDS); and the “Every Kiss Begins with K” jingle from Kay Jewelers. We are in a Christmas crisis.
This is amplified by the ease with which any artist can record and release a Christmas album in the digital era. Once, a musician who sought to express the holiday cheer in their heart (or just quickly and easily fulfill a contractual obligation) needed to book session time in a recording studio, take the product of that session to their record label, and then wait as that label paid real money to press that album onto a record that retailers would have to make space for on their physically constrained shelves. Today, any artist with GarageBand on their MacBook can record a few Christmas songs, send them off to be uploaded to Spotify and Apple Music, and then collect a few fractions of a penny every time anyone who wants to hear a new voice sing a familiar song clicks “Play.” (The Eagles—the football team, not the Don Henley Eagles—have not one but two Christmas albums!) But musicians are artists, and they get bored with the same limited menu of songs from which to choose, and thus they cast about for new ones to sing.
The list of traditional Christmas songs that haven’t already been exhausted is short (here’s Kacey Musgraves singing “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” for proof), so anything that you might be able to mistake for a holiday song, if you squint real hard, could well end up on a collection of Christmas carols. Until the world’s musicians address this properly—perhaps with a Manhattan Project for Christmas music, bringing dozens of the greatest of our songwriters together to craft a few albums’ worth of new classics—we’ll get a capella groups wringing holiday cheer out of songs whose writers never imagined might shuffle alongside “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Pentatonix wasn’t the very first artist to put “Hallelujah” on a Christmas album—that appears to have been Scottish singer Susan Boyle, who put it on her 2010 chart-topper The Gift. The momentum in the effort to recast “Hallelujah” in the holiday tradition got another push in 2012, when the lyrics were rewritten by Christian rock band Cloverton to make the song explicitly themed as a Jesus-flavored religious one; the opening line, in Cloverton’s rendition, is “I’ve heard about this baby boy / Who’s come to earth to bring us joy.” But the overwhelming success of the Pentatonix version, which maintained most of Cohen’s original lyrics, opened the floodgates for artists who wanted something new to sing. In the years since, the number of Christmas-branded albums, EPs, and singles to include the song has ballooned.
A few short months after Pentatonix released its version, Sugarland front woman Jennifer Nettles performed it as a medley with “O Holy Night” on SiriusXM. You can hear it on Fantasia’s 2017 Christmas After Midnight; on Lindsey Stirling’s 2018 edition of Warmer in the Winter; on Andrea Bocelli’s 2023 A Family Christmas; as a single by a seemingly endless array of artists who’ve pushed holiday releases to music streamers; and on an uncountable number of Christmas playlists on those same services. Alan Light, who wrote the book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” in 2012, noted the inflection point that was Pentatonix when he revisited the subject of his book in a 2022 essay in Variety, writing, “Since 2016 . . . the most popular version of ‘Hallelujah’ on streaming services by far has come from a capella superstars Pentatonix.”
Light’s book exists because the trajectory of “Hallelujah,” even before its surprising third life as a Christmas staple, is itself a fascinating story. It was released on Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions, which his label rejected; Cohen took it to the independent Passport Records instead. The rejection may seem like an obvious mistake now, but the world did not immediately seize upon “Hallelujah” and force the label to reassess its decision. The song had few champions (though Bob Dylan was one of them) until singer Jeff Buckley recorded it with a starkly different arrangement from Cohen’s (inspired by a rendition from Velvet Underground member John Cale) on his debut album, Grace, in 1994. Buckley’s arrangement grew to be the dominant one, and the verses he chose to sing from the staggering buffet of unused lyrics that Cohen offered through his various live performances of the song, are the ones that appear in most covers as well. Those lyrics are decidedly more ambivalent about religion than the ones in Cloverton’s Christmas rewrite, and the meaning that Buckley heard in them is considerably less family-friendly than most holiday songs (he heard in them “the hallelujah of the orgasm”). It’s rare to hear horny lines such as “remember when I moved in you” in a Christmas favorite, after all.
But songs change meaning all the time, including Christmas songs. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was a downer tune about how, because the singer will soon have to move away, “we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” and remained such until Frank Sinatra demanded that the original songwriter “jolly up that line” for his own rendition. (The line was changed to the more familiar, but emotionally meaningless, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”)
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, a baffled Leonard Cohen, sitting in his underwear in a hotel room and banging his head on the floor, composing “Hallelujah.” “Hallelujah” is a Christmas song not because its Jewish songwriter, who spent years agonizing over which verses to include as he wrote about being tied to a chair by a lover, imagined his composition filling the homes of families gathered around the tree to see what Santa Claus had brought the children. It’s a Christmas song because, in spite of the decidedly un-Christmasy context of Cohen’s creation, those families have chosen to listen to it in those moments anyway. This is, perhaps, the crowning achievement of the Arlington a capella group that cemented the song’s transition to holiday favorite. However unlikely it may be, Pentatonix has, from so many lips each Christmas, drawn a “hallelujah.”