English Christmas Concerts

Concert-Diary has been advertising classical concerts since 2000, mainly in the UK, and (unlike some listings websites) allows you to go back and look at historic data. Concerts can be classified under several headings – one of which is “Christmas”, so I thought it would be interesting to look at this century’s Christmas concerts.

A search for Christmas concerts in England since 2000 results in just over 4,000 entries. It would be possible to examine the full details of all of these (individual works, performers, ticket prices, promotional text, etc), but we can also gather a lot of information just from the summary search results page. The search results page consists of two panels – a summary panel on the left, showing the number of results under different headings (city, composer, genre, etc); and a listing of individual concerts (on the right) showing titles, venues, dates and times.1

The chart below shows the total number of concerts for each year.2 2020 was hit by the Covid pandemic, but this year (2022) seems to have recovered to more or less normal levels. The rise from 2000 to 2004 may reflect Concert-Diary being quite new and still being discovered by promoters.

Total Christmas concerts by year

On the face of it, the number of Christmas concerts has been in decline since 2010. However, Concert-Diary introduced a minimum charge in November 2011. Before then it was possible to advertise concerts free of charge, or to pay for more features and greater prominence. The drop after 2011 is quite probably due to the falling off of free listings. There has, nevertheless, been a gradual decline over the last ten years, although this might reflect falling usage of Concert-Diary (perhaps as other listings sites have become more popular) rather than a drop in the actual number of concerts.

The next chart shows the distribution of Christmas concerts by days before Christmas. There are few before the start of December or after Christmas, with the peak period being the two weeks between 16 and 3 days before Christmas (i.e. 9th to 22nd December).3

Dates of Christmas concerts relative to Christmas Day

Saturday is by far the most common day for Christmas concerts, accounting for about 43% of them. Sunday is second (14%), with just 6% being held on a Monday. 56% of Christmas concerts start at 7.30pm, with the next favourite start times being 7.00pm (10%), 8.30pm (6%) and 3.00pm (5%).

Weekdays of Christmas concerts

The search results include concert venues, and it is possible to use this information to “geocode” the locations – i.e. to find the latitude and longitude coordinates. There are several geocoding services available, although the process often takes several attempts using different sources (plus a bit of manual checking).4 The following map shows the location (blue dots) and density of concerts, where each density contour increases by a factor of two. There is a huge concentration in London, smaller peaks in several other cities, but also large parts of the country which have seen very few Christmas concerts since 2000.

Location of Christmas Concerts 2000-2022 (blue dots), plus density of concerts, with each contour increasing by a factor of two.

It would be possible to compare this with population data to see which cities or regions have the greatest number of Christmas concerts per head, or to look for correlations against the age profile, education levels, or the many other types of geographical population data that are available from government statistics, census returns and other sources.

Among the Christmas concert listings are many long-running regular series – the same performer at the same venue each year. These can be tricky to identify automatically, purely from the search results, due to changes in the descriptions from one year to the next. For example, to a human reader, it is clear that the following are probably all part of a regular series at Gloucester Cathedral, but identifying them as such automatically (and rejecting other potential members) is quite a complex task…

St Cecilia Singers Christmas Concert
A Great and Mighty Wonder! A Christmas Concert by the St Cecilia Singers
In Dulci Jubilo: Christmas at Gloucester Cathedral with Saint Cecilia Singers
Saint Cecilia Singers - Temps de Noël
Festive Favourites - Saint Cecilia Singers
An English Christmas | Saint Cecilia Singers (chamber choir)
Saint Cecilia Singers: By the light of a star

The search summary tables include the number of results by composer. “Traditional” and “Various” are, perhaps not surprisingly, the most common options. The following chart shows the yearly trend for the most common composers (in ascending order of overall appearances), expressed as a proportion of total concerts. Many traditional composers (Bach, Handel, etc) are declining, but more recent names such as John Rutter (b.1945), Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015), and Bob Chilcott (b.1955) seem to be gaining in popularity.

Composers listed for Christmas Concerts

The summary also contains “genre” totals, which contain no particular surprises. Most Christmas concerts are classed as “choral” (or “vocal” or “a cappella”), with less than one in five being described as “orchestral”, “chamber” or “instrumental”.

Without looking at the individual listings pages, the only description that appears on the search results is a headline title for each concert (such as those above at Gloucester Cathedral). The chart below shows the top words used in these headline titles (excluding common “stopwords” such as “the” and “and”). Interestingly, “carol(s)” has become a less common term since about 2010, and has been replaced by “choir” and “choral”. This perhaps suggests that Christmas concerts have shifted away from audience participation towards performances by trained singers, although it could also reflect the introduction of charges in 2011, which might have reduced the advertising for free “carol” concerts more than for performed “choir” concerts.

Top words used in advertised titles of Christmas concerts

2020 saw “online” as the second most common term. Despite the apparent success of many online events that year, the trend seems to have almost completely disappeared as the world has moved on from the restrictions of covid.5

“Candlelight” fell in popularity between 2000 and 2012, but since 2020 it has returned as one of the most common terms. More research would be needed, but I suspect the recent trend is actually for LED-candlelight!

This is an interesting dataset as it hints at some possibly significant trends, yet also suffers from some potential weaknesses. As well as the changing usage of Concert-Diary due to pricing and competition, there might be other factors, such as competition in how concerts are described to stand out from the crowd: perhaps the concerts are the same, but a description mentioning “carols” sells fewer tickets than one including “choir”!

There is also a potential difficulty with Concert-Diary’s “Christmas” classification, in that it is one of the options under “era”. There are, for example, many performances of Handel’s Messiah every Christmas, but I suspect a large proportion of these are classified with an “era” tag of “Baroque” rather than “Christmas”.

As usual, it is important to understand the characteristics of the source before drawing any firm conclusions!

Cite this article as: Gustar, A.J. 'English Christmas Concerts' in Statistics in Historical Musicology, 27th December 2022, https://musichistorystats.com/wp/english-christmas-concerts/.
  1. The only change I made to the default search was to set the s parameter to 5000. This controls how many concerts are returned in a single page. I gathered one search page for each year.
  2. I have defined years as six months either side of Christmas, so “2010” runs from 25 June 2010 to 24 June 2011.
  3. I have excluded a handful of “Christmas” concerts that were held at other times of the year!
  4. I used the tidygeocoder package in R, with a combination of the nominatim, arcgis and google geocoding services.
  5. See this post for further analysis of the impact of Covid.

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