Despite her mature-sounding voice, Lee recorded this song when she was only thirteen years old. The song's declaration of a rock and roll sound notwithstanding, its instrumentation also fits the country music genre, which Brenda Lee more fully embraced as her career evolved. The recording features Grady Martin's ringing guitar and Boots Randolph's swinging solo sax break. The song is written in the key of A-flat major.
An instrumental version of the song appears as background music in the 1964 television specialRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which exclusively featured music written by Marks. It can be heard in the scene where Rudolph first arrives at the Reindeer Games and meets another reindeer named Fireball. The song was also used in the 1990 film Home Alone during a scene when Kevin McCallister pretends that there is a holiday party taking place in his house, and discourages the burglars from robbing it.
Although Decca released the single in both 1958 and again in 1959, it did not sell well until Lee became a popular star in 1960. That Christmas holiday season, Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" peaked at No.14 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart. It continued to sell well during subsequent holiday seasons, peaking as high as No. 3 on Billboard's Christmas Singles chart in December 1965.
It peaked at No.6 in the UK Charts, when it was released there in 1963, in 2013 due to downloads it became one of a number of songs to re-enter the UK Singles Chart near Christmas time along with Slade and The Pogues "Fairytale of New York", Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", it peaked at No.63 on Sunday 15 December 2013.
For decades, Brenda Lee's recording was the only notable version of the song. Radio stations ranging from Top 40 to Adult Contemporary to Country Music to Oldies to even Adult Standards played this version. Lee's recording still receives a great deal of airplay, and has since turned into a perennial holiday favorite.
As of December 25, 2011, Nielsen SoundScan estimated total sales of the digital track at 679,000 downloads, placing it fourth on the list of all-time best-selling Christmas/holiday digital singles in SoundScan history.