What Christmas Music Is Worth Saving?
I hate Christmas music.
Ok, not all of it. It’s complicated. Let me explain.
Anyone who’s ever worked in retail, food service or any other consumer industry knows the feeling of existential dread that accompanies the onset of the holiday season. It’s that most wonderful mournful time of year, where retail stores switch from playing “adult contemporary” (code for every abysmal, milquetoast pop song from the last 30 years) to spitting out the same 15-20 songs, varied only by whatever artists decided to cash in on an awful and poorly-advised Christmas album that year. If you’re lucky, your workplace will be merciful enough to wait until Thanksgiving before cranking every terrible version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland”…over…and over…and over again.
When I worked at the local grocery store in high school, the manager had the good taste to wait until the end of November. Even so, somewhere around December 15, I reached a bargaining stage with my sanity that left me pondering: “Can I endure one more round of “Santa Baby?” Perhaps I can stomach one more take on “Jingle Bell Rock. Or should I just run into oncoming traffic?”
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Christmas growing up and can still get excited on Christmas Eve. But the season itself has become so all-consuming and repellent, and I don’t even work in retail anymore!
Christopher Hitchens went even further, comparing the season to living in a one-party dictatorship:
The same songs and music played everywhere, all the time. The same uniform slogans and exhortations, endlessly displayed and repeated. The same sentimental stress on the sheer joy of having a Dear Leader to adore. As I pressed on I began almost to persuade myself. The serried ranks of beaming schoolchildren, chanting the same uplifting mush. The cowed parents, in terror of being unmasked by their offspring for insufficient participation in the glorious events…
I also like how he denotes the holidays as a time of “compulsory jollity,” as it gets to the contradiction inherent in over-doing Christmas: when you feel obligated to enjoy yourself, it’s very hard to actually have any fun at all. When you place rules around gift-giving, it kind of defeats the whole purpose of generosity. And when you crank the same tired songs incessantly for 30 days or more, you squelch whatever joy was contained in the notes in the first place.
It’s a curious time politically as well, as it’s the one yearly interval when conservatives act like hypersensitive progressives. For 11 months, they’ll spend column after column attacking political correctness (rightly in many cases), but once Thanksgiving is over, the self-victimization shoe is firmly on the other foot. It’s as if every time someone says “Happy Holidays,” an angel plummets down to the infernal region (with a red Starbucks cup in hand). Keep in mind, the only real “War on Christmas” ever waged in the US (and the UK) was by the Puritans, who saw the holiday as decadent and blasphemous.
But I’ll give the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd one thing. Their Christmas music is definitely better!
One consequence of the secularization of Christmas is that the traditional, religious songs tend to get played less often. Sure, many of these have been overdone as well, but not to the same degree. Perhaps my affinity for this music is the sentimental voice of my childhood talking. After all, I did spend my K-8 years at Catholic school and the yearly Christmas celebration was actually a lot of fun. And for whatever reason, I still like the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. But since I no longer practice, why do I care?
It’s difficult not to feel a sense of awe when hearing (and singing) the traditional Christmas songs. There’s a sense of comfort and tranquility in “Silent Night,” a glorious and rousing spirit to “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” and even the most hardened secularists cannot deny the moving quality of “O Holy Night.” It’s not so much the content of the lyrics themselves, but the spirit of what the words and music represent: salvation, the transcendent, something greater than ourselves. There’s a moral and spiritual weight to the music. At least there’s something more to the music than “buy me some stupid crap I don’t need” and “hey, let’s stuff our face and get hammered” (I’m not opposed to any of the above, but I don’t to hear about it all the time).
But there’s some other, non-religious music worth salvaging as well. The Vince Gauraldi Trio’s Christmas album (pictured above) that accompanies the Charlie Brown Christmas special is pretty fantastic as well. The jazzy, flowing rhythms and playful piano work on “Skating” and “O Tannenbaum” are endlessly enjoyable. While out finding gifts, this music has the quality of easing, rather than exacerbating the terror of having to deal with people at their absolute worst. And it makes for a classy backdrop to any holiday gathering as well.
As for the old standbys of “Let it Snow,” “White Christmas” and all the rest, I’d say stick to the Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra versions. But don’t ruin them! They belong to December 24 and 25. Ok, the week prior to Christmas can borrow them to ease the nerves of last-minute shoppers, but I’m not budging any further than that!
Not that the FCC should have power over any of this, but if I could do anything, I would put a moratorium on new covers for anything on this list. Especially the secular songs. Violations would be ruthlessly punished. Repeat violations would result in a one-week prison sentence where the violator would be forced to watch Tim Allen Christmas movies on repeat. Christmas with the Kranks will be fast-forwarded due to good behavior. No one needs to hear your post-rock/jazz-fusion/bluegrass-inspired rendition of “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer!”
Oh, I do have one big exception of course. Consider all rules null and void if you can do this: