Christmas music is inescapable this time of year, making it impossible to hold a neutral opinion about the genre. But what causes people to fall into one camp or the other?
Here, two writers flesh out the very personal reasons that the same annual din makes one desolate and the other merry.
Steven W Thrasher: ‘Christmas music is used as a blatant tool of social control to make us long for families that may be broken or deceased’
I hate Christmas music in public. In New York, I can’t go to the deli to get a soda, drink a cup of coffee in a diner, buy a pack of condoms in a drugstore, hear a radio station in the dentist’s office or even walk down the street without being bombarded with a stream of insipid bromides and jingles about how happy I should be.
My reasons for hating unsolicited Christmas music are pretty personal. The holiday has stopped being enjoyable since my dad, mom and stepmother all died in my twenties; indeed, the whole season has become unbearable since one of my sisters died halfway through my thirties. Already blue in my thoughts from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, Christmas music invades my melancholy and makes it worse, forcing me to think about happy Christmases past never to be repeated, and to feel like a failure as a single adult without children.
I know I’m not alone in these thoughts, though. Who among us wants to hear reminders of the good time you’re supposed to be having at home, at work, in the store and on the radio, every incessant second?
As a Christian, I usually celebrate the holiday in some form. I’ve sung in many gospel choir concerts and know most of the Christmas standards by heart. I’ve hosted many a party where I’ve donned a Santa hat and played Christmas songs all night long. But I can turn this music on or off. When I am walking down the street or want to buy a toothbrush, I don’t want to be forced repeatedly to pine for a reality, a family or a set of experiences which are not available to me — and which should not be foisted on anyone.
What I resent most about Christmas music is that it’s used as a blatant tool of social control to make us long for families that may be broken or deceased, and to desire consumer goods we don’t want and can’t afford. It’s also theocratic, and its omnipresence in the commons disrespects people who aren’t Christians. It even robs Christians of the chance to appreciate Christmas music as something special, and of the chance to just be with the quiet of the season.
Eric R Danton: ‘There’s plenty to love about Christmas music that doesn’t involve hoary standards worn thinner than Grandpa’s holiday tie’
The trick to liking Christmas music is finding the right Christmas music to like.
Obvious, yes, but not so easy to do, given the amount of garbage there is to sift through. Starting around Halloween, that’s all that plays in continuous rotation at the mall, Starbucks, Bill O’Reilly’s dressing room, even the quick-change oil place down the street, for some reason. It’s inescapable. It’s no wonder people hate Christmas music.
But just as the spirit of Christmas exists apart from the annual orgy of consumerism that overtakes us like a bloodlust, the spirit of Christmas music isn’t to be found in yet another version of Winter Wonderland or the kind-of-rape-y Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
There’s plenty to love about Christmas music that doesn’t involve hoary standards worn thinner than Grandpa’s holiday tie, though even standards done well have a certain charm: Emmylou Harris singing The First Noel is spellbinding no matter how many times I hear it, and Paul Westerberg’s ramshackle version of Away in a Manger is perfect in its half-assed glory.
Apart from those, the Christmas songs I love fall into two categories. First, subversive novelty tunes that spoof the ridiculous parts of the holiday season: Monty Python’s Christmas in Heaven, or Nick Lowe’s Christmas at the Airport, or Big Freedia’s over-the-top new Christmas jam Make It Jingle, a paean to ostentatious gifts and lewd dance moves. Come to think of it, that one’s probably not satirical, but it’s fun in a way that Santa Baby hasn’t been since 1953.
Then there are the poignant, heart-on-sleeve songs, because who doesn’t like to wallow a bit every now and then? The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, Jesse Malin’s Xmas and John Prine’s Christmas in Prison, to name a few, see past the tinsel and lights to the bittersweet side of the Christmas season. Tidings of joy are often undercut by darker themes: financial instability, hunger, more keenly missing absent loved ones. The sad-bastard songs remind me to be grateful for my own good fortune.
Christmas music also reminds me of my mom, who died two days before Christmas in 2002. She loved the holiday season, and I can’t remember a year when Harris’ Light of the Stable album wasn’t playing while she baked cookies and we decorated the tree. Even in leaner years, she never let on to us kids, or let it dim her enthusiasm. And she would have loved that Nick Lowe song.
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