Christmas Songs


I don’t care if I never hear another stereotypical Christmas carol. Partly because they’ve been played to death, partly because of my disenchantment with official Christianity. Official Christianity has inspired some pretty wonderful music, but Christmas carols usually aren’t that good, especially when overfamiliar.
Secular Christmas music affects me differently.
I’m not sure why so much of it has been written, but the reason may have to do with what I like about it: I associate it with the 1950s, a time that was very comfortable for me. Maybe comfortableness is what people in general like about it. It’s not about horrible things. Maybe it denies horrors.
Some of it is silly or trivial. Songs about Grandma getting run over by a reindeer (I’m grateful not to have heard that one for quite awhile), or Rudolph aren’t meant to be taken too seriously (though Rudolph has a Moral). Others are essentially romantic songs more about pleasures of making love in the winter, and nothing deeper.
There are some that are different, though. It is Christmas has an unusual structure that at least makes it interesting to listen to. I’ll Be Home for Christmas is a little darker, about someone stranded in a presumably less than pleasant place yearning to get home. Home is the place of security, and most of these songs implicitly deny the existence of any other thing. All that exists is cozy homes and cozy lives, with few exceptions. Christmas carols are propagandistic; so are most secular Christmas songs.
I used to think secular Christmas songs had been written in the 50s, since that’s when I heard them, but probably not. They reflect the coziness many wanted to associate with that time, though it wasn’t cozy for EVERYBODY. Maybe it was a safe world for the majority , but not the minority whom the majority liked to persecute. To that minority, a lot of it must have seemed like a cruel joke.
Christmas songs in general insist on a point of view. The carols insist on Correct Theology. So does some classical music, but some of it (I don’t know the whole field, by any means) redeems the message with outstanding music and arrangements. Christians Be Joyful, from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, is almost as wild as rock & roll. Handel’s Messiah is some of the most exhilarating music I’ve ever had the pleasure to sing.
At a slightly lower level, it’s nice to hear carols that you don’t hear everywhere and every year. If I were a musician asked to make a Christmas album, that’s the kind of music I’d look for. The best example I know is an album I grew up with, called Christmas with the Trapp Family Singers. It has songs in Latin, Spanish, French, and I think German. Only one or two standard Christmas carols snuck on to it. When I used to give tapes as Christmas presents I often gave recordings of that album, along with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, a concerto for two trumpets by Vivaldi, and an Oboe Quartet by Mozart that seemed to fit the season. I tried to do the same on CD, but couldn’t find the original Trapp Family album. The one I found didn’t have all the songs of the original.
The canon (so to speak) of secular Christian music is quite conservative: I don’t hear more than two or three songs that have been added since my childhood. One song each by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and one by Jose Feliciano. Everything else seems to come out of the fifties or before. The Little Drummer Boy is one exception to that, having been (if I remember correctly) been introduced about 1960, and being theologically correct, though not as irritatingly as some. I still enjoy it after all these years.
Of course, since the radio started playing them before Thanksgiving, even, I’ll probably be pretty tired of them by the time Christmas actually comes. Tradition (such as it is) and saturation don’t go together that well.
For many people the Christmas season (maybe including Thanksgiving) is an ordeal to get through instead of a joyful occasion. The expectations are too high, and don’t correspond to many people’s reality. Those expectations look back to a homogenous culture in which everyone celebrated Christmas in pretty much the same way. I don’t know how true that was to begin with. Now the change to consumer Christmas, in which love is measured by the expense and number of the gifts one gives or receives pretty well undermines what the meaning used to be, to say nothing of the original meaning.
For me, it used to be a time of joyful expectation. I associate it with walking around town looking at the stores, and the Christmas customs my family had, which I haven’t tried to duplicate in adulthood. One of my family’s customs that probably few could copy was when my uncle and his family came to our house for Christmas dinner. Of course we opened presents after that, but the part I look back on with the greatest pleasure was when we gathered around the piano, my grandmother played, and we all sang choruses from Handel’s Messiah. That custom may have had something to do with Theological Correctness, but it had nothing to do with Commercial Christmas.
Perhaps a more realistic vision is a Christmas day in which children are overwhelmed with how many presents they get, and start misbehaving exactly as if they’d eaten too much candy. The mirror image might be of children whose parents can’t meet the expectations of the season. Those who don’t get a lot of presents who get jealous of those who get more. “I got a car for Christmas.” “I got a pair of shoes.”
Children disappointed, and parents (those who care) feeling guilty because they can’t fulfill the propagandistic cultural norms that ought not to be expectations in the first place. As much as I like some Christmas music, that aspect of the season is sad. So is the depression of those too disconnected to have a family they can enjoy Christmas with, or those who have lost family members in this season.
Although Christmas songs, secular and carols, dominate this season, I have to wonder about their effect. They remind us of a Christmas season that begins before Thanksgiving, a season when retailers make most of their profits for the year. I wonder how many expensive presents make children feel. Loved? Or bought off? Buying presents is a lot easier than spending time, which is how real love is most often expressed. Personally, I don’t expect presents from anyone at my advanced age, and if I get any I don’t expect anyone to know my tastes, or what I’d really like to have. It may be there are fewer things I want, too.
Maybe I’ll Be Home for Christmas best expresses how Christmas used to be better than it is now for many people. “If only in my dreams,” seems to say that it’s nearly impossible to get back to the beauty of Christmas for many people. I wish people could could find that beauty again.


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