I’ve been thinking a lot about Christmas music for the last… um… six months or so. I mean, I’m in a lot of choirs and stuff, so I rehearse Christmas music for most of the year. Many of the songs I wind up singing are pretty familiar – songs like “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Deck the Halls” – songs that we’ve all heard and sung so many times that we don’t really know or care what they’re about anymore.
Many of these songs are old, using jargon and motifs that don’t really resonate with modern singers and listeners. Personally, I have never been on a sleigh ride. I don’t live near any old churches, so I don’t hear Christmas bells that often. Heck, I don’t really have any Christmas decorations out, because… well, why make more chores for myself, hm?
So why have these songs stuck around? What do these carols, that have so little in common with contemporary Christmas experiences, have that the songs sung by modern singers don’t have? I’ve been thinking about these songs for months, and I think I’ve come up with a plausible reason.
Most of the Christmas songs I’m familiar with come from my grandparents’ generation, the “greatest generation” that fought in the World Wars. As I sing these songs, I get the sense that a lot of that wartime uncertainty seeps in to the music of the holiday. Christmas becomes, in these carols, a terribly sad time.
Think about songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” sung by soldiers who knew that the only way they would be home for Christmas was in their dreams. Or how about “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which recognizes that our hope to be together for Christmas depends on how fickle the fates choose to be. Even “We Need a Little Christmas,” one of my least favorite songs, reminds us that:
“I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older,
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder.
I need a little Christmas now.”
These songs are all about acknowledging just how awful the world is… but they don’t stop there. Each of these songs is all about taking a minute, just a tiny moment, to say, “In spite of all that, I choose to be happy, and I hope you can be happy, too.”
Even in the Biblical Christmas story, most of the carols tend to focus on the happy bit surrounding the Christ child’s birth, rather than the forthcoming tragedy of his crucifixion and death. Rather than revel in the violence and sadness of Jesus’s life, the songs are mostly about praise (“Gloria! In excelsis Deo!”) or comfort (“Sleep in heavenly peace”).
In the best Christmas music, I feel like there’s an active rejection of sadness – not a denial of the horrible things we all encounter, but a choice to embrace and celebrate the good things, for at least a little season. In the best Christmas celebrations, great efforts are taken to actively drive that sadness away. Gifts are exchanged between loved ones. Quarters are dropped into the buckets of Salvation Army volunteers. Radio stations hold fundraisers for the homeless shelters. “Secret Santas” leave gifts and food for those who go without. The underling problems of poverty and misery aren’t done away with, but they are repelled, if only for a moment.
So, yeah, here’s me, wishing you a happy Christmas time. Sing yourself a little Christmas carol, if you like, and, as you do, if you have the ability, try to spread that little bit of Christmas cheer by sharing what you have with someone who has not. And, yeah. God bless and all that.