The war on Christmas starts earlier every year and I’m gearing up for it the only way I know how. I am a small part of the Christmas militia but I march in lockstep with my brothers in arms, defending our holiday from the tyranny of non-denominational Starbucks’ cups, Government officials who would keep nativity scenes out of public spaces, and anyone caught saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” In the ground war, mine is a specialized, personal mission, but a mission that I fight for with gusto: I force Christmas music into my home earlier every year.
I’ve made some inroads and small victories. The Christmas CDs stay exposed and within arm’s reach of the CD player all year long. The Peanuts holiday specials are shown semi-regularly throughout the year, and my Spotify playlists stand at the ready year-round. One should never underestimate the strength of your opponent’s disdain of Christmas music. My battle plan is mostly defensive maneuvers, but there are rules of engagement to follow for success.
For example, you cannot blast Bing Crosby without warning; you must ease into it subtly with a jazz record or a Sinatra collection. You may then carefully progress to something tangentially Christmas related — Handel or Bach, for example, or John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. Beachhead established, you may proceed with say, some John Denver. If the opponent appears disengaged or preoccupied, a sneak attack may be warranted: cut the Denver record after one side and quickly drop John Fahey’s A New Possibility. If you can make it to this point without any vocal complaints (this is key, the complaints must be vocal), then you have opened up an opportunity. A little mid-July “White Christmas” by Otis Redding or some late-February “Blue Christmas” by Elvis might be appropriate. A Charlie Brown Christmas is your ace in the hole — no one complains about it. However, Trans-Siberian Orchestra will blow your cover and force a fallback. Do not engage, I repeat do not engage. Be patient. You’ve worked hard to get here. One false move and the foundation crumbles.
I walk a tightrope in my affinity for Christmas music. All year I’m primed for the starting line, quietly keeping playlists under wraps and listening habits in check. At birthdays and other holiday cook outs; I repress urges to talk about the genius of Vince Guaraldi or the unnecessary sexualization of any post-Eartha Kitt “Santa Baby.” I find joy in small pleasures: “Wonderful Christmastime” popping up on Wings Greatest Hits, a spin through Charlie Brown Christmas on a quiet Sunday, listening to The Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl for the final track, “2000 Miles.” In reflective moments when I find it impossibly hard not to cue up James Brown Funky Christmas, I become aware of the truth: my love for Christmas music exists almost completely to satisfy my own nostalgia.
But nostalgia is good for business. How else do we account for movies built entirely around childhood toys or theme park rides? Or the barrage of reunion tours and their coinciding deluxe anniversary album reissues? Or the continued reappearance of Ben Folds as a solo artist? There’s money to be made on the nostalgia trail. Built on the premise that we can buy our way to happiness under the guise of salvation, Christmas is the perfect mix of the sacred and the profane, a blessed amalgam of commercialism and divinity and a cyclical pursuit of buying back our childhood one Target gift card at a time. For many of us, Christmas music soundtracks our nostalgic journies. Forget Jolly Old Saint Nick, can you imagine a Christmas without Burl Ives, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Brenda Lee, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Gene Autrey, Anne Murray, Dean Martin, or Bing Crosby?
If you read that list and thought, “Those people are either dead, old, or uncool,” then congratulations are in order. Welcome to the nostalgia machine.
Last year, the Washington Post published an article that analyzed the top 30 most-played Christmas songs as compiled by American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). The takeaway is laid out in the stark opening lede: “What we think of as ‘Christmas music’ is really just a seasonal exercise in Baby Boomer nostalgia.”
Given that only one song from the 80s, Wham’s “Last Christmas,” and one song from the 90s, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” ranked in the top 30, it’s difficult to dismiss their assessment as biased. And accepting this fact exposes the double-edged sword that nostalgia yields; it forces you to choose sides, especially when it comes to Christmas music. Either you embrace it openly, acknowledging its effect on your personality, or you reject it. Maybe it’s not a wholesale rejection, just a passive, polite Bartleby-type rejection — you would prefer not to associate with it.
And most of us hide our acceptance of Christmas music in the same way your dad hides his internet search history. Even the most curmudgeonly of us don’t opt for a flat rejection of Christmas music; we tolerate it as a seasonal burden then gripe on social media. Similarly, few of us will declare an outright love for Christmas music, or even a deep affection for it. Christmas music is an exercise in inescapability. You can throw up your hands and wail and/or accept it begrudgingly. Whatever you choose, no one will think lesser of you.
Yet, I come across this utter denial of the pleasure of Christmas music from friends and acquaintances — those who groan and complain about Christmas music ceaselessly anytime they catch a note or two at the wrong time of year — every year, without fail. And the problem is exacerbated by social media — There’s already a radio station in Iowa that has started playing Christmas music! It’s not even November! Well, there’s also a radio station in Georgia that has played Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra" twice in a three-hour period, but you won’t hear me complain about that.
So, why aren’t we passionate about Christmas music? Why, instead of reveling in it, do we often loathe it?
Well, there is a lot of terrible Christmas music. And a lot of it is mercilessly shoved into our ears without remorse. But what about the great Christmas music? It gets shoveled in there too, but it gets harder and harder to separate the recyclables from the garbage. And harder to break from tradition. Traditions don’t die easily, and traditional Christmas music, especially the Baby Boomer nostalgia kind, is a juggernaut of commerce, an immovable object lodged in our cultural consciousness. But like most entrenched traditions, it’s only when you rail against them that you risk pissing people off. You dislike the music of the most wonderful time of the year? You must hate happiness. At least you’re in the majority.
For many of us, accepting Christmas music means accepting the defeat of “cool" and embracing fogeyism. Especially now, in the post-Boomer decades, we don’t necessarily like the status quo they’ve handed down, but we’re not exactly up for radical change either. And until we can come up with our own version of “White Christmas,” the original will do just fine.
But the truth is our Christmas music has evolved and gained new traction since the 40s and 50s. There are leagues of incredible Christmas releases worth hearing every year, we’re just stuck in the nostalgia cycle. I don’t mind hearing Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas” or Gene Autrey sing “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but I also want to hear the The Platters, Ella Fitzgerald, Aimee Mann, Jim Nabors, Mahalia Jackson, Cyrus Chestnut, John Fahey, Nina Simone, John Denver, Sufjan Stevens, and Wynton Marsalis in the mix, too. I think we can handle it. I think it would do a lot to refill our cup of Christmas cheer.
When Christmas music is built around sincerity, it is at its best. The same can be said for the holiday, too. Christmas music is built on the most sincere idea imaginable: salvation. Hymns, whether overtly Christian or not (“Silent Night”) are timeless and resonant. There is a lot to be said for the virtues of authenticity, reverence, and nostalgia in a world of irony, sarcasm, and emojis.
Sometimes sincerity is readily apparent, as with Vince Guarladi’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Sometimes it takes the form of childlike simplicity like John Denver and the Muppets. Occasionally, it’s mistaken for cynicism and misunderstood entirely, like the first time Davie Bowie met Bing Crosby. But, more often than not, you have to look for sincerity in independent Christmas music releases, like Low’s Christmas EP.
And, whether we like it or not, whether we embrace it or reject it, we all have our own brand of nostalgia. Maybe not a communal experience that we all trade in, not a mass one-size-fits-all holiday, but a distinct pattern unique to our lives. And I consider myself lucky because I’ve embraced my personal brand of nostalgia, however uncool that might be. My nostalgia comes in a box covered in red and green wrapping paper, topped with an ornate bow and a handwritten note that says: “To: Scott, From: Santa. Do not open until Christmas.”