Part of the collective effervescence of Christmas activities involving other people is the music. If people are out shopping, eating, looking at lights, watching festivals and tree lighting and other Christmas and winter activities, they are likely to hear Christmas music. The sounds are unmistakable and are a key part of the holiday season.
At the same time, many of these locations play the same songs – and even the same versions – of Christmas songs over and over again! How many times have you been shopping and heard “Holly, Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “All I Want for Christmas is You”? Or heard the same songs on the radio? Or on TV or in movies?
Why this happens makes some sense. Many of these Christmas favorites come from an era, the 1930s to the 1950s, that induces nostalgia. Music helps bond people together. The familiar can be comforting. When people think of Christmas, the music is part of it. The ritualistic nature of the holiday where patterns repeat year after year is part of the appeal of Christmas and rituals.
As sociologists argue there is “civil religion” in the United States, perhaps these popular songs reflect what we might call “civil Christmas.” The songs are generally about good cheer, parties, happy characters like Santa and Rudolph, getting together. The songs played in more public settings tend not to refer to the religious nature of Christmas but rather elements of the holidays that could appeal to many. The songs are about a lengthy celebration…and who is opposed to at least a month of cheery music and festivities right around the darkest days of the year?
Perhaps the Christmas public music canon will expand in the future. New songs might be added here and there while others let go (see the debate over “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in recent years). There is no shortage of songs to choose from or artists and styles for familiar songs. (I say this after working for years at Wheaton College Radio where we featured over 2,000 songs in our 24-hours-a-day Christmas music rotation. Listen to a reconstituted live stream of WETN Soundtrack for Christmas.) Regardless of whether the music stays the same or we all retreat to our headphones for our personal Christmas playlists, the music will continue to matter as we prepare for and celebrate Christmas.