Not hearing the same 20 Christmas songs over and over in public spaces this year

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.

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

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.

Missing the collective effervescence of Christmas shopping this year

Americans like shopping. And this year, even amid COVID-19, the shopping will go on. But, it will take a different form for many as the busy stores and shopping malls will be replaced by online shopping and shopping trips intended to avoid contact with people.

There are two components to shopping at Christmas time. First, Americans generally favor consumerism and can make commodities out of lots of things. Second, shopping can involve being around other people. In a large society where private lives are the norm, shopping near people in an excited holiday atmosphere feels like being part of something bigger. Even if you have no interactions with anyone else outside of your shopping group, simply being in the same time and place can be exciting.

Just as religious rituals can produce collective effervescence according to sociologist Emile Durkheim, so too can Christmas shopping. It may be based on consumerism, have no touch of the transcendent, and involve no direct social interaction with other people. Yet, shopping at Christmas is a different kind of experience than shopping for different kinds of items at different times of the year.

Shopping online produces no such collective effervescence. A person and a screen. The social energy is limited. Of course, one could head to social media to share their online shopping exploits. But, it is not the same as being physically near to other people in a space designed to push you toward Christmas cheer and more spending.

Is an emotional experience in church really like a drug?

Several sociologists of religion make an interesting claim about worship experiences: they are like drugs.

Wellman and co-authors Katie E. Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk analyzed 470 interviews and about 16,000 surveys on megachurch members’ emotional experiences with their churches. Four themes emerged: salvation/spirituality, acceptance/belonging, admiration for and guidance from the leader, and morality and purpose through service.

Many participants used the word “contagious” to describe the feeling of a megachurch service where members arrive hungry for emotional experiences and leave energized, the study says.

One church member said, “(T)he Holy Spirit goes through the crowd like a football team doing the wave. …Never seen it in any other church.”

Wellman said, “That’s what you see when you go into megachurches — you see smiling people; people who are dancing in the aisles, and, in one San Diego megachurch, an interracial mix I’ve never seen anywhere in my time doing research on American churches. “We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That’s why we say it’s like a drug.”

I haven’t seen this full study but I wonder about this comparison. here is what it could mean:

1. It is just a metaphor. Drugs can give people euphoric experiences and religious experiences can also generate euphoria.

1a. Some sociologists might argue that this kind of euphoria is generated more by a collective effervescence (Durkheim) or collective emotional energy (Collins) than religion itself. Put enough people together, give them a common focus, and you might be able to generate similar feelings in a sports stadium, at a rock concert, in a mob, etc.

Indeed, the researchers seem to be building on this. From another report on this study:

Megachurch services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music, and what Wellman calls a “multisensory mélange” of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses, as well as small-group participation and a shared focus on the message from a charismatic pastor.
The researchers hypothesized that such rituals are successful in imparting emotional energy in the megachurch setting — “creating membership feelings and symbols charged with emotional significance, and a heightened sense of spirituality,” they wrote.

2. There could be a suggestion that churches have a sort of power over people. In other words, the conditions are set up so that people are pushed into these upbeat experiences. Outside of this megachurch setting where people’s senses are bombarded, people may not have such experiences.

3. This seems like a great time to include neuroimaging in a sociology study. One could compare the physical response in the brain to drugs versus the physical response to certain worship settings. Do they both engage the same areas of the brain and to the same level? If they do, it doesn’t mean there still isn’t a sociological phenomenon to study but it does link physiological responses with social interactions and outcomes. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this sort of matching of social and physical data in the coming years.

Collective effervesence: from Man U. vs. Man City to voting

An editorial in The Guardian suggests we seek out more moments of collective effervescence:

As every Mancunian football fan will tell you, tomorrow evening sees the most hotly awaited derby in Premier League history when Manchester City and Manchester United square up for the last time this season. Whatever the outcome, what we will witness in abundance – at least while the ball is in play – is what the father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, called “collective effervescence”, a ritually induced passion or ecstasy that cements social bonds.

Given the current Europe-wide epidemic of melancholia induced by various crises, financial and political, and not helped in the UK by an April deluge, predicted to last through May, the good news is that we are all about to experience opportunities for a veritable season of effervescence. We report on these pages how three giant puppets walking the streets of Liverpool as part of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic have attracted 250,000 people on to the streets and raised the spirits of the city hugely. Over coming months, even arch cynics – those allergic to red, white and blue, republicans and lifelong couch potatoes – may find themselves succumbing, just a little, to communal and classless pleasures as, for instance, the celebrations connected to the Queen’s diamond jubilee gather traction. The Olympics become ever more imminent and the prospect of a gold medal or two potentially binds stranger to stranger regardless of income, ethnicity and background, in the alchemic way that victory in sport can…

Any festivity, inevitably in this day and age, comes saturated in commercialism. It will be difficult over the next several months to find a china cup and tea towel that isn’t festooned with crowns, coronets or concentric rings. Nevertheless, there will be events and occasions – many of them free –which will proof themselves again commodification and remain beyond the reach of the marketplace simply because they require only our time and interest….

This week sees London mayoral and local elections in addition to a referendum on elected mayors in 10 English cities. Inertia, rather than effervescence, is likely to mark the experience. But while dancing in the streets strengthens our collective sense of solidarity, we improve its health still further by exercising our hard-won right to vote. As Professor Michael Sandel pointed out in his Reith lectures on BBC’s Radio 4 in 2009: “The virtues in democratic life – community, solidarity, trust, civic friendship – these virtues are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are, rather, like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.”

Translation: while the world may look like it is in bad shape, there are still moments in which we can come together, advance the common good, strengthen relationships, and be part of something bigger than ourselves. It is interesting, however, to note that some of these examples require choosing one side or another. For example, will fans of Manchester United or Manchester City be celebrating the game of football together or hoping the other side loses disastrously? In voting, is everyone pursuing the common good or hoping their side gets enough political power to force the other side to kowtow to its interests? Perhaps there are still moments where people can come together in larger settings, such as at the Olympics (national pride? celebrating humanity?) or at large rock concerts or a few other places.

Also, I’m having a hard time imagining an American newspaper editorial invoking Emile Durkheim. Would many newspaper editors in the United States know who this is?