Unhappy Holidays? Conflicts, Contradictions and the Ghosts of Christmas Music Past and Present

Photo from the album cover of Nick Lowe’s Quality Street: a Seasonal Selection for All the Family

After marveling at New York’s enormous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, I was reminded of the mixed blessings of the holiday season minutes later, when I got some bruised ribs after trying to escape the pressing throng of the enormous holiday crowd there. We all mutter about how commercial the holiday has become as we ourselves shell out money for presents for friends and family, and as retailers pin their hopes on these few weeks for a yearly sales boom and ‘good will to men’ figures in there, somewhere.

Along with holiday parties and family get-togethers, another holiday tradition is the parade of holiday songs we can’t escape from, coming at us as we enter any store, restaurant or coffee house or if you’re a little old-fashion, from the TV or radio. Sometimes, the songs are the familiar standards done by Elvis or Bing, or they’re updated versions of holiday cheer. But where do these holidays songs come from? Is there any hope now that they might be replaced by updated or new songs that we haven’t heard so many times, already?

Album: Christmas Songs

Artist: Bad Religion

Label: Epitaph

US Release Date: 2013-10-25

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/u/ure-unhappyholidays-badreligion-christmassongs-200.jpgOn the search for new holiday music, there are two unusual stops this year. First off, there’s Cali punk legends Bad Religion with Christmas Songs (Epitaph). Like Dylan’s Xmas album, this one seems surprising and totally left field at first until you realize that they’ve actually been holiday song boosters for a while (just like Ol’ Bob), doing tunes for L.A. radio station KROQ’s annual Christmas shows. Also, it’s not even close to being the first punk Christmas tunes with everyone from Stiff Little Fingers to Fear to the Dickies to Blink-182 and Rancid all ringing in with their own brand of holiday schmaltz. What’s different here is a punk band devoting a whole record (or actually a nineteen minute EP) to Christmas.

What’s not a surprise (and generally a relief) is that the band doesn’t go for soppy ballads, but instead rely on their trusted revved up, high speed sound. Though it’s something of a novelty overall, their Ramones-like take on “White Christmas” is welcome and the whole proceeding proves what a kick ass drummer Brooks Wackerman is, plus it’s hilarious to hear them chant “glo-or-or-or-or-or-ria” on “Angels We Have on High”.

Song-wise, Bad Religion mostly relies on traditional religious carols like “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”, “What Child Is This?” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with the only modern day intrusions being “White Christmas” and a remake of the band’s own cynical “American Jesus”. The remake is key here, as they make the explicit connection of the religious origins of the holiday, mostly ignoring the later-day commercialization of it, making it kind of a punky, roots move in its own way. Along with “Jesus”, they make another point of being distrustful of the supposedly spiritual side of things by having the profits for the record being donated to victims of priest abuse. Bad religion, indeed.

Album: Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family

Artist: Nick Lowe

Label: Yep Roc

US Release Date: 2013-10-29

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/e/eature-unhappyholidays-lowe-qualitystreet-cvfr-200.jpgAnother notable 2013 holiday record comes from a different type of roots rocker who you also wouldn’t expect to do a holiday record. Like the Bad Religion crew’s entry, Nick Lowe’s Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family (Yep Roc) isn’t your typical Christmas record, relying on material from not-so-obvious sources like honky-tonk singer Roger Miller (“Old Toy Trains”) and glamtastic Roy Wood (“I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”) along with some of Lowe’s own material and the inescapable standard “Silent Night”, his only nod to ye olde traditional Christmas.

Lowe’s avowed purpose was to make a non-traditional, ‘sleigh bell free’ holiday record and that’s what he serves up mostly. Things start out swinging with “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “The North Pole Express” where the former Jesus of Cool remembers his country roots with tunes that would have done his former stepfather in law Johnny Cash proud (remember too that one of his first bands, Brinsley Schwarz was also a country-ish outfit).

After that though, he reverts to the gentle crooning mode that’s marked his last several albums and though it’s pleasant enough for your typical holiday cheer. “Christmas At the Airport” and “A Dollar Short of Happy” are sad and cute enough plus they’re kind of anti-holiday (the former ends with Nick finding a burger in the trash) and things do liven up later when his country leanings return on “Rise Up Shepherd” and on Tex-Mex excursions of “Silent Night” and the Wood tune.

But along with the Miller cover, “Hooves on the Roof”, “I Was Born in Bethlehem” and especially “Just to Be With You (On Christmas)” all sound like they would be much better suited to a stronger balladeer like Tony Bennett or Harry Connick Jr., both of whom could make hay out of the song selection here. Still, Lowe’s holiday excursion is infinitely preferable to your typical holiday album (e.g., Jewel’s recent Let It Show), which looks only to make some cash off fans by recycling pop standards.

For the question of where these pop standards are born, there’s a new book called Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs (University Press of Florida) by Ronnie D. Lankford, which traces the origins of several holiday classic tunes and how they wove their way into American popular culture. Avoiding the traditional religious carols, Lankford hones in on the holiday pop classics that are now staples of the holiday season and get used again and again for countless subsequent Christmas albums by artists every year: “White Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, The Christmas Song”, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland” among others. Since many of them have origins in ‘40s and ‘50s movies, those films and their messages are explored too, bringing up questions of what the holidays mean for people and how that’s evolved over time, citing a number of other holiday music books by Dave Marsh (Merry Christmas, Baby), Jody Rosen (White Christmas) and Sheila Whiteley (Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture) as sources.

In its virtual jukebox of songs, Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, And Silent Nights comes back to the theme of sentimentality and nostalgia again and again found in these songs as well as a certain feeling of sadness and longing for vague and distant better times that they have (e.g., “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”). There’s even room here for some un-sentimental, novelty satire like Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and Weird Al’s “Christmas at Ground Zero”, which are also pretty subversive in the way that they upend the traditional holiday spirit, arguably more than Bad Religion or Lowe.

The book also mulls over some conflicting impulses in pop culture Christmas music. There’s the problem of how to reconcile the joyous holiday season with a nagging sensation that it might not be as jolly as it should be, which comes out in Lankford’s interesting dissections of 1945 film Christmas in Connecticut and the TV staple, A Charlie Brown Christmas, which features the glum, sweet “Christmas Time Is Here”. In both cases, the characters struggle to find comfort and peace of mind at a time of year when everyone is supposed to be upbeat. Another set of conflicting impulses that the book finds are the spiritual origins of Christmas with the ‘carnival’ (party) aspects of it, which sometimes creep up in songs like “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.

Lankford saves the most interesting conflicting holidays themes for the end, though. Instead of the usual spiritual versus materialism problem for Christmas that gets chewed over constantly, he posits that there are two other battling ideologies that are much more important and relevant. Two strong historical American impulses clash during Christmas with the spirit of rugged individualism and me-first thinking, which feeds into consumerism is challenged by the civic minded idea of family and community. Luckily, some of that pressure is relieved, thanks to canny merchandising, as we pour our buying impulses into getting gifts for others. Similarly, that same soothing safety valve of buying presents bridges the gap between another pair of American incompatible impulses that Lankford notes: the warmth and comfort of home and family versus going out of this sanctuary to shop and spend at stores.

Sleigh Bells, Christmas Songs and Quality Street in their own way try to upend and make us rethink how we try to absorb and experience the holiday season but ultimately the avalanche of competing pop media is usually too overwhelming, coming at us from everywhere we turn. In the end, these three worthwhile and needed holiday items may broaden or enrich our Christmas experience, but at the end of the day, we’re still caught in the same commercial impulses to pile up on gifts that double as a social glue for our friends and family at each year’s end.

Basically, unless every single one of your loved ones are cynical and agnostic about Christmas, you’ll still have a holiday buying list to go through every winter. Though it probably won’t break you out of this annual trap, the book and these two records may at least get your friends and family thinking more about these traditions and how they celebrate it. Indeed, they’d make dandy Christmas gifts.

Ronnie Lankford On When We Sowed the Seed for Ongoing Holiday Conflict

To hear more about all of the complex, swirling ideas and values that come through the holiday season, I interviewed Ronnie Lankford via e-mail about what makes ‘good” holiday music, what will be the Christmas standards of the future and how we all fight through these holiday-time cultural conflicts.

What got you interested in holiday music in the first place?

I grew up listening to Christmas music—Gene Autry, the Lennon Sisters, Chet Atkins, and Johnny Mathis—and still love it. But even when I started collecting older holiday albums a few years back, it never occurred to me to write a book about it. I suppose Christmas music was always there, like an ever-present holiday soundtrack, and so I pretty much took it for granted.

What finally occurred to me were that certain broad themes/subjects—nostalgia, satire, the blues, carnival, and Santa songs—kept repeating themselves in Christmas music. I also found it intriguing that some of these themes clashed—“White Christmas” wanted a quiet Christmas at home, while “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” demanded lots of toys for children; Americans wanted a home celebration and a commercial celebration.

Book: Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs

Author: Ronald D. Lankford

Publisher: University Press of Florida

Publication date: 2013-10

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/u/ure-unhappyholisdays-sleighrides-rlankford-cvr-200.jpg

The idea, then, was to take a closer look at a handful of Christmas songs to better understand how they reflected different sets of American values. Also, to look at them within their own time, against the backdrop of popular American culture. For instance, why were Americans so attached to “White Christmas” during World War II? And how, in the late ‘40s, did “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” mirror the rise of the Baby Boom?

Christmas culture may not be unique in reflecting American values (all popular culture reflects values). But the continued popularity and longevity of many of these songs (“Winter Wonderland” was written in 1934) adds more weight to what these songs reflect. Our favorite Christmas songs, then, are like time capsules waiting to be unlocked.

You posit that the actual conflict over the holidays is that it’s not commercialism versus spiritualism but family versus materialism. By now, don’t you think that a lot of American culture has just accepted these two things as being synonymous?

When Americans decided—back in the 19th century—to mix a major Christian holy day with a major commercial shopping day (we could’ve chosen to give gifts on New Year’s), they pretty much sowed the seeds for an ongoing conflict. Even while many scholars who focus on Christmas argue that it’s more secular than religious today (and probably always has been), saying so out loud remains controversial.

I think the importance of family gets downplayed because of the religious/commercial conflict. Yes, Americans generally believe that family’s essential; and for those professing faith, the family is embodied within those beliefs. But we seldom think of family as religion, as the very source of our American faith.

Within our popular Christmas songs from the ‘40s and ‘50s, however, that’s exactly what family has become. Or put another way, family has replaced traditional religion within an American Christmas.

When artists still do Christmas albums, they stay with the old standards. Why do you think that there haven’t been any more recent standards?

Christmas songs are generally conservative. I imagine that’s why a lot of rock and alternative groups—performers who have often been more progressive culturally—never bothered to record any holiday music. Even a newly written Christmas song—if it wants to reach a wide audience—has to stick to music and lyrics grounded in tradition.

I find it interesting that an album like A Very She and Him Christmas—an album that I would imagine as being hipper than Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong—basically sticks to the same familiar pattern. Sonically and lyrically, the She and Him album is conventional.

Part of the problem of recent standards has a lot to do with popular music’s fragmentation since the ‘60s. I love Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” from 1973 and consider it a classic, but it never crossed over—like “White Christmas”—into other genres. It was and is a country music Christmas song. There may still be holiday standards, but they’ve been relegated to a certain audience by age, genre, etc.

When you hear holiday music, I’m guessing that you probably get sick of hearing some of the standards again and again?

I’ve been listening to holiday music straight for two or three years, and it’s less a question of getting tired of certain standards than getting tired of bad versions of these standards.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. I’ve long believed, without any real proof, that Christmas music is one of those categories that produce an inordinate amount of cheesy, overproduced songs. One of the reasons I love Christmas music recorded in the ‘40s and ‘50s is that whatever its faults, it seldom seems overproduced.

The things is, whether we’re talking about classic Christmas songs or newer stuff, there’s a ton of good material (whatever one’s taste) out there if we take the trouble to sort through it.

What do you think makes good quality holiday music?

The idea of a “quality” Christmas song is probably impossible to pin down. I sometimes joke that aesthetically there are two kinds of music: good and bad. But the quality of music is always clouded by nostalgia, and I can’t think of a more nostalgic music than Christmas. If we grew up with it, listened to it as our family sat around the Christmas tree, then it’s quality music to us.

When I first started working on Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights, I thought it would be fun to write an afterward on aesthetics and Christmas music. Do popular, long-lived Christmas songs also qualify as aesthetically sound music? I’m not sure how I would have answered that, but I will say this: Christmas music has always been conservative, grounded in tradition. A quality Christmas song, then, has to follow in the footsteps of the holiday song canon. A song that’s overly cynical or critical of Christmas traditions, one that focuses on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll instead of family, home, and charity, will probably reach a much smaller audience.

In the book, why did you stop talking about music after the 80’s?

In the ‘80s, Christmas music and holiday culture rebounded after the doldrums of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And it rebounded by re-embracing the songs of the ‘40s and the ‘50s. So I stopped at the ‘80s because everything had come full circle.

I believe it would take another book to look at the Christmas song after the ‘80s. How much has Christmas culture changed since the ‘80s? Do the themes of newer songs relate to the themes of classic holiday songs?

What do you think will be different about holiday music of the future?

My guess is that bigger performers will continue to recycle the same songs in the familiar styles until people stop buying them. Stylistically, Diana Krall’s Christmas Songs reminds me of Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. I’m not sure why we need another album. Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is easily available. But Krall, Connick, and others sell a lot of albums.

What I hope will happen is completely different. First, I hope that labels will continue to reissue older stuff that hasn’t seen the light of day for a very long time. The ‘40s and ‘50s were great years for holiday music, and we get a very unbalanced view of Christmas song history by just listening to the three Cs: Crosby, (Nat King) Cole, and Como.

I also hope that alternative artists like Sufjan Stevens will continue to issue holiday material for a smaller audience. One of my favorite recent holiday albums is Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter In the Snow. It’s a very mellow, maybe even downbeat holiday album, but I love the warmth of her vocals and tasteful arrangements. A Very She and Him Christmas is another nice disc. Neither of these albums are sonically or lyrically progressive, but they do have a certain hipness.