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

How do we reconcile the joyous holiday season with a nagging sensation that it might not be as jolly as it should be?

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: 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: 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.

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