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?

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


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.

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