Classic Edition: Why I Don't Like Christmas Music

The AV Club (I promise I'm not actually turning this blog into, but I do like their stuff) had a discussion of Christmas music a little while ago, which collides with last night's campus holiday party in interesting ways. Let's just say that there are few things in this world as horrible as a not-all-that-good cover band doing "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"... It does, however, suggest a blog topic for the day.

This is going to take two parts-- ao "Classic Edition" post of something I wrote on the old blog, and one new post about an experiment I'm going to try this year. We'll start off, though, with a post from late 2004, on why it is that I don't much care for holiday music (which won't be much surprise to anyone who was here for the Old Tunes Experiment). In the "everything old is new again" category, the religious tolerance thread referred to in the beginning is here, and should look awfully familiar to anyone who's followed the recent "Neville Chamberlain atheist" kerfuffle...

Anyway, the text of the old post is below the fold:

With the religous tolerance comment thread closing in on 50 posts (or 0.25 Making Lights), I probably ought to try to capitalize on that and post on some other Big Issue or another. But that kind of thread is really kind of exhausting, so I'm going to gripe about Christmas music instead.

I know, I know, the time to do this was a week or two ago, as was done at the Whatever (draft New Year's resolution: stop linking to Scalzi five times a week) and Making Light. But between the digital cable music channels, Web radio, and iTunes, I managed to more or less completely avoid hearing Christmas music this year, outside of the occasional shopping trip. It wasn't until we got to my parents' that I was forced to listen to Christmas music for any length of time.

The fact that I just don't like Christmas music is a recurring source of holiday family conflict, as my sister gets very annoyed if I try to play anything else, or even watch tv rather than listen to Christmas CD's. (I was good this year, thanks in large part to Old Man's War, which was diverting enough that I didn't pay attention to what was on, but I still got snarked at a couple of times for wanting to watch football.) Coming back to find the holiday music post at Making Light, and the usual collection of fascinating comments, got me thinking about why it is that I don't like the stuff, and I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts.

There really isn't a single reason for it-- more a collection of reasons that each knock out a large chunk of the Christmas classics. For one thing, I just don't get into classical music, which knocks out a bunch of stuff right away, but we'll restrict this to songs with, you know, words.

Right at the start, I'd like to say that I really like the distinction Tris McCall makes (via Bill Higgins) between Christmas carols and Christmas music:

Christmas carols are very old, and are by and large about Jesus. Christmas music is mostly from the latter half of the Twentieth Century, and generally replaces Jesus with Santa Claus.

I think this is dead on, and while he goes on to really badly overanalyze the whole Santa/Jesus thing, the basic distinction is a very useful one.

Taking the two groups separately, the problem with the Santa-positive Christmas music is that most of it is either insipid, or crass, or both. Add in the fact that the whole Sinatra/ Crosby/ Cole crooner thing doesn't do much for me, and, well, there's not much here for me to like. There are some songs whose craftsmanship I can admire, and some really disgustingly effective earworms, but by and large, I just don't care for this whole class of stuff.

Which brings us to the Christmas carols. These start in a slightly uneasy position, given that they tend to be explicitly religious, and I'm, well, not. But then Christmas really is a religious holiday, so I'm actually more or less OK with that. To be honest, I'd prefer more angels singing to shepherds and fewer chestnuts roasting on sleigh rides.

The problem with the carols isn't really with the songs themselves, so much as the way they're presented. My parents have a big collection of Christmas CD's and tapes, mostly put together by Hallmark, and they all do the same thing: they try to turn "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" into Bach. Big orchestras, complicated arrangements, huge choirs with lots of different parts running simultaneously. They take simple songs, and try to render them into spectacle.

And for me, that really misses the whole point. With the exception of "O Holy Night," the main virtue of Christmas carols is that they're eminently singable. They've survived through the years (or just became popular in the first place) not because they're grand and timeless explorations of the best that orchestral music has to offer, but because they're catchy, memorable, and can be sung effectively by large groups of people who don't necessarily have any musical ability, but who have some enthusiasm for the subject.

Tarting these songs up with big choirs and complicated arrangements drains all the life out of them. It takes a moving participatory number, and attempts to turn it into Art, to be admired from a distance, preferably behind glass. It's like doing symphonic arrangements of early Rolling Stones songs-- sure, you can do it, but why would you want to?

Yeah, fine, "Joy to the World" is impressive when sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir backed up by the London Philharmonic. But it's moving when belted out by tone-deaf farmers as the recessional at Midnight Mass. They don't have the technical ability of professionals, but it means enough to them to be standing there singing at one in the morning, and that's worth a lot. You lose that when you add the strings and the nineteen different vocal parts.

And that's the problem with most recorded Christmas carols: they take simple songs, and make them needlessly complicated. They turn what ought to be a participatory experience into something where it seems almost rude to sing along, if you can even manage it.

And I don't even want to talk about what results when they give the same treatment to Christmas music. The horror... the horror...

(Stepping out of the Christmas subgenre, I have similar feelings about a lot of Celtic and pseudo-Celtic music. I really enjoy the Pogues, but most of the other recordings I've heard of that sort of music have had a sort a cold, preservationist quality to them. "Whiskey in the Jar" isn't Beethoven's Ninth, to be played flawlessly note for note (and it's not a goddamn dirge, Jerry Garcia). It's, well, "Whiskey in the Jar," and it should have some life to it. If the singer gets drunk and is fuzzy on the words, well, I've heard 'em before, so it's all good as long as it's lively.

(I've realized that it's not so much that I like traditional Irish songs, as that I like the Pogues singing traditional Irish songs. I like the anarchic just-this-side of complete collapse feeling, and I love the "we've got every instrument we could find, and if you'll just move into the kitchen, Shane will bang on the sink" arrangements. Recommendations of more bands in that vein would be welcome.)


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I find the distinction you draw between Christmas carols and Christmas music very illuminating. One glaring fact you omitted is that Christmas music, being mostly about Santa, is aimed at children, and very young ones at that. And even as the children grow up, the songs focus their minds on the true meaning of Christmas for them:


So stuck between the Scylla of Jesus tunes and the Charybdis of crass youth commercialism, whats a good nonmaterialist (in the vernacular sense) atheist adult to do? I take solice in the very modern songs. I can get by fine on Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", Band Aids "Do They Know its Christmas", Lennon's "And so this is Christmas", and of course, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Carol of the Bells". And if you can find Joan Jett's "Wreck the Malls", let me know where.

There's always Sandler's "The Hanukkah Song" for laughs. And if you want more of a college flair, it's pretty easy to turn "the Twelve Days of Christmas" into a drinking song. Thanks Bob and Doug McKenzie!

You've hit on my complaint about Christmas carols. I really like a lot of the traditional tunes, but it's bloody impossible to find anything that isn't an overwrought symphony, or perhaps worse, a jazzed-up modern re-interpretation. How about some plain straight-up singing, by a small choir or even an individual vocalist? Musical accompaniment is okay as long as it's understated.

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 08 Dec 2006 #permalink

About the only Christmas-song purveyor with any life left in him is, IMO, the parodist Bob Rivers. (There's some of his stuff that I find upsetting on political grounds, but if we listened only to performers who shared all our opinions, there'd be very little music or comedy left to hear.)

I'd have no quarrel with most other Christmas music -- old or new, religious or secular, serious or whimsical, orchestrated or a cappella -- if I didn't think that the sole purpose of its being blasted at us for three months a year was to trigger us into buying unwanted crap.

My gripe with Christmas music is that most of the recordings that are played on the radio from Nov. 1 to New Years are terrible. People willingly listen to average singers and poor arrangements to lousy songs, just because it's a Christmas song. I think that if people got rid of the 90% of Christmas music that is just terrible you might enjoy the good stuff much more. But instead they'll continue bombarding us with someone I've never heard of singing to the cheeziest version of "Frosty the Snowman" imaginable.

Bob Rivers is much more concerned with being funny the first time than being listenable the third or fourth time.

As some one who sings in a choir - 19 voice part arrangements can be fun. Seriously! If you want simple carol arrangements you should try Robert Shaw's Choir and Orchestra and anything conducted or written by John Rutter. Both Shaw and Rutter keep it simple with excellence in music.

On the folk music front, I will keep recommending the Mammals. If you like the Pogues, I think you'll like them too as they have the same "let's keep playing until we drop 'cos we're having fun" attitude. Admittedly not quite as punky as the Pogues, they are American folk, but still brilliant.