It’s official: Y94 FM started playing Christmas music yesterday at noon. The preseason is here. And I don’t mind, because in my house growing up the preseason started in September. Christmas was a big deal, a whole season of festivity. I couldn’t pin down exactly when the Christmas decorations went up, but it was usually not that long after Halloween; the music started earlier. December was typically a whirlwind of decorations, frosted cookies, homemade chocolate candies, Christmas movies, big shopping trips with friends (my mom didn’t drive), and of course the music.
Not long ago I read an article that’s a couple of years old, pointing out that Christmas music is stuck in the ’50s. That is, there hasn’t been a lot of real innovation in Christmas music since then, and all our standards still hail from the ’40s through the ’60s with the occasional foray beyond. The article has a suggestion as to why. Short answer: it’s the Baby Boomers’ fault for being so nostalgic. Now I’m happy to blame the Boomers for a lot of things, but here not so much. And that’s a shame, because unlike the article I would actually put this to their credit. In truth nostalgia is only a small piece of it, and the article only scratches the surface of why the classics have endured while so many others failed to catch on.
Of course it doesn’t simply speak of nostalgia for Christmases past. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the American economy was in a uniquely great situation at the time, basically priming it for nostalgia. And there’s truth in that.
What we now think of as the holiday aesthetic isn’t just about a particular time of the year — it’s also very much about a particular time of American history. That golden postwar era casts a long shadow across the decades that have come after. Many contemporary policy discussions — on big topics like inequality and political polarization — are animated by a comparison between that period and the present one.
With respect to the Washington Post and author Christopher Ingraham, while this is insightful I think it somewhat misses the mark. Look at A Christmas Story, one of our most beloved holiday films. That takes place in 1940, when America hadn’t even entered World War II yet and was just recovering from the Depression. So it can’t just be the ’50s or the late ’40s; there’s something indefinable about an old-time Christmas that’s bigger than the postwar boom, bigger than the era of Eisenhower and two cars in every garage.
The real magic in Christmas music isn’t that it takes us back to the ’40s and ’50s, but that it harkens back even further.
Take a listen to the lyrics of Sleigh Ride sometime. They spark up a redolence not of the 20th century but of Americana in its purest form. The songwriter takes us to a little town like so many in this country, still basking in its agrarian heyday, where farmhouses and friends were abundant and the home cooking was second to none. And Christmas for them, too, was as much a way of life as it was in my house as a kid. Heck, technically Sleigh Ride is more of a winter song than a Christmas one, as is true of many Christmas songs, but the point stands all the firmer for that because it captures an entire season of merrymaking and fellowship.
Although it may stand out from other songs in degree, Sleigh Ride is not all that exceptional among the standards when it comes to nostalgia. Listen to any one of the others and you can feel the reach back into those days. And small wonder, because that kind of good old-fashioned American Christmas was still in living memory for many. The songwriters of the day knew that. They tapped into a vein of tradition that stretched far beyond them.
I grew up in the ’80s, and Calvin and Hobbes ran during a period from my pre-adolescence and into my early adulthood. The kind of childhood Calvin had was not dissimilar to my dad’s in many respects, or even to mine, but Millennials will never fully grasp the significance of Calvin’s near-suicidal downhill wagon runs with his tiger friend, or the joy of building snow monsters for hours on end. Bill Watterson was wise to end the strip when he did, even though it dismayed us so, because the sheer imaginative richness of that boy’s life is something the likes of which future generations will not know in the same way. And I fear that in many ways, they’ll never have a good grasp of what came before them, or a real hold on tradition; I hope I’m very wrong about that.
But it goes so far beyond the writing. No discussion of Christmas music, then vs. now, would be complete without bringing up the singers and the orchestra. Bands were in America’s blood then, music in its soul, and so the songs were supported by a full complement of instruments and skilled players. They were sung by people who practiced their craft, who may have had multiple takes in the studio but still had to perform live without the benefit of Auto-Tune. We had crooners like Dean Martin, Perry Como, Mel Tormé, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, and Robert Goulet. Good gads, what wonderful things I could say about Robert Goulet’s Christmas music. And from the women we had Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé put out Christmas music that still kicks the crap out of most stuff that came after, and small wonder because simply as musicians they did the same.
Don’t get me wrong, though; I could rattle off a long list of new Christmas classics that came after the ’60s, although a shocking amount of that list is in the ’80s and very little after that—for reasons that have a lot more to do with the fact that pop music was a lot healthier in the ’80s. That’s a pointless controversy for another day.
And one more thing that bears mentioning: A lot of our early Christmas music started as hymns. Hymns are a special kind of music, because they’re intended for a group sing, and America had a bigger heart for singalongs in those days. Many a Christian laments that modern churches have moved away from the hymnal and toward a “chorus” format, because worship choruses as they’re called are nowhere near as good as the hymns of old. Hymns were written in accessible keys and with easy harmony, to make good singers out of bad and make many voices blend as one. Many of the people who wrote the standards of the ’40s and beyond had experience with this, and their songs likewise are accessible, easy to follow, good for a singalong.
So in the end, nostalgia for the ’50s, well-deserved in many ways, is only the tip of the toboggan hill when it comes to why their Christmas music endures so much better than modern work. Looking at nostalgia alone, you have to go back much further to get the really big picture; that small-town welcome and the drive over the river and through the woods are still etched into the heart of every American patriot. The music itself was better, and the men and women who sang it were better singers too. The classics were written for all of us to sing with them, as the gentle voice of Bing Crosby still reminds us today. And yet we still have room in our hearts for more, if only now and then one will pluck the right strings to make a home there.
For the Millennials, my hope is this: that you and your descendants will see past the veil of artifice that has taken over our lives today, into the heart of what life was like for the generations before you. Embrace them, because despite all the differences between you they would happily embrace you too. Their world was different, some parts for the better and some for the worse, but find the better and see Christmas through their eyes—and if you do, it will never fail to be a part of you again.