Monday, November 26, 2012

Christmas Music and Nostalgia

The pervasive ambient Christmas soundtrack

From Flickr
By now, if not a month ago, we've broken out our Christmas playlists and radio stations (perhaps Pandora), and stores have transitioned to all-Christmas music mode. Everywhere we go, for better or for worse, we're surrounded by music of "glad tidings and great joy."

What fascinates me about this radio and ambient Christmas music is the variety in genre and age. In just a few minutes on a single station, we can hear rock, swing, gospel, jazz, choral, R&B, and broadway, from the 40s through the present, sometimes with a sprinkling of even older classical music. Also, religious music is suddenly mainstream, even sung by non-Christian singers or those who wouldn't touch religion with a long stick the rest of the year. Unlike the rest of the year, when most are not excited about the nostalgia of previous generations, Christmas is all about bringing back the music of the past.

Why the nostalgia?

So why the interest in nostalgia during Christmas? Are stations just playing a little bit of everything to please everybody? Or during Christmas, do we become interested in the history of previous generations? Is Christmas music timeless?

Perhaps, but it seems to me that younger audiences like "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" just as much as those who were alive when it debuted. I think it would be a mistake to call Christmas music timeless because it's apparent what decade or genre each selection is from. Even when old songs are "updated" to new styles, we can like the old one and the new one.

My theory for the Christmas nostalgia is that because we hear these songs every year, they are a part of all of our pasts. We actually do (mostly) like all of it. We realize that it's part of a previous decade or drawn from another style, but we can enjoy it anyway. We may not like particular songs, but we still recognize them, and they bring back memories of "Christmases long, long ago." The Christmas "feeling" is about nostalgia and memories of happiness and we want our music to reflect that. Just think of how Christmas songs keep referring to one another and to common symbols (mistletoe, bells, shepherds, angels, etc.). Of course, not everybody likes all the songs in this eclectic mix. But many people put up with the few they don't like for the whole package—after all, something completely different will be next.

The big break

Perhaps another reason why most people like most songs in the Christmas mix is that it's very hard to make heavy rotation. There's a lot of Christmas music that just doesn't break into the canon. Anyone remember Christmas in the Stars: the Star Wars Christmas? No? Artists produce Christmas music because if the songs makes it, the artists will make money every year. I'm thinking here about the movie About a Boy, in which Hugh Grant's character has his fortune made because his father wrote a hit Christmas song. There is such a volume of songs, past and present, competing for the airtime that if a song does make it into the Christmas canon, it's probably pretty good. There are some genres, however, that have not been invited to the radio Christmas party, perhaps because they haven't quite achieved universal appeal: hip-hop, indie, metal. Or maybe they are not "holiday" enough? I don't know.

Do you have any other theories why nostalgia is such a part of Christmas music?

Vocab: canon


  1. "With a ho, ho, ho and a hey, hey, hey, it's Santa's super sleigh!"

  2. For me the nostalgia is because my grandparents loved Christmas music. I grew up singing those songs and it is tradition. Now that my grandparents are gone, the songs make me cry and are often hard to listen to. I've never thought of the monetary side of things.