TGIF: Look for ‘Christmas’ as you listen to the season’s soundtrack
One of many remarkable aspects of the Christmas celebration is its music. No other season has such a unique collection of songs to serve as its soundtrack, and that holds true in both the original Christian context as well as the secular one.
In what seems to be the “spirit” of Christmas today, people relish getting into arguments about how we should properly observe this most wonderful time of year. We argue over saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holiday.” We argue over whether the tree should be living or artificial. We argue over whether the lights should be multi-colored or clear. We argue over whether it’s too soon to listen to Christmas music.
How better to show the spirit of Christmas than by quarreling?
I have another observation that could be a point of contention. A lot of what we consider Christmas music doesn’t deal with Christmas. Listen to the words as “Christmas songs” are sung this month. Listen for mentions of Christmas. You won’t hear it — not even “Bethlehem” or “Santa” — in a surprising number of “Christmas” tunes. You’ll hear “snow” and “winter,” but in many, Christmas Day has nothing to do with what’s being sung.
So it’s not only Christmas we’re celebrating, it’s also winter. Why don’t we keep singing those “let it snow” and “winter wonderland” songs in January and February?
My wife and I have been streaming several Christmas radio channels since Thanksgiving. Since it seems we don’t have much to do these days, we listen for songs traditionally associated with Christmas that never specifically mention the holiday.
We had only started my list when I found a blog written by Washington Post columnist Roger Catlin, who’s obviously several steps ahead of me. Accordingly, I happily give him credit for much of this research.
Consider the following so-called Christmas songs:
JINGLE BELLS — This ode to driving recklessly through snow in a horse-drawn sleigh was composed in 1857, but never mentions Christmas, or any other holiday.
SLEIGH RIDE — Composed in the late 1940s as an instrumental, this mainstay had words added later, but also never mentions Christmas.
LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW — Just because it’s snowing doesn’t mean it’s Christmas. After all, in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas arrives the first week of summer.
FROSTY THE SNOWMAN — Here’s a whimsical song that ultimately turns tragic, chronicling the evitable demise of a winter playmate. It never mentions Christmas — not even Santa Claus. Written in 1950, it was a follow-up to Gene Autry’s smash hit “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from the year before. That’s its only link to Christmas, it would seem.
MARSHMELLOW WORLD — Food, winter, and snow each figure prominently in this 1949 “Christmas” classic, but listen closely for any mention of Christmas-specific terms. Spoiler alert: you won’t hear any.
BABY IT’S COLD OUTSIDE — This duet that debuted in 1944 can still be heard on stations featuring “traditional” holiday recordings, but it has two strikes against it today. Not only does the song have nothing to do with Christmas, but the aggressiveness of the male singer seems creepy today.
MY FAVORITE THINGS — In what solar system could this Rodgers and Hammerstein song from “The Sound of Music” be a Christmas song? Sleigh bells and snowflakes do not a Christmas make.
Now, let’s consider two favorites that work now, but in other seasons too.
WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS — This song from the 1966 musical version of “Mame,” adapted from a novel and stage play from the mid-1950s, has a twist. After Mame lost a fortune in the October 1929 stock market crash, members of her household “need a little Christmas” to cheer them up. But the song points out that perhaps they’re rushing the season because it’s only a week past Thanksgiving. Christmas “creep” hadn’t taken hold yet. That was then, this is now.
JOY TO THE WORLD — A case can be made about this hymn not being Christmas-specific. Written by Isaac Watts in 1719, the lyrics are about a savior who is already reigning, inspired by Psalm 98:4. Perhaps it’s because the first line is often misstated. It’s “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” not the Lord “has” come. But that’s no reason to resrict this hymn to Christmas. It’s appropriate any time of year.
Debate things as we will, words can’t hold back a stampede. Any song with even a passing mention of snow, sleighs, winter, toys, or gifts will show up on somebody’s Christmas playlist. After all, those 24-hour Christmas channels that start broadcasting in October have to fill those weeks with something.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.