I always hold off until Dec. 1, but this year, I found, when December arrived I was ready to dive all-in with Christmas music. As soon as the calendar turned, I found myself craving holiday music — and not just vaguely merry indie rock, but the real ruddy-cheeked classics. Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Conniff. I even listened to the Perry Como holiday box set, and let me tell you, that’s a lot of spoken-word retellings of the Christmas Story.
Even with all that musical cheer, it was hard to get in the Christmas spirit. The world was reeling from brutal violence invading public spaces both far away and nearby. World leaders were convening to address the escalating climate crisis, and there seemed something tragically ironic about sitting in my car listening to Mel Tormé sing about a timeless winter wonderland as I watched plumes of exhaust rise into the December rain.
Under any circumstances, of course, Christmas music is an odd genre. With a core repertoire of about 30 songs that are reinterpreted ad infinitum, it maddens the millions who don’t share the seemingly inexhaustible fascination that afflicts people like me for a substantial chunk of every year. The enormous appetite for holiday music inspires artists to put out Christmas albums that occasionally rise to brilliance but most typically combine uninspired interpretations of those same old standards with even less inspired original songs.
It’s often religious music, but in a sometimes paradoxical context: while some Christmas music is performed and presented in a genuinely reverent fashion, a lot of it is irreverent or even outright blasphemous. (Don’t even ask me the title of the G.G. Allin holiday 7″ that a friend just gave me.) Paeans to the man who threw the money-changers out of the temple are routinely heard at shopping malls and banks.
Even I don’t approach Christmas music from an essentially religious standpoint — I was raised Catholic, but no longer practice. For many of us, though, when it comes to Christmas, the past is always present. I was raised to think of Christmas as a special time, a time when magic is in the air and there’s a window for things to happen that never happen at any other time. Christmas was like the Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters of the calendar year.
When else do you get to miss two weeks of school — and get presents? When else do you see your dad lying on his belly in the snow, sawing a tree down? When else do you have all-day cookie bakes? When else do you get to decorate the entire house with twinkling lights and shining stars? Even in my surly teenage years, my idea of rebellion was to decorate my own Christmas tree, in my own bedroom. I remember lying in bed at night with only the lights on my little tree shining, Phil Collins’s “Another Day in Paradise” playing on the radio.
Christmas was never just about the material trappings, though: there was always a sense that there really was something different in the air, that people were a little more relaxed and generous, that everyone had a little more patience, that everyone was happily excited even if they were a little stressed out. As a kid, your birthday was for you and Thanksgiving was for the grown-ups — but Christmas was for everyone. Come the morning of the 25th, even the cats would have little treats waiting for them on the mantel, though their favorite thing about the holiday was playing with all the cast-off wrapping paper.
That warm and fuzzy feeling, that feeling of expansive sympathy, is exactly what Christmas music is all about. Except for the iconoclastic tunes that simply name-check the holiday (“Oh, no, baby, you’re running around with another man…on Christmas?”), seasonal songs old and new all strive to capture that feeling of goodwill and resolute optimism.
Enjoying Christmas music doesn’t mean being blinkered to the challenges we face, or being intolerant of diverse traditions. I try to be conscious of inadvertently — or, let’s be real, totally advertently — supporting the Christmas-industrial complex that can irk everyone whose idea of a jolly holiday doesn’t involve navigating a sea of shoppers while Crosby croons continuously.
It’s been interesting, over the past couple of years, to work at a radio station that’s a part of people’s lives every day — for the highs and the lows. Radio helps provide information, context, and solace — and helps people celebrate the good things in life. For many of us, Christmas is one of those good things: a happy time to celebrate community.
If you’d like to join this particular celebration, tune in to The Current on Sunday night, Dec. 20, as Andrea Swensson and I host two hours of Minnesota-made holiday music on the Local Show. We’ll share even more seasonal music by local artists from noon to 6:00 p.m. on Dec. 24 and 25 — on the Local Current stream. The Current’s kid-friendly music stream Wonderground is all-Christmas right now, and so is YourClassical’s Holiday stream.
However you’re spending this December, I hope it’s merry and bright. I’ll be working, relaxing, and celebrating, and my personal Christmas music marathon will certainly continue. Warm feelings alone can’t solve the problems of the world — but they’re what Judy Garland can give me right now, and I’ll take ’em.