Believe it or not, there are still men on Tinder who say in their profiles that they’re music fans, “except for rap and country.” This is a psychotic way to tell on oneself in 2020, when you’d be right to assume that we, as a sOcIeTy, have moved far past those musty signifiers of classism/racism. Omnivorousness has long superseded pickiness, and there are seats at the table for acknowledging excellence in all genres.
Except Christmas music; it remains not only acceptable, but in fact popular, to dump on Christmas music. It is the boring, predictable music-nerd equivalent of foodies who go out of their way every November to point out that “turkey sucks, actually” (which is, for the record, a lie). Holiday music is, by definition, the only genre that’s cordoned off into a little sliver of the calendar, and, even then, people argue that the sliver isn’t sliver-y enough.
Every year barring this apocalyptic one, people whinge and whine about having to hear Christmas music in stores, as if it isn’t a welcome reprieve from hearing non-Christmas Sia in stores. Its only crime is trying to make a shit time of year feel less shit by bringing warmth and light and joy. I like the ones about baby Jesus. I like the ones about “gee whiz, it’s Christmastime in the city, and everyone’s hustling and bustling!” I like the ones about Santa bringing toys. I like the ones about “it’s a snowy time of year, but let’s go on a date anyway.” I like the ones about “I’m sad at Christmas because my baby’s gone.” I like the ones about “I’m sad at Christmas because I’m an old man thinking about Christmases of yore.” I like the ones about Jingle Bell Rocking Around a Christmas Goose. I like the Victorian ones about singing at a door for handfuls of pudding. Not only is Christmas music “nice, actually,” it may be the best genre, full stop. I’ll tell you why.
It transcends religion.
I personally fall into that tragic cliché of the Jew who loves Christmas inordinately: I am convinced that so many of my people turn out to be lawyers because, even as toddlers, we don’t suffer the notion of Santa, so we are burdened as children with the terrible knowledge that the world has no magic in it. Still, I grew up with carols and Charlie Brown. My mother reserves a spiral ham from the HoneyBaked Ham store in Fort Lauderdale for us to eat every Christmas Eve at my Bubbie’s condo. Besides “Ma’oz Tzur,” Hanukkah music just didn’t hook me the same way; those mournful Old Country modal progressions are a downer. Why couldn’t the Jews marshal one of our many Disney composers — the Sherman Brothers or Alan Menken or Stephen Schwartz or Marc Shaiman — to give us little pishers something better than the fucking “Dreidel Song”? Even when it comes to more religious Christmas music, you don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the role that the church played in music history, from chamber music to gospel, and the beauty of more classic songs like “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Also, as my mom will remind you, Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas.” So.
It alters our perception of time.
Songs of summer come and go. Once-ubiquitous hits of the past are relegated to “throwback” playlists. Year-end album lists codify the past and clear the slate for the future. We’re all talking about Bolt Cutters, until we’re all talking about Punisher, until we’re all talking about folk-ver-mlore. But when Christmas songs return to our radios and Trader Joe’s PA systems, you’re transported back to past Christmases. You’re at the office holiday party, from back when you saw people in person. You’re home from your first semester away at college. You’re at a mall Toys ‘R’ Us eyeing the possessed Furbies. You remember details about your grandparents that you haven’t thought about in a while. Even the dorkiest Christmas music marks the passage of time in a way that heightens its emotional potency, with the added edge of reminding us that we’re all getting older and will die. And that’s Goth as hell. Embrace it.
No genre is better at yearning.
If winter brings with it reminders of death and things dying, and Christmas music makes you sort of homesick for the past in a hokey yet undeniable Don Draper time-machine-speech way, the groundwork is laid for singers in the genre to yearn extremely melodically.
Glitz. Glamour. Shimmer. Zazz, even.
Secular Christmas music goes hand in hand with two things: Sparkly lights and jazz standards. People don’t get to indulge in these aesthetics most of the year, unless they’re Broadway stars, Mariah Carey, or Lady Gaga in that one era when she kidnapped Tony Bennett to do jazz karaoke duets with her. It is the one month when us normals can lavish ourselves in chintz and tinsel and get less side-eye than usual. There is a reason why people buy ornaments for Christmas: It’s about celebrating ornamentation. This musical aesthetic and its warm vibes extend beyond the Nat King Cole stuff to Motown, the genre that maybe couples best of all with Christmas cheer. The maximalist production on the Ronettes’ “Frosty the Snowman” and “Sleigh Ride” pair all too well with wassail.
It defies trends.
This is not to say that your typical cash-grab, autopilot new Christmas releases don’t try to acquiesce to whatever’s the most radio-friendly new spin on “Let it Snow” every year. But there are also songs, across genres and decades, that elbow their way through the dross to enshrine themselves in the Christmas-music canon, cementing what would otherwise be long-forgotten music trends into a shared, classic holiday lexicon. I, for one, welcome the psychotic synths of “Wonderful Christmastime.” Decades down the road, they sound just as much like Christmas as any classic Pachelbel shit.
It has fun, underused percussion.
When else do you hear jingly, tinkly bells? When else do you hear big ding-dong church bells? When else do you hear a big-band percussion section emulate hoof clomps? These are playful, experimental, exciting staples of Christmas music, and they remind us how dull it is to be confined to a drum kit the other 11 months of the year. Very occasionally, non-Christmas music employs these bell noises and is heralded as polyphonically exhilarating for it. See: Pet Sounds. See also: “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me.” Those bells are Christmassy and festive as fuck and are an example of how we can — nay, should! — incorporate more Christmas-music aesthetics into our full calendar year.
It’s Rousingly Sing-along-able.
Very occasionally, the pop gods bless us with (or curse us with, depending on how big of a drip you are) a “Tubthumping” or a “Since U Been Gone,” a song with a hooky chorus that’s easy to scream along to. The ubiquity of Christmas music, its very annoying overfamiliarity, is what makes it inclusive. If (big if!) social gatherings are possible by this summer, try whipping out “All I Want for Christmas Is You” at karaoke and see what happens. It’s the last bit of monoculture we’ve got.
It still inspires genuinely good new music.
World’s Most Famous non-Housewives Mormon Brandon Flowers is an indefatigable musical Christmas elf. The Killers having put out something like a dozen original Christmas songs over the years, not sacrificing musical ambition and creativity for predictable “Last Christmas” covers. Although, on the subject of “Last Christmas” covers, Carly Rae Jepsen’s is particularly excellent, both a synthy throwback and totally her own. And, of course, Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas canon is the perfect outlet for him to express everything he wants to about both Jesus and yearning. To write off the genre is to write off the beautiful variety of original music it still inspires.
It comforts my 2020 incel heart.
Ninety-five percent of music is about sex, and the other 5 percent is about relationships. This year, due to social distancing and the pandemic and my unattractive personality, I have had neither. Christmas songs are proof that it is possible to write songs about things besides romance: roasted nuts, the joys of capitalism, Virgin Mary the Queen of the Incels. This year, they’re making me feel a little less alone.
But it can be horny, too.
Remember: Eyes Wide Shut is a Christmas movie. Christmas is a horny, horny season. One of the most popular, most annoying carols is about discovering your dad is getting cucked on the reg by Santa. The deeply cursed duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was many people’s first introduction to concepts of rape culture. There’s also “Santa Baby,” already perilously sexy when Eartha Kitt debuted it, turned comically horny by the 1987 version that had Madonna cover it in a Betty Boop voice. Ariana Grande is our most recent sex demon to flip the “horny for Christmas” subtext into, uh, domme-text, with Christmas & Chill, with its addictive, modern holiday classic “Santa Tell Me.”
These songs let the pop girls eat.
They are designed to let the gals shamelessly belt, option up, do death-defying key changes, and show off their full range, and it’s okay because they’re celebrating Jesus and/or Santa himself and/or the concept of their boyfriend with a red bow on his head sitting under mistletoe like a festive himbo, so they can be extra loud about it. Whitney Houston’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?” suggests the higher the belt the closer to God. Mariah Carey hasn’t rested on her Christmas laurels after recording the world’s most popular song, Christmas or otherwise. In 2000, she wrote the fucking impeccable “Where Are You Christmas?” for the Grinch movie and, in the true spirit of true Christmas generosity, let Faith Hill take it. In 2010, she gave us the underrated, delightful “Oh Santa!”; and, for 2020, she remixed the thing with Jennifer Hudson and heir to the whistle-tone throne, Grande. Similarly, Kelly Clarkson has proven herself to be extremely good at Christmas. These songs keep the checks reliably coming in for icons who deserve it. Dolly Parton probably made that vaccine money back tenfold with her endless media appearances singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” this year. Carey still gets to set new Billboard records. And with every radio play of “My Only Wish (This Year),” we make Britney Spears’s conservatorship a little more comfortable. ’Tis
the season all seasons!