Music and Nostalgia to Drive the Dark Away

Recently, there’s been much ado about the “War on Christmas”: the idea is that commercialization and secularization are threatening to erase the religious meaning of the holiday—that “Christmas” is losing the “Christ.” From the controversial phrase “Happy Holidays” to plain red Starbucks cups, those who decry the “War on Christmas” point to many cultural examples that avoid mention of the birth of Jesus or Christmas altogether. 

Yet in many ways, this “Christ-less Christmas” is nothing new. 

Even if the word “Christmas” as such fades from common holiday parlance, its meaning in the United States has increasingly detached itself from its religious origins ever since the nineteenth-century, stemming from the imported Christmas traditions of Victorian England. Looking at the “Christmas Canon” of songs (canon meaning most well-known, quintessential collection of musical repertoire), it becomes clear that in American culture, the word “Christmas” is neither sacred nor secular, but rather a season with many different meanings to different people, all fundamentally centered on the rituals that bring hope and light to the darkest days of the (Northern Hemisphere’s) year. And at the center of this season lies nostalgia, that warm, fuzzy feeling of comfort, that has carried people through the long winter months for as long as anyone can remember.

Historically, it’s been difficult for new holiday songs to break into the standard repertoire—but there are, of course, exceptions. Millennials like me are especially devoted to Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Wham’s “Last Christmas” (1985) has become so ubiquitous in stores and on the radio that there’s a viral game built around avoiding the song for as long as possible

But a great deal of holiday staples are older. The songs popularized by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, and the like date to the 1930s and ‘40s. I’m not speaking of sacred carols from the hymnal here (those are largely nineteenth-century creations). Instead, I’m focusing on songs like “Winter Wonderland” (Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith, 1934), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, 1944), and “Let it Snow” (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, 1945). Unlike later additions to the “Christmas Canon,” such songs do not belong to particular recording artists—while nobody may sing “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin, 1941) quite like Bing Crosby, the song has been recorded countless times with many other well-known renditions. In fact, out of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)’s 25 most popular holiday songs of 2019, fourteen such songs can be grouped into this category, the music of “Tin Pan Alley.”

Tin Pan Alley was the center of the commercial music industry from the late nineteenth century through the 1940s. From the beginning, Tin Pan Alley focused on composers churning out sheet music that would have broad appeal and could be mass-produced and marketed. Its intended audience was amateur musicians looking to make music in their homes, the only way to hear music at home before the wide adoption of recording. Composers, many of whom were Jewish immigrants, were the central creative force. Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (the team who composed “Let it Snow!”) were both Jewish, as was Irving Berlin, and immigrant from Belarus and the composer behind “White Christmas.”

Form was standard—nearly all Tin Pan Alley songs follow the same basic patterns. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (Johnny Marks, 1949) is but one example of the quintessential Tin Pan Alley form, in which a musical tune is introduced, repeated, departed from, and then repeated again. To simplify this pattern, we can represent it in letters: AABA.

Chorus:        A
               Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
               Had a very shiny nose
               And if you ever saw it
               You would even say it glows
               All of the other reindeer
               Used to laugh and call him names
               They never let poor Rudolph
               Join in any reindeer games
               Then one foggy Christmas eve
               Santa came to say
               “Rudolph with your nose so bright
               Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”
               Then how the reindeer loved him
               As they shouted out with glee:
               Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
               You’ll go down in history!

Even though the words change, the melody for each segment stays almost exactly the same. It isn’t difficult to find this pattern in other holiday standards: “Winter Wonderland,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (Meredith Wilson, 1951), “Frosty the Snowman” (Steve Nelson and Walter E. Rollins, 1950), and many others have the same general form. Not all Tin Pan Alley holiday standards follow this format—“White Christmas” might be the most famous exception—but the pattern is popular enough to be known as the definitive Tin Pan Alley form.

In recent years, columnists have tried to explain the endurance of these songs in musical terms. Many have searched for a musical “formula”—something that successful songs have in common. But if the answer is as simple as a formula, then why are we still listening to music from the 1930s? Shouldn’t new holiday music have knocked those off the charts by now? It is only when the element of nostalgia is brought into play that it all falls into place: of course new repertoire struggles to get a foothold in the “Christmas canon”—because it is new, it is not yet tradition. It doesn’t feed the need for nostalgia.

But if holiday nostalgia comes from observance of traditions, why fixate on Tin Pan Alley? If we choose holiday listening because it’s the listening our parents played when we were kids, because it was the music their parents played for them as kids, or because it’s what we’ve been inundated with at the shopping mall (remember those?) our entire lives, why does this stop in the 1930s? Where are the popular Christmas songs of earlier Tin Pan Alley years? 

The answer lies in the paradigm shift in music consumption from sheet music to recordings. The electric microphone was introduced in 1925, greatly increasing the fidelity (or quality) of recordings. Throughout the 1930s, recordings became an increasingly popular method of music consumption, leading to the sale of recordings finally surpassing that of sheet music in 1952. Tin Pan Alley songs of the 1930s and ‘40s are nostalgic standards, culture inherited by each generation, because the generations alive in the ‘30s and ‘40s were the first to broadly consume recorded music.

So now we’ve established that the staples of our holiday repertoire come from the Tin Pan Alley composers of the 1930s and ‘40s, in no small part because those were the first Christmas songs whose recordings were widely distributed and consumed. 

Where does this leave us with the “War on Christmas?” The “War on Christmas” stems from the idea that the culture industry is attempting to secularize an explicitly Christian holiday. But if this is the standard by which contemporary culture is judged, then the music industry was guilty of this a long time ago. 

Several Tin Pan Alley standards would more accurately be called “winter songs” because they don’t mention Christmas at all. Yet “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” gets shelved on January 1st alongside “The First Noel”—it’s still treated as a “Christmas song.” Even among the abundance of Tin Pan Alley standards that mention “Christmas” by name, very few are about the birth of Jesus Christ. Rather, these songs celebrate Christmas as a holiday for its own sake. Some tell stories of wonder and joy (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (obligatory note that joy coming from capitalist consumption is another commonality, but Charlie Brown has already covered this). Still more songs celebrate the holiday from a nostalgic point of view: a longing for simplicity, for comfort, for warmth—“It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas,” “White Christmas,” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire)” (Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, 1934) come to mind. 

Whatever else one might say about these songs, it is clear that Tin Pan Alley was ready to bottle and sell nostalgia as its own cultural product—a far greater priority than creating music on Christian-Christmas terms. 

There are two directions to go with this: on the one hand, the fact that all music of the season is commonly referred to as “Christmas music” (whether it mentions Jesus—let alone Christmas—or not) demonstrates the overwhelming power of Christianity in American culture. Unless it explicitly mentions a different holiday, it’s “Christmas Music.” (Although we definitely still called it a “Christmas Concert” in the ‘90s even though our elementary school chorus included “Hanukkah oh Hanukkah” on the program.) While the term “holiday music” is becoming more popular, a quick Google search shows that many writers continue to use the terms “holiday music” and “Christmas music” interchangeably. This lumping in of thoroughly secular music (or even that of another religion) with the repertoire designated for a Christian holiday can be read as largely typical of Christianity as a proselytizing religion: Christianity has long depended on the appropriation and redesignation of other religions’ rituals and traditions for its own survival

In this light, it isn’t that Christmas is becoming secularized as much as that Christianity is such a dominant force that the secular is becoming Christianized.

I would offer an alternative theory: based on the themes and longevity of the most beloved “Christmas” songs, the cultural meaning of American “Christmas” has expanded to the point at which it doesn’t have to mean the birth of Jesus at all. Many ostensibly “Christmas” traditions today are practiced by Christians and non-Christians alike. People of all religious backgrounds can be found decking “Christmas trees” (or “holiday bushes,” depending on who you ask). Children who have never set foot in a church still anxiously await the arrival of Santa. Families gather, food and drink are shared, revelry abounds. In the ever expanding definition of “Christmas,” the word comes to mean what the season always has been: tradition, community, and love, bringing light and warmth at the time of year when the world is most cold and dark. It is no wonder nostalgia figures so heavily this time of year. One listen to a “greatest Christmas hits” playlist confirms this. 

But even considering the well-established secularization of Christmas, the proselytizing history of Christianity can cast a shadow over the holiday for those of other faiths. The retention of the word “Christmas” can leave the holiday feeling less than welcoming. The shift from “Christmas” to “Holiday”—whether in “Happy Holidays,” red Starbucks cups, or the term “holiday music”—then becomes a conscientious rebranding of what “Christmas” already was. The phrase “Happy Holidays” leaves room for us to celebrate light and hope wherever we may find it, whether it’s from the candles of the Menorah, the glow of the Yule log, or, yes, in the birth of a savior. The “War on Christmas” was neither lost or won—it just never existed. 

After the year we’ve had, we all need a little more light and that warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia this December. Celebrate safely, hold those in your “quarantine pod” close, and Zoom with the community that you love. May all of the music you listen to this season bring you comfort and joy, as well as the hope and promise of 2020 ending and a new year just a couple of weeks ahead.

About the title and post image: “The Shortest Day” is a poem by Susan Cooper about the Winter Solstice.

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