Remembering Christmas Music


It is slowly dawning on me that Christmas music, one of the annual joys of my childhood and perhaps yours, is in a perilous state, both culturally and aesthetically. The best of the songs musically are religious in nature, which means that schools won’t pass them along to their charges as happened routinely when I was a child, and even playing them on the radio is likely to be regarded as a religious statement. I just loved the music, as I think most kids would if they ever got the chance before they were brainwashed into believing the ancient songs were subversive.

A full court cultural press is underway to make those songs as rarely heard outside of church as hymns, and I don’t see the trend as reversible. One obvious bar to a comeback: current pop stars don’t have the pipes to sing most of them without causing a sound pollution emergency. Or, if one of the few singers who could actually hit the notes dared to cover a carol like “O Holy Night,” he or she would feel required to apply flourishes of the sort that make every rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at a major sports event an invitation to PTSD.

Even for the more secular Christmas repertoire, the clock is running out. The most listenable versions, and the definitive ones in most cases, are by performers of the past who are not just dead, but also long forgotten by the current culture. An hour of classic Christmas recordings on the radio is now a reminder of how old I am and close to joining great singers like Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Jo Stafford, Burl Ives, Gene Autry, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis—dead, dead, dead. I guess Brenda Lee is still alive, so “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” is a little less depressing, but it’s a minor classic at best. It’s gotten so bad that when I hear “The Little Drummer Boy,” I find myself wondering if the whole Harry Simeone Chorale is dead too—Harry died in 2005, and the recording is 56 years old, after all.

Meanwhile, our post-modern culture is sneering at the whole idea of Christmas songs, and Christmas itself. Most modern Christmas songs either are making fun of Christmas, about sex, or just lousy. The tradition is being undermined in more creative ways, too: this week I watched a 2012 straight-to-video movie called “12 Disasters of Christmas,” based on the loopy premise that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was really a coded recipe for stopping the 2012 apocalypse predicted by the Mayan calendar. “The Mayans knew that the knowledge would have to be preserved for centuries, so they devised a song that would carry the secret and would be passed on and learned by children for generations,” explains the old codger who’s figured it all out. (But why would they choose such a monotonous and stupid song?) Come on, guess: How does the “Chosen One” stop the end of the world? [Answer below.]*

The movie is on to something, though. The Christmas songs that have the best chance of persevering though this age of  cynicism and cultural illiteracy may be those that either tell a story  or that have an interesting one related to their creation. The simple and beautiful tune of “Silent Night,” for example, as one of those films they used to show in school assemblies every year before some anti-religious hysteric sued, was composed for guitar in response to a Christmas Eve crisis for a small church in the Austrian alps in 1818: the church organ wasn’t working.  I have found that Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”  affects me far more deeply since I learned that the Berlins’ infant son died on Christmas day, and that while his children celebrated Christmas as a cultural holiday, Berlin and his wife did not. They spent each Christmas after their son’s death in mourning. The song is a wistful remembrance of a happier time that the composer will never experience again.

Maybe another Christmas song will persevere if its origins are remembered; I was reminded of its history this week as a result of the thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba. Though my wife hates it, the song is one of my favorites, perhaps because it brings back warm memories: I watched the song’s first national broadcast with my sister and parents, and the Marshalls bought the recording the next day.

It was 1962. Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne were a husband and wife songwriting team of modest success. They were saddened by the lack of any spiritual content in popular Christmas songs then; imagine what they would think today.

Like all Americans, they were petrified during the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation. As the crisis intensified, Regney found himself inspired to write down a simple poem with a Christmas theme. (Later, the couple would say that neither of them could ever sing the song through, because of the strong emotions it recalled.) When the nation could finally take a deep breath of relief as the threat ended,  Gloria devised a melody for her husband’s words, though he had always been the composer when he and wife wrote songs together.

The result of this unique variation on their collaboration was recorded before the end of 1962, but it wasn’t until the following year, when Bing Crosby sang the team’s creation live on ABC’s  “Hollywood Palace,”  that it became widely known. The song written during the Cuban Missile Crisis became a best-seller, Crosby’s last hit Christmas record, and also the last popular Christmas song to have a religious theme.

It was, and remains, a prayer for peace.


* By finding and wearing FIVE GOLDEN RINGS, of course!

23 thoughts on “Remembering Christmas Music

  1. I usually don’t defend PBS, since it tends to lean left, be pretentious, and must be very financially managed since even if you buy an expensive concert package they knock on your wallet for more before the tickets are even delivered.

    Arguably, however, with them lies the only chance of keeping the religious Christmas music reaching the general audience. The Boson Pops have passed through 2 more directors since the days of Arthur Fiedler, but they keep presenting their Christmas concerts, and don’t shy away from the classics. Celtic Woman and their spear counterparts in Celtic Thunder aren’t afraid to tackle “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or the difficult “O Holy Night” and even contribute an original piece or two now and then, and let’s not forget Andrea Bocelli, the reigning monarch of classical crossover, and heiress apparent Jackie Evancho, who’ve done likewise and can make it all sound good.

    I’d also note that community choral groups tend to perform the classics if they are at all serious about music. I know that we’re all probably stretched thin as it is going to hear 8yo Katie and her friends sing “Let It Go” and “Sleigh Ride” but if you can possibly get out there and support the local adult choir as they sing carols (or, God forbid, Messiah) do it.

    There is hope, but it unfortunately doesn’t come without some expense on the part of those who want to keep this music “alive” for what is music unperformed other than musty old scores and memories?

    • Grrrr, this was a sloppy job – I left out “badly” after very, and the orchestra is the BOSTON Pops. You’d think I’d get the name of the one orchestra in this country almost everyone knows right

      • A well composed written piece has enough redundant semantic content to fill in minor omissions. – I did not notice either error!

  2. One of the benefits of directing a church choir — you get to sing and enjoy and savor the great traditional religious Christmas carols every year. We in the Catholic Church (at least) also don’t stop singing them the day after Christmas, even though the radio has stopped playing them. The Christmas liturgical season lasts through the middle of January — through the Feast of the Holy family (Sunday after Christmas), The Feast of the Epiphany (traditionally January 6th but now celebrated on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas), and The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (3rd Sunday after Christmas). Three more weeks to sing Joy To The World and Hark The Herald Angels Sing and Angels We Have Heard On High! A week to sing the great carols of the Wise Men — We Three Kings and The First Nowell! (We also try to avoid having anything to do with true Christmas carols until Christmas itself. Until 12/24, it is Advent, and we sing Advent carols and hymns, so no “Christmas” concerts, either, until after Christmas or at least waiting until Christmas Eve. This might seem extreme, but it is a truer observance of the religious season.)

    I am happy to say that it’s not just the older adults from my “traditional” choir who enjoy the old carols. The younger generations (as young as high school) who sing in my contemporary choir still love the old carols, too.

    Obviously, this won’t work for those who do not embrace the story, and it is a credit to those who do not when they also do not mock it and its trappings.

    I was 9 years old in 1963. Do You Hear What I Hear has been one of my favorite Christmas songs ever since. My contemporary ensemble sings it as a postlude every year.

  3. What a voice! I was 12 when that performance took place. Until today I thought the song was much older than it is. It feels like I’ve always known it.
    Thank you for the story behind it.

  4. Jackie Evancho. I just re-posted one of her public Christmas renditions on my Facebook page. She leaves just about every modern singer I know of in the back row. Her rendition of “Silent Night” will carry you away.

  5. I feel fortunate that here in the very buckle of the Bible Belt, traditional Christmas hymns and traditional secular Christmas music remain in abundant supply, both in the churches and our public spaces. May it always remain so.
    I much appreciate Jack’s reference to the inappropriate melisma-filled renditions of the “Star Spangled Banner” as “an invitation to PTSD.” I was beginning to think I was the only one offended by this ubiquitous practice. Such performances are apparently intended to showcase the performer’s vocal gymnastics rather than honoring the national anthem, and are to me a hallmark of unpatriotic narcissism.

  6. There are a few new renditions hidden among the dross of singers who can’t carry a carol even with backup. If you can’t manage to sing a holiday carol (religious or not) you have NO right to call yourself a singer, Most are simple. Especially frustrating are the featured singers for tv specials who can’t sing the song that they are collecting pay and publicity for. There are new versions like Straight No Chaser’s Twelve Days and covers of the Peanuts that get huge hits on youtube even if they don’t get play on radio or cable radio.

    I’m not as worried about the carol dying, as the all holiday channels for weeks and months are plentiful for almost two months. As soon as the ratings drop those will cut back. The american songbook singers are still being featured in ads because they STILL sell and that is what rules.

  7. And what do these sentimental, secular songs of the season have in common? Winter Wonderland . . . White Christmas. . . Baby, It’s Cold Outside . . . Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (The Christmas Waltz) . . . I’ll Be Home for Christmas . . . It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year . . . Let It Snow x3 . . . Silver Bells; Sleigh Ride . . . I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (another Berlin) . . . and one of the sexiest pop songs ever, Santa Baby.

    Clue: Both composers and lyricists (or either) were born, as was Isidore Beilin or Israel Baline — depending on whether you choose the Russian or Hebrew name for Irving Berlin — Jewish.

    Immigrants for the most part or first generation Americans raised in the downtown ghetto, and fiercely proud of their country in spite of growing up second-class and not-belonging as far as Christians were concerned. (God Bless America was another Berlin — as was another song crafted for a Christian and seasonal holiday that became an instant tradition: Easter Parade). From Tin Pan Alley and Broadway and the golden age of Hollywood … came the American musical legacy of aliens.

    Just for the record: Beilin/Baline/Berlin (the latter being one of those xenophobic distortions of Ellis Island names) was not exactly a “practicing” Jew and his wife Ellin was born Catholic. (According to their daughter’s biography, both were agnostic, and Ellin instructed the children in Judaism as well as Christianity so they could choose for themselves.)

    Okay, so I left out Rudolf as well as Rockin’ Around — which persists cruelly even today in the #3 slot for Billboard’s Top 100! Jack must be more desperate for Christmas tunes than I am — and a bunch of others, the ones that make me wish the season would end faster. But I don’t agree that the melody memories are going away. They are more with us than ever: that’s what YouTube is for. The songs aren’t going anywhere. So nog your egg, wind the Victrola, and throw another faggot on the fi… uh, oh hell, have a PC (a Perfect Christmas) holiday all.

    p.s. When you get tired of the Carols, Jack, have a look-and-listen to something more Eartha, from classic1953:

  8. Well, I just corrected about 12 more typos on THAT post. The usual crap:s for d at the end of words, a missed article here and there, a letter that didn’t register. I mistyped “every” as “very” TWICE. Ugh. Christmas is definitely increasing my carelessness or decreasing my already horrible typing skills. Once again, I’m very sorry, everyone. For a while there I had a quick volunteer proof-reader, but he finally gave up on me, and I don’t blame him.

  9. “O Holy Night” was a rallying cry of the anti-slavery movement, too. It should be in the pantheon of greatest songs ever, Christmas or otherwise.

    What I think is helping kill Christmas music is that traditional Christmas songs really need to be performed in a particular, straightforward way. But every new take on these songs tries to jazz them up or make them “wacky” and sings them all off beat in a way that makes me want to punch an elf.

    You can’t get groceries without hearing someone murdering “Jingle Bells.” “Jing….le….bells, hey! Yeah, those jingle jangle jiggly bells, jingle…jingle…all the way…all the way!” Aaaah! See there I just punched an elf.

    • I, too, get irritated at trying to sing along with the radio, only to find they’ve mangled the lyrics. I don’t know who the lady is who sings “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and gets the verses out of order, but she annoys me.

      My local radio station plays Christmas music from Thanksgiving through Christmas Day. Thankfully, they include Brenda Lee, Frank and Andy. But, if I hear “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” one more time, I think I’ll scream.

      Fortunately, they also include a good share of religious themes, too. I agree on “O Holy Night” as being one of the greatest ever, Isaac.

      As for new classics, well, the only one I think comes close is Harry Connick, Jr’s. “When My Heart Finds Christmas”. He’s no Frank, but it’s a decent song.

  10. Never fear, Jack! Pop stars will sing another rousing rendition of “Do they Know it’s Christmas Time”. Yes, they will. Just picture the scene: Justin Beiber, Miranda Cosgrove, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Ross Lynch, and other God-awful Disney talents belting out that song in hopes of improving humanity. Not a worry in the world. Sheez.


    PS: If I hear that song one more time I just might pop off at a police officer and declare, “Hands down! Please shoot!”

    PPS: I would update my name on this blog but I can’t figure out how to get my Smith/Corona manual typewriter to do that.

  11. Thank you for this early-morning trip down memory lane with all the songs I grew up hearing in church and on the radio at Christmas time–and not starting before Thanksgiving, but at Christmas time.
    I too love “Do You Hear What I Hear” and appreciate knowing its history.

    Some of he Sirius channels are devoted to the classical Christmas songs. Blessed Christmas to you, Jack, and hopes for a new year with peace and joy and love in it.

  12. Christmas only exists because of Christ. That being said, pull the religion out of the holiday and ultimately the holiday disappears and all of its associated trappings.

    Christmas music has several “genres”, not classified nor exclusive:

    1) Theological or religious: directly communication the story or the theology of the Incarnation.

    2) Modern references to the festivals associated with the Christ-Mass.

    3) Modern references to the neo-pagan Christmas folklore…Santa Claus, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, etc.

    4) Modern references to the American folklore… Frosty the Snowman, etc

    5) Modern references to the post-materialist Capitalist associations with Christmas— Christmas party songs.

    6) Modern references to the post-narcissist associations with Christmas…songs about sex….


    We all saw this coming…it is predictable. take the religion out of a religious holiday and you can only assume that artistic messages (songs included) pertaining to the Holiday will have less and less to do with the ethical message of the holiday until eventually, watered down, it isn’t even worth playing the secular versions of that Holiday’s music.

    What are the secularists complaining about? They asked for this.

    • “Christmas only exists because of Christ. That being said, pull the religion out of the holiday and ultimately the holiday disappears and all of its associated trappings.”

      I don’t know if it’s going to make you feel any better, Tex, but have you really discounted those ‘associated trappings’ that are connected with the older religions celebrating the winter solstice — the standing-still of the sun, the start of the season marking the return of light and life to the world? (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) Even if you don’t qualify pagan holidays as religious at all, the observance (literally) persists primarily as a time of happy, merry, joyous and all that good stuff. It’s still there, partying on its way to greeting the New Year.

      In the midst of the present-day (at its worst, call it) Saturnalia –, there is a holy day, a stop-and-pray day — or a couple of hours, depending on whether you dispense the presents before the evening services or midnight Mass or wait til the next morning to get back to the fun and games. A lot of ancient Romans thought the extremes of celebration over the 12 days were disrespectful to their gods (Seneca thought the mob was out of control) but it was all of a piece then: the religion and the occasion were one.

      The connection between thankfulness for the birth of a savior and hooray-for-the-returning-sunlight may be unraveling naturally. Even with all the priestly efforts of the Middle Ages, the beliefs if not the practices related to the quickening of the season persisted. They have never been very compatible, musically or in any other way.

      “Christmas” is the overarching title of the time, yes. And it does encompass all six of your categories, ancient, modern and post- (I leave you to your derogations; it’s your prerogative). But I think you are wrong about the secular encroaching on the religious as far as Christmas music is concerned.

      I think there’s something else going on here.

      A great deal of what we’re calling the religious music – the serious stuff – is aka “classical music” and that genre is ON THE WHOLE dying out, not just Christmas songs. More every year. This music is historically attended to in seated groups for extended periods; it is primarily orchestral, requiring large spaces (preferably concert halls or cathedrals); its appreciation and performance requires a certain amount of education; and its upkeep calls for expense that we, as a society, appear to be no longer willing (or able?) to provide. A better description of what I’m saying appears here:

      I’m just suggesting that you take what you can get out of categories 1 and 2 (and selected bits of 3) and hold tight to it. There should be enough music — and religion — to fill your Christmastimes without having to suffer the rest. The new audio technology should help preserve it. Of course, that will require detaching in your mind the part that is already detached in reality, in other words: Christ from Christmas as a whole, unless you can submerge yourself in the Octave or Twelve Days of ritual and be satisfied with that.

      Personally, my playlist will be a random mix of the music I have acquired — sung and played and taken to mind — since childhood, a combination of 1 and 2, … and 7…, the last being praise for the winter weather though it only snows these days (and shovels as well) in the memories that live in the melodies.

      Pax, Tex.

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