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Conservative Review

The wonderful quirkiness of Christmas music

Quick, how many Christmas songs can you name? If you’re like most people, you’ll probably start to get stumped after a couple dozen. It’s a genre with quite a small repertoire, only a handful of songs that we sing over and over again. Sure, every once in a while a new classic comes along (Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” comes to mind), but for the most part the Christmas playlist is pretty well fixed.

Every year, contemporary musicians record albums featuring the same songs, again and again. Woe betide the band or artist who forgoes the opportunity to release a Christmas album, as they are missing out on buckets of sales. It’s not a mystery why these records get made, but it is rather strange that they get bought. Everyone already owns a recording of “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger,” so why are we buying new ones every 12 months?

There’s no other genre of music where this is the case. Jazz and pop standards come close, but the regularity and enthusiasm with which Christmas songs are released surpasses even “Mack the Knife.” With other genres, nothing comes close. Imagine if new artists re-recorded New Wave’s Greatest Hits or the Best of Punk every year. That would be ridiculous, and sales would be terrible. But with Christmas music, we want the same songs sung by new people, in new ways. Why?

I think it has to do with the nature of the carol singing tradition. One could argue that all the re-recording and reinterpreting is wasted effort, since we already have perfectly good versions of these songs that nine times out of 10 persist over newer versions. But that’s missing the point. These are songs that are meant to be sung, not just listened to.

In pop and rock music, all too often the song itself is less important than the production and instrumental parts built up to form a “recording.” Without elaborate synth arrangements, guitar solos, backing vocals, horn parts, and other production gimmicks, these tracks fall apart and even become unrecognizable.

Not so with Christmas music. Anyone can sing “Deck the Halls” and make it their own, make it personal. Christmas carols are a living tradition akin to oral history. They have to keep being repeated again and again. And like the poetry of history’s greatest oral traditions, they hang together on memorable euphony.

Music is an exultation of joy. It’s primal. Man sang before he ever spoke. There’s something deep about it and our connection to each other. It’s worth noting that we sing in groups. It’s not one person on a stage singing to an audience. We all gather together to sing carols. It’s personal, and yet it unites us. It’s individual, and yet it’s collective. It’s a snapshot of what a voluntary community looks — and sounds — like.

But Christmas songs are more than music, more than a celebration of the holiday. They’re a part of who we are as a culture, and that’s why they’ve endured so successfully.

Oh, and by the way, “My Favorite Things” is not a Christmas song, so please stop treating it like one.

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