Thoughts About Christmas Music

XKCD had a funny comic a couple weeks ago, and I’m finally finding time to blog about it before Christmas is over and it’s completely irrelevant.

Baby Boomer Christmas Songs

There are two interesting things about music and Christmas that I like to reflect on every December. The first thing is that the radio and the TV and the mall and pretty much everybody starts playing these songs with lyrics straight out of the BIble sung by musicians who may not even believe in it, and pretty much everyone in America seems OK with it. We can hear the Barenaked Ladies singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” when they would probably never sing “The Wonderful Cross” – even though both songs have to do with the same Biblical narrative. The culture of Christmas makes the former song acceptable in a way it would never be otherwise. It’s like, somehow, despite all of the commercialization and controversy of the Christmas season, we’ve still managed to trick Americans into voluntarily thinking, talking, and singing about Jesus Christ of Nazareth for a few weeks! How brilliant is that?

But that’s just the first thing. Traditional Christmas carols are only one of the two kinds of music that get played around Christmastime. Every December I also think about how interesting it is that American culture suddenly becomes enamored with big-band/jazz/swing music for about a month and then just as suddenly switches back to pop and hip-hop or whatever. That sort of style is so associated with Christmas in my American experience that whenever I hear a swing or jazz kind of song that’s not about Christmas I usually subconsciously start singing “Winter Wonderland” or “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or something (yeah, I know, that just proves I’m so uncultured).

It was an oddity, but I always viewed it as an oddity across genres. This fascinating XKCD chart has enlightened me to speculating that it’s actually an oddity across time. Big band stuff was popular in the 40’s and 50’s. It’s not so much that everyone seems to suddenly enjoy listening to Christmas music of a particular genre. No, they suddenly enjoy listening to Christmas music of a particular time – and the styles we hear just happen to be the styles that were popular at that time. How much all of this has to do with Baby Boomer demographics and whatnot I really don’t know, but it’s all quite fun to think about.

Of course there are a few caveats to the chart. I took a gander to the XKCD forums and learned, among other things, about the probable source of the chart, which concerns songs under ASCAP copyrights and thus automatically excludes all those traditional public domain songs from “Angels We Have Heard on High” to “Silent Night”. Still, even if the distant past is under-represented, it’s quite clear that all the copyrighted material of the recent past is not, and that’s what I find the most fascinating. Apparently none of the Christmas songs written in the last three decades have done much to displace the decades prior. (If this doesn’t seem astonishing to you, think of the equivalence of this being true for the overall music culture; it would be like “Rock Around the Clock” or “Heartbreak Hotel” being the most-played songs on the radio today!)

Why has this happened to Christmas music when it hasn’t happened to anything else? It’s can’t just be the Christmas part of it, either – it’s not like the most-played Christmas TV specials are from the 40’s and 50’s. Of course, it’s not that the old recordings are still popular; it’s just that a lot of modern artists keep covering them. I’m not going to tread into unprovable theories about traditions and Baby Boomer demographics and whatnot, but it is all quite fun to think about. I wonder what that chart would look like for this decade, or the one to come after that… But let’s not get silly. Who’s still going to be listening to the radio in twenty years?