Hell’s bells, Jingle Bells!

For the last few years now, the inevitable arrival of the Christmas season has evoked nothing but disgruntlement in me. I have been thinking about the specific reasons for this hostile disposition, and after discarding several milder annoyances (the epilepsy-inducing light shows, family arguments over who knows the worst ham recipe, Santa’s ungodly fashion sense, etc.), I have managed to narrow it down to the most crucial factor: the awful, awful, and oh so awful Christmas music! In order to truly understand the nature of such audial evil, we should first take a look at the origin and development of its most misguided manifestation, the notorious Christmas carols. According to the aptly titled website whychristmas?com, the first European Christmas carols were bellowed thousands of years ago as part of pagan celebrations for the Winter Solstice. The Imperial Romans later adopted carols (literally meaning “joyous singing and dancing”) into their Christian traditions; the celebrated disco tune Angel’s Hymn was reportedly dropped in a Roman Christmas service as early as AD 129. During the Middle Ages, however, the popularity of Christmas carols was challenged by circumstances of language use: the less-educated bulk of the population found most Latin-based carols nonsensical, and eventually stopped celebrating Christmas altogether. This time period is also known by Christmas-contrarian historians as the Age of Rational Music Listening Enlightenment.

Carols by Greek artist Nikiphorus Lytras, 1872

But alas, all good things must come to an end! The culprit responsible for brainwashing Europeans back into pro-Christmas mode was the Italian friar Francis of Assissi. Francis’ Nativity Plays of 1223 were a big crowd-pleaser, for most of the carols were now performed in local languages that the audience could follow and sing along to. There was no getting rid of the carols this time around – even the valiant suppression campaign by the English Puritans in 1647 failed, because the people would maintain the oral tradition by singing carols in secret (truly a dark moment in the history of man’s struggle against state oppression). The aggressive XMSCRL-virus eventually spread into the very streets we live in; official carol groups called the ‘Waits’ are credited for popularizing the door-to-door tradition of Christmas caroling in Victorian England.

The outlook on the current global state of Christmas carols and other Christmas music is bleak at best: they seem to be more popular than ever. Pop music has fully embraced the Christian values spearheaded by the good friar Francis of Assissi. The Destiny’s Child music video 8 Days of Christmas (2001) has the charming trio prancing around in sexy elf outfits and singing about the expensive lifestyle accessories they would like their boyfriends to buy for Christmas – admittedly a fitting, modern counterpart to the nativity tale of Jesus. What puzzles me most, however, is the joy and pleasure countless people garner out of these seemingly arbitrary arrangements of sleigh bells, reindeer appraisals and all the you’s Mariah Carey wants for Christmas (All I Want for Christmas Is You, 1994). Why, oh why can’t I get into music with such vision and limitless potential?

Perhaps I am simply not able to appreciate the joyous nuances of Christmas compositions. During the time when Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by American ad writer Robert L. May (1939), a bright red nose was commonly associated with a state of chronic alcoholism and drunkenness – obviously contributing to the lasting popularity the song has enjoyed in elementary school Christmas plays. Jingle Bells, composed sometime between 1853 and 1857, was presumably written originally for a Thanksgiving Sunday school program, which would explain the song’s righteous lyrical content: picking up girls, riding the fastest possible sleighs and doing whatever it takes to beat your jingling adversaries (just read the lyrics, it’s all there!). The thinking man’s boy band N’Sync provides the ultimate secret to appreciating Christmas in their ballad I Never Knew the Meaning of Christmas (1998): “and girl here you are / suddenly I realize / that I never knew the meaning of Christmas / ‘til I looked into your eyes”. Profound as always, Justin!

The key to any refined music taste is the ability and willingness to broaden your listening horizons. I would, therefore, like to believe that one day I will be able to enjoy the musical heritage of Christmas as much as the next person. Especially if that next person is a Stockmann holiday season worker, who has the privilege of listening to a carefully selected Christmas medley on an infinite loop – witnessing that elated look on their faces must mean that there really is magic in the noëls.


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Six Songs for Xmas Season