Each December, I delight (or horrify) myself and my loved ones with my holiday music hot takes. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus?” Delightful, especially when sung by a young Michael Jackson. “Santa Baby?” Easily one of the most creative and thought-provoking takedowns of American consumerism ever written. “Last Christmas?” Appropriate for year-round radio play.
Love it or hate it, holiday music plays a vital role in early winter celebrations across the United States. And, indeed, whether due to places of employment or personal memories, many people do hate it. According to one study, “23% of Americans actually dread holiday music and find it mentally draining.” However, while I am plenty picky in other areas of my life, holiday music is one area that brings me a unique sense of joy each year.
What makes Christmas music different from other kinds of music? As musicologist Phil Gentry explains, “it’s really the only set of songs we hear widely at the same time of year, every year. We don’t really have that with anything else, which is partly why it can make us so nostalgic.” He also explains that it’s one of the last remnants of the human practice of passing down oral tradition, creating strong emotional links between the past and the present.
Because the Christmas canon evolves at a slower pace (with new songs being added usually only once per year and taking multiple holiday cycles to solidify themselves as part of the canon), holiday music can be a strong connection across generations. I have a great time every year discussing holiday music at length with my grandmother, and while she prefers Bing Crosby over Kelly Clarkson, we share a bond over our love for “Silver Bells.”
By saving these songs for a certain time of year, we create little pockets of memories of our most important holiday moments.
By saving these songs for a certain time of year, we create little pockets of memories of our most important holiday moments. I’ll always tear up at “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” because it reminds me of hearing it on the radio on the drive to my grandparents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner, of trying to learn the tune on the piano when I was 12, of watching “Meet Me in St. Louis” with my family when I was 18 and finding comfort in the lyrics when the world entered a global pandemic.
Holiday songs also generate some of the best running jokes in my life. Who could not crack up to reminisce about hearing the super-secret, extra verses of “Silent Night” during one particularly long and tedious Christmas Mass? Or my insistence, at the age of 8, that we delay our entrance into church so I could hear the entirety of the Muppets and John Denver’s version of “Twelve Days of Christmas?” Being partially removed from the intended religious resonance of these Christmas songs, such recontextualizations allow me to laugh at the often absurd practices of the religious Christmas experience.
For many people, though, holiday songs do not hold such positive associations. As Dr. Rhonda Freeman told NBC News, while “many of us associate this music with childhood and a happy time of presents and traditions and all the specialness that happens around that time of year,” causing dopamine to flood our brains when we hear our favorite holiday tunes, “some people had abusive childhoods, or they experienced a loss of some kind or a person someone passed away [during the holiday season] … For that population, Christmas songs can be very painful to hear.”
Not choosing which songs you listen to can cause distress, especially if you’re hearing them against your will or in environments where you’re trying to focus on other things (as for retail or food industry workers, or even people stuck in a car with a driver who insists on playing the local holiday music radio station for all of December). Researchers recommend “continuously [switching] up your music to prevent cognitive fatigue and boredom” and “to practice ‘good sound management’ by listening to varying playlists and keeping your audio volume levels in check.” In fact, this holiday season, I found myself mainly choosing which stores to patronize with my holiday shopping based on the volume and selection of their music. Though it is often a privileged position, the ability to curate one’s own holiday music experience allows one to control the emotions and memories that this time of year evokes.
I believe that when some amount of choice is introduced into the matter, holiday music can allow us to make discoveries about our past and present selves, as well as the people we share this music with.
For me, a personal Spotify playlist of my holiday favorites, now in its sixth year of existence, plays a central role in this musical autonomy. My taste has evolved over the years, but what feels most profound is the ways it has stayed the same. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has always been my No. 1, and it will be until the day I die. Looking back on this playlist, I feel a tenderness for my 15-year-old self, who first made it, and a sense of delight that I have found new, increasingly obscure songs to add every year, without fail.
We develop a close relationship with our favorite holiday songs, dusting them off each year to inspect them for new insights, new delights. While, of course, not everyone has access to Spotify premium or even the technology to make a mixed CD of holiday favorites, I believe that when some amount of choice is introduced into the matter, holiday music can allow us to make discoveries about our past and present selves, as well as the people we share this music with.
Katie Caracciolo is in search of a menagerie to host their four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.