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The Curious Rise of the Complicated Christmas Song

Some holiday music reflects the maturity—and loneliness—of America.
December 23, 2021
The Curious Rise of the Complicated Christmas Song
NEW YORK CITY: Mariah Carey performs during the opening show of Mariah Carey: All I Want For Christmas Is You at Beacon Theatre on December 5, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic / Getty)

We don’t write Christmas songs like we used to.

What we think of as “Christmas songs”—not hymns or traditional carols, but those secular ditties that paint images of the holiday season and serve as a backdrop to Christmas shopping—tend to be happy, lighthearted, somewhat saccharine tunes. Most hail from the middle of the twentieth century—an era of radio and records. They feature kids, families, Christmas dinners, decked-out trees, and classic downtowns. They appear to have no point to make, no axe to grind.

Yet their largely postwar vintage is pertinent. Many of them mix consumerism with the Christmas season, having been written at a time when economic growth, patriotism, and Christianity were powerfully linked, if not fused together—and often even bent in a Cold War direction.

It’s tempting, but not quite correct, to see the secular Christmas canon as neutral. Yes, in some ways these older songs are simplistic. They reflect, and assume, a level of stability, cohesion, and emotional, cultural, and religious conformity that no longer obtains. Indeed, the secular Christmas canon itself owes much to Jewish songwriters (Irving Berlin, Johnny Marks, Mel Tormé, and many others) who squared the circle of celebrating Christmas by writing about its atmosphere, its civic and familial meaning. Far from diluting the holiday, they broadened it, and helped make it—I would argue for better, although some believe for worse—something American.

The brief, intense period of cultural production that gave us this part of the Christmas canon has remained with us for far longer than anyone would have guessed back in the 1950s. There’s obviously something nostalgic and comforting about these songs, even all these decades later. Perhaps they are vestiges of the sort of society that many of us miss in some ways, even those of us who would never admit it.

If one can discern some of postwar America’s politics and societal arrangements from the classic Christmas canon—its near-universal if shallow Christianity, its larger families and more numerous marriages, even its largely pre-suburban urban forms and retail arrangements—we can do the same with the smaller but still notable body of popular contemporary Christmas songs. These songs feature subtle but dramatic changes in theme and complexity, and that in turn says something about how our society has changed and, in some ways, “grown up.”

Consider, for example, the holiday heartbreak genre, represented most notably by “Blue Christmas,” and the early Sixties pair “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” They all feature separated couples, and a hope for reconciliation before the big holiday. They make no point or commentary beyond that.

In 1984, with “Last Christmas,” something interesting happened. For possibly the first time, a Christmas song featured a lonely, single person. This was not a one-off, but the beginning of a new thematic trend.

Mariah Carey’s wildly popular 1994 hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You” wishes for a relationship that doesn’t yet exist. Kelly Clarkson’s 2013 “Underneath The Tree,” while happy and upbeat, also refers to years of lonely, gray Christmases. “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” a 2017 Gwen Stefani-Blake Shelton duet, is also cheerful and upbeat, although the happy couple in the song came through some hard times: “Thought I was done for / Thought that love had died . . . I never thought I’d find a love like this.”

Now here’s a striking fact: “Last Christmas,” “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and “Underneath the Tree” are nearly the only entries in the secular Christmas canon in the last forty years. In other words, while Christmas songs are still recorded in large numbers, very few modern entries appear on mainstream radio during the holidays, or would even be recognizable to the average person.

Another thematic shift took place around the same time: The appearance of songs which use Christmas as a backdrop to make some deeper political or social argument. John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” from 1971 was an early example. (It’s sort of the ponderous polar opposite of Paul McCartney’s vacuous “Wonderful Christmastime” from 1980.) You could also trace this genre to 1984, with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

As with the “single person looking for love” genre, the moping political genre of Christmas songs also came into its own in the 1990s and in the new millennium. “Where Are You Christmas,” from 2000, may have been written for that year’s live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but the lines “My world is changing, I’m rearranging / Does that mean Christmas changes too?” also suggest such once-invisible themes as divorce and mid-life crisis. Or consider 1990’s “Grown-Up Christmas List,” a reflection on growing up and realizing the hollowness of consumerism and the depth of suffering in the world.

Then there’s Kelly Clarkson’s pandemic Christmas song, released in October, “Christmas Come Early.” “Candles burning out at both ends,” she sings, combining a trope of holiday imagery with an idiom for desperation. “I don’t need the snow, I’m already cold / Tired of the songs on the radio,” she continues, breaking the fourth wall by alluding to the tired old-time Christmas playlist.

These changes in the nature of the canon of secular Christmas music reflect a profound shift away from the arrangements and attitudes of the middle of the twentieth century. As far as the first thematic shift is concerned, the average age of marriage has risen; divorce is more common; and young people tend to spend a long interlude between leaving their parents’ house and starting their own household.

As far as the second shift, we are more sensitive today to those who do not celebrate Christmas or for whom the holidays can be stressful or depressing times—all the more so because of the atmosphere of compulsive cheerfulness. We are encouraged, far more than in the postwar era, to express ourselves, to buck social norms, and to think socially and politically about things like working conditions, wages, and economic inequality. We are also—and I suppose this article is a case in point—trained to deconstruct, interrogate, and problematize pop culture artifacts, especially those which uncritically celebrate normalcy.

Nothing in the classic collection of Christmas songs reflects or acknowledges any of this. It was inevitable that holiday entertainment would catch up.

In a sense, then, American society has grown out of that classic Christmas canon, even if we still feel nostalgic for it. (Keeping in mind that many of those songs were themselves art about nostalgia, and that implies that we are to some extent nostalgic about… nostalgia.)

In some ways, this all suggests that America has matured. Many midcentury Christmas songs resemble advertising jingles: peppy, easy melodies—“Home for the Holidays” could have been a General Motors jingle. It’s fashionable to laugh at those Fifties ads of women nearly fainting over new refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. But after twenty years of the Depression and the world war, those things must have seemed incredible.

It would be wrong, or at least incomplete, to blame these cultural shifts on cultural leftism or on the Sixties. They may even be inevitable as countries become more affluent and more diverse. One of my wife’s “aunts,” an older woman who grew up in China, once suggested much the same thing about her country. Chinese television had gotten more complicated, she told us; the shows dealt with more sensitive topics, and had moved beyond two-dimensional, party-line portrayals of things like family life and work.

This reflected, she mused, that the country was growing up—becoming freer in some ways, collectively reaching a cultural and economic point where such complexities could be more openly discussed. This is an anecdote. But I suspect the evolution of our Christmas music tells a similar story of the United States.

The irony is that for all our economic growth, it is not clear that we are any happier for it, even if we are freer. Perhaps that is for the better. Or perhaps, when Auntie Mame sang in 1966 that “I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, Grown a little sadder, grown a little older,” she was merely half a century early.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Find him on Substack (The Deleted Scenes) and Twitter (@ad_mastro).