Anthems or anathema, Christmas music is part of our identity

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

It was the day before Halloween when I heard the first Christmas song of 2023. 

I was thumbing through some costume ideas at a local store (which shall remain nameless) when I heard arguably one of the most annoying popular songs ever recorded: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

I am a Scrooge about many things during the holiday season, but I generally accept the fact that retail spaces in November and December are dominated by loud, sometimes infuriatingly happy Christmas tunes that serve as a demented soundtrack to the rampant communal consumerism we have embraced as “tradition.”

Nothing says “America” more than a crowd of shoppers on Black Friday shoving and stampeding one another in order to save $50 on a flatscreen TV while Mariah Carey’s melismatic octaves pierce through the inner folds of our brains.

But I have to draw the line somewhere: Christmas music can play in public spaces no earlier than Thanksgiving and no later than New Year’s Eve.

I fully recognize my opinions on this subject do not represent the majority. Many of you reading this will perhaps roll your eyes and declare to no one in particular, “I like Christmas music,” and fold this newspaper shut with the goal of telling me the next time they see me in public, “You’re a Scrooge.” Selah.

There is also a lot of research that supports the Christmas-music-lovers’ points about how this seasonal music makes them feel better about, well, everything.

Daniel Levitin is an author and musician living in Los Angeles who has a lot to say about this topic. Levitin, who is also a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, told The New York Times that research shows most people in Western countries use music to self-soothe.

“They know that there are certain kinds of music that will put them in a good mood,” Levitin told The Times. “Christmas music is a reliable one for a lot of people.”

A 2013 study concluded that music does in fact boost the body’s immune system and reduce stress, according to Levitin. 

“For those who find joy in Christmas music, the brain may increase serotonin levels and may release prolactin, a soothing and tranquilizing hormone, that is also produced between mothers and infants during nursing,” The Times wrote.

On the other hand, if a listener has not-so-jolly memories of Christmases past, songs associated with the holiday might trigger a flood of the stress hormone cortisol, which increases the heart rate and activates the brain’s fear center, known as the amygdala.

Believe it or not, I’m actually a fan of Christmas music when it’s played in the right context (which isn’t around Halloween or even Thanksgiving). I also enjoy these nostalgic tunes when they don’t sound like a poodle took a slug of Grandpa’s whiskey bottle and is now howling at the moon. I know she’s a talented performer, but I’d rather listen to Mrs. Claus dragging her fingernails down a chalkboard than the aforementioned song by Mariah Carey. 

All that said, we have a record at home that is an absolute delight on a quiet Christmas morning. It’s scratched so much that the cracks and pops are just as vital to the actual song, but that’s not why I love it. No, I love this record because it’s calm. Serene. Dare I say even classy.

Sure, the obvious tunes like “Frosty the Snowman” and the like entertain the kids, but as an official Grown Ass Adult, I’m to the point where I don’t need any more pandering in my life.

I’m also savvy enough to realize that these songs playing on endless loops in retail stores this time of year are part of the engineering to help consumers part with more of their money than they would if, say, Metallica was playing on the overheads.

However one views Christmas music, be it an anthem or anathema to the feelings that are supposed to be associated with the holiday, it’s clear that this is a very powerful medium — if only because it’s the soundtrack to the season in which we all examine where we are on the quest to achieve virtues such as peace, tranquility, love and tolerance of others.

“For some of us, that’s an inspiring message,” Levitin told The Times. “For others of us, it just draws in stark relief how far we are from achieving that.”

That, for me, is the rub. Christmas music can be uplifting and beautiful as it helps us access those tender memories of the past and sets us on a path to embrace the present. But, it can also be a bitter reminder that we haven’t come all that far yet.

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