Irving Berlin may have done as much to murder Christmas music as he did to nurture it. Just as Brahms was afraid to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps before writing his first symphony, modern composers seem intimidated by the successes of their predecessors. Or maybe the relatively young genre of literal-minded holiday songs that Irving started suffered an unforeseen crib death. Sure, the 1940s was the time of the loneliest and most homesick Yule-tides that ever ebbed and flowed. So songs like ‘White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” as well as “What Are You Doing New year’s Eve,” have a necessity that seasonal songs have never quite had since.
But Christmas owed, in significant part, causality for these songs to the last war ever fought for a just cause. Korea, of course, allowed the continued and justified war-rationale for songs like “The Christmas Waltz” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” But by Vietnam, as wantonly wasteful a war as any ever fought, the music ghost of Christmas Past could not muster an equal spirit to replace it.
By century’s end, Christmas music belonged to a past without a sustaining present and future. And suddenly pop stars for whom WWII and Korea were vague memories (if even that) were forced to recycle songs–in limited supply–for their Christmas albums. Nearly 80 years after the war that inspired the best secular Christmas songs ever written, their power has been numbed, if not enervated, by overuse. The truth is Irving set a precedent that I’m sure he expected to be equaled. But when it wasn’t, these songs’ excellence became a barrier to furtherance.
As a result, I declare current-day Christmas music a national cultural emergency–which no executive order will address, let alone alleviate. Since I am now a Social Security-dependent elder with little or no supplemental income, Christmas must be spent at home. As a shut-in, I have sought to remedy the dreadful dearth of Christmas music by voluntarily learning and practicing a kind of cultural ecology that my parents and grandparents were forced to practice.
Put simply, I have learned to harness general-purpose vintage music to Yuletides with their strong undertows of longing, loneliness, homesickness, shared hardship and every other condition which Christmas amplifies and deepens. For a decade, I have been creating themed annual holiday mixes with Christmas, Winter and New Years specifically in mind but which (almost but not entirely) harness multi-purpose songs for the occasions at hand. With careful curation and juxtaposition, the mixes may hopefully serve as meaningful narratives suitable for both specific holiday merriment and general season-ing. Of course, some contemporary recordings are invited to participate in my seasonal synergy, but their inclusion is rare.
The Christmas music I hear nowadays has only a commercial motivation to justify it. Of course, the artists are not solely to blame. Climate change has made it hard for Mother Nature to supply suitable objective correlatives for enduring winter iconography; so those old songs today fail at evocation and invocation. Indeed, they are unintended but inadvertent reminders of the man-made ecocide that confronts us. Most music I use comes from times when Mother Nature was alive and well and willing to contribute weather amenable to the music being sung or listened to.
Here are links to 4 Christmas, Winter and New Years mixes I prepared for one of my favorite music blogs: Big Ten-Inch Record. It is my sincere wish that these 120 songs (in total) bring you good cheer and restore any lost faith in seasonal music. To those artists among you, maybe these mixes will inspire a new approach to holiday music making.
1. “A Pre-Climate Change Christmas”