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Music for the Season

So. It seems to Your Humble Blogger that there are four categories of Christmas music.

First, there’s the category I’ll call Lessons and Carols. Sacred music, Church music. I tend to call this stuff “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” for some reason, mostly because I like saying it, I suppose, although there isn’t anything particularly Christmassy about it. But that’s the general gist of the thing. Songs about the birth and divinity of Jesus, and about his transformative power. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, . The winner in this category is “Silent Night”, with the good “Gloria in excelsis deo” tune running a close second. Worst is, of course, “The Little Drummer Boy”.

Second category: Genuine Old-Fashioned Pre-War British and American secular hymns. These are songs that are about the experience of celebrating Christmas, but make no reference to Jesus or churchin’. Wassail songs, of course, and “I’ll be Home for Christmas (if only in my dreams)”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sort of thing. The best is ... well, I’ll pick “The Christmas Song”, the one that starts ‘Chestnuts roasting...’ over the obvious “White Christmas”. The worst is “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth”, although of course “Feliz Navidad” has a pretty good claim.

Third are solstice songs. Well, winter songs that have nothing specifically to do with either Jesus or the Red Suit. “Frosty the Snowman”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Let it Snow”. The best of these is probably “Jingle Bells”, although I do like “Winter Wonderland”.

Last there are new songs, which I give no examples of and want none. I know there are some, I hear them in stores, and I ignore them there and will ignore them here, other than acknowledging their existence. Some are probably explicitly religious; I wouldn’t know. Well, and without actually suggesting that I have done any adjudicating, I’ll declare that “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is the best of these. The worst? Look, if there are any worse than “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, I for one do not care to know about it.

The point to all this is that I hear a good deal of each of these sorts of songs in malls and such. I might expect that stores which choose to downplay the, ahem, reason for the season, would also choose to avoid music in the first category, or at least avoid those with lyrics in the English language. Not so. Let me point out that I have no objection to these religious songs being played in private establishments, nor even semi-public establishments such as malls and sidewalks outside stores. I’m just observing.

The question for Gentle Readers is this: Do you observe the same thing? I wonder whether there are regional differences, whether the Barnes & Noble down the block from Zabar’s avoids mention of the Birth of the Babe, while the Books-a-Billion in Tulsa plays sacred music all month. I think, based on a year in Virginia, that there are differences, but the thing I noticed was a greater proportion of that dreaded fourth category in the Old Dominion, rather than a greater proportion of the first. And while I’m at it, what are your favorites in the categories? Have I missed a worst?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


Somehow I always forget about this particular aspect of the season, and sometime after Halloween have that first, dreadful moment of "oh, yes; Christmas music".

I think your categories are well thought out. What's interesting for me is that, despite being Jewish, the only category I can stand of these is the first one. They're just the best songs of the lot, I guess. My favorite is "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", but I'm also fond of "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem". And "Joy to the World".

In category two I rather like "Deck the Halls", as does my two-year-old daughter.

In category three I gotta put in a vote for "Baby It's Cold Outside". Unfortunately, due I suppose to worries about offending people, category three (and, sadly, four) is the one I hear the most. "Winter Wonderland" isn't a bad song, but I've come to truly hate it.

A note on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas": I've liked that song a lot more since I heard an NPR story about it, which featured James Taylor singing it with the original lyrics and mood -- it was originally a melancholy song from the end of the war, saying for now we can only have a little Christmas but better things will come soon.

Here's the NPR story:

Thank you for that link -- the original is indeed quite different from how I've always heard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

So what about the fifth category of Christmas songs -- the songs sung by people who celebrate additional festivals such as Christmukkah and Christanzaa? While many songs in that fifth category do not explicitly celebrate the birth of Jesus or Our National Day of Celebration of the Birth of Jesus and the Umpteenth Coming of Santa, surely they are also in a category apart from solstice songs.

prolly the older music works better because it was all written for group performance. 1st category definitely. in the 2nd & 3rd categories this would be true even when pop music of the same period wasn't written that way. the oldest stuff was written for unaccompanied performance - very enticing to sing. maybe.

"good king wenceslas" as a round kicks ass. dizzying. i don't know anything about the music playing in stores because i go deaf when i enter stores. i am handing the keyboard over for an answer:

Okay, well, having lived in San Francisco for an astonishing 14 years now, I can't really compare to other parts of the country, but I certainly notice that most songs in stores fall into category 3 or 4 around here. mostly I notice this because I like the churchy ones, and miss them, or notice them in particular when they are played.

Favorites: yes, silent night, and the first noel for category 1, then Wee fish ewe a mare egrets moose (panda hippo gnu deer) for category 2, deck the halls for category 3 (can't beat those fa la la la la la's), finally the silent night (evening news) recorded by simon and garfunkel ('four more years of war').

As far as worsts, I have disliked rudolf since I worked out the reason why the other reindeer started playing with him (yeeesh, what a lesson), and I have trouble listening to jingle bells now because I usually hear it in the second grader version "batman smells, robin laid an egg" which is outlawed in my classroom (I am such a meany), but still unavoidable.

it lived millions of years ago. it was slightly larger than a rabbit. it ate beets and tree bark. it flew short distances when threatened and slept in groups of six. it had eight legs, it was cross-eyed and nocturnal, with batik fur.

it was the hannukwanzmasadan.

it is a jeopardy clue, as in: this is the reason interfaith paleontological teams are no longer allowed to eat the funny mushrooms.

Due to a quirk of my particular religious upbringing, I have an instinctive reaction that it's worse to participate in a religion without sincerity than to abstain entirely. For that reason, I can no longer properly enjoy any of category 1, when sung. But for humming, I do enjoy the tune to "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming", especially in the old arrangements that do it right and don't try to shoehorn the phrases into even measures. On that same, purely musical level, "O Holy Night" is the bane of otherwise-competent sopranos everywhere and should be retired from the canon.

Worst New Song Ever is, without rival, that feed-the-world song ("do they know it's Christmas time at all?").

Favorite secular hymn? "O Suzanna," sung to the tune of the verses of "Silver Bells."

Among the hymns, I'd give the prize to "Angels We Have Heard On High" (aka Gloria in excelsis), with honorable mentions to "Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming" and "Joy to the World," but I have no quarrel with "Silent Night," either.

Among the new songs (those that would fall into your secular hymns category if they'd been written earlier), I'd urge you to make exceptions at least for "Merry Christmas, Baby" (1948) and "Blue Christmas" (first recorded by Elvis). They've both been recorded a gazillion times, so there are lousy versions of each, but the good ones are really awfully good.

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