Ronald D. Lankford, Jr. is an independent scholar whose writing focuses on the cultural history of American popular music. He currently lives with his wife Elizabeth and nine cats in Appomattox, Virginia. His forthcoming book, Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs, is due out from UPF in Fall 2013.
At the start of November, I began tracking articles about holiday music. I have a blog and Facebook page about American Christmas songs, and these articles would serve as food-for-thought for future posts. I was a little disconcerted, however, to find that many of the articles were couched as a sub-category of seasonal complaints. After having spent two years arguing that Christmas music is integral to the American holiday experience, here was a series of headlines seemingly disputing that fact:
The Worst of the Worst Christmas Songs
Christmas Comes too Soon
Christmas Songs That Upset Me
Had I missed something—busy researching an earlier time and place—fundamental about the relationship between Americans and Christmas songs? Had the relationship, over time, become a dysfunctional one?
With a little digging through recent polls and surveys I concluded (with relief) that most Americans still liked or loved Christmas music: they just had a lot of rules about when and where it could be played, how often it could be played, and what exactly could be played. Broadly considered, most of the complaints fell under two familiar categories. The first focused on playing Christmas music too early; the second on playing bad Christmas songs.
As you might guess, the “too early” complaints started at the beginning of November. In Canada, all hell broke loose when the retail chain Drug Mart started piping in holiday music the day after Halloween. By November 2 customer complaints had prompted the retailer to post a Facebook apology and shutdown Christmas music until further notice. This retrenching, however, is the exception (Starbucks also launched holiday music on November 1). While many people still hold the “after Thanksgiving” rule on all things Christmas, the middle of November and earlier is becoming more common for shopping malls, restaurants, and AC (adult contemporary) radio.
Other listeners were fine with early Christmas music, but could be quite opinionated when discussing holiday songs they disliked. Edison Research spoke with 200 women between the ages of 30 and 49 who liked holiday music, but even they came up with a top-ten list of Christmas songs they didn’t care for. The “Least Liked Holiday Songs of 2012” included the Singing Dogs’ version of “Jingle Bells,” Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and South Park’s Cartman singing “O Holy Night.”
Part of the difficulty in both cases, I believe, is that American culture places heavy demands on Christmas music. Gathering at home with our families, we want holiday music to summon nostalgic memories of yesteryear. Retailers and radio programmers worry less over the specific mood (as long as it’s a good one) than putting us in a frame of mind to listen to ads and buy stuff. Holiday music at church leaves Santa behind, reminding us instead of the Christian underpinnings of the holiday. With a limited set of songs force fed (at home, on the radio, in the mall, and at church) for six to eight weeks year after year, some folks grow tired of listening.
Will these persistent complaints change how we hear Christmas music in public spaces in the future? It might be tempting to predict that the listener will have his or her day, curtailing holiday music by popular demand. While Drug Mart customers won an apology and a concession from the retailer, early holiday music is actually a lot like negative political ads. Everybody says they dislike it, but polling firms insist that it works.
Even if there were changes in response to public demand, I suspect that the complaints would continue in some form. While we cannot imagine our winter holiday without “Silent Night” and “Silver Bells,” complaining about Christmas song shortcomings has become an American holiday tradition in and of itself.