There are two types of people in the world. Those who can’t wait for Christmas music, and those who dread it.
The first group melts into happy smiles at the opening notes of “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey. They wave a conductor’s finger at “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” They shop more briskly when the Jackson 5 sing, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
The second group? The second group shuts off the radio, stays out of shopping malls and avoids elevators. They open their door to Christmas carolers and say, “How much for you to STOP singing?”
I understand the second group. I really do. For one thing, these days, they start playing Christmas music at Halloween. Everywhere. Stores. Gas stations. Airports. Dentists’ offices.
Plus, there are only so many times you can hear, “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer” without wanting to hurt someone.
Then there’s the fact that everybody – and I mean EVERYBODY – records a Christmas album. It was one thing when Ella Fitzgerald or Nat King Cole made one. It’s another thing when Snoop Dogg does.
No less than Bob Dylan, James Brown, Twisted Sister, Afroman, Weezer, Jethro Tull, the lead singer of the Stone Temple Pilots and about a million others have recorded Christmas albums. Heck, Charo had a Christmas song!
So there is plenty of cause for cynicism and rage. Plenty of reason for the second group to petition the government to keep all Christmas songs out of public earshot until, say, December 23rd.
But I remain in the first group.
How the big hit almost didn’t happen
I’m a sucker for Christmas music. It breaks all my rules. During the year, I wouldn’t play a single song by Burl Ives or Bing Crosby, but come December, they are as welcome as old friends.
Same for Dean Martin (“Marshmallow World”) Wham! (“Last Christmas”) or the Carpenters (“Merry Christmas, Darling.”)
Andy Williams is not exactly on my playlist, but “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of The Year” would be. Perry Como is a usually a no-no, but “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” is a staple.
What is it about Christmas music? Why does it have such an effect? I never really gave it much thought until I happened to read about “White Christmas”, the most purchased – and likely most cherished – Christmas song of all.
Written by Irving Berlin.
Berlin penned “White Christmas” sometime around 1939-1940. The story behind it is pretty interesting. Berlin, who never learned to write music, reportedly came up with the melody in his head, then some lyrics, then put it on a shelf for a while. When he dusted it off for use in a Bing Crosby movie called “Holiday Inn,” he had no idea it was going to become a hit. No one did.
But while they were working on the movie, in 1941, America was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. The country changed. The mood changed. When the movie came out in 1942, another song was supposed to be the breakout single, but people began to request “White Christmas.” The demand increased as the war went deeper.
By holiday season, “White Christmas” was the top song in the country.
It is now the best-selling song of all time, according to Guinness World Records.
Music speaks to the heart
So how did Berlin, the son of a Jewish cantor, write not only the most popular Christmas song ever, but the biggest selling song ever?
By evoking a feeling. When Crosby sings that he’s dreaming of a White Christmas, “just like the ones I used to know,” it evokes a sense of the past, our childhoods, a simpler time.
And when it came out during a world war, it became something else. It became an anthem, as Berlin would later admit, of peace.
Carl Sandburg, the famed poet and journalist, once wrote this of “White Christmas”: “When we sing that, we don’t hate anybody.”
What a tribute to a song.
Maybe that’s why Christmas music has the effect it does – at least on those who love it. At a time when hate is at a premium, and decorum, civility and kindness are vanishing, Christmas songs touch a subliminal soft spot that allows us to be neighborly to be united in a sense of home.
Crosby claimed one of the most difficult shows he ever performed came in 1944, when he sang “White Christmas” to American troops near the front lines in France. He said he could see the tears in their eyes. Some of them died shortly thereafter in the Battle of The Bulge.
Peace. I never thought of Christmas music as evoking that, but maybe it’s true. Maybe it calms us. Maybe it pulls us together.
And while I can’t make a case for “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer,” peace is a pretty good reason for staying in that first group, the one that looks forward to Christmas music.
At least until they start playing it on Labor Day.