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Monday, December 29, 2008

Carol categories

It's a little late for this post, which also has nothing to do with law or prawfdom, but during this holiday season I've been thinking about how there are different kinds of "Christmas" songs, or how such songs are about "Christmas" in different ways. (I will henceforth use "Xmas" for "Christmas," since it's easier to type. As an aside, why does the "X=Christ" translation only occur here? I'd like to see more references to "Western Xianity," or "Xopher Columbus," or "Jesus X.") I think these songs break down into four meaningfully distinct groups.

Category 1: Winter Songs. Some songs are associated with Xmas and seem to be heard only during "the holidays," but are really about the season of winter, and would be just as appropriate in mid-February as they are in mid-December. These songs include "Jingle Bells," "Jingle Bell Rock," and "Sleigh Ride," all of which are about riding in a sleigh; "Winter Wonderland"; "Frosty the Snowman"; and "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow." None of these have any more relation to Xmas than does, say, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." It's perfectly OK to continue singing or whistling any of these songs for the next two months without feeling odd about it. Really. Go right ahead.

Category 2: "Holiday" Songs. These songs recognize the existence of Xmas, but have no religious content at all. Xmas in these songs has the following features: it's a holiday; it's at the end of the year; and spending it with loved ones is important or desirable. In many cases, "Xmas" could be replaced with Thanksgiving, or a late-year birthday, or Festivus with no real damage to the spirit of the song (though in some cases the song includes certain Xmas-related details, like references to a tree or gifts instead of a pole or the airing of grievances).

These songs don't take any direct positions on matters of faith. They merely note the existence of Xmas (or the "holiday season") and, often, associate it with a positive sentiment we might call "good cheer." Obviously the "holiday season" revolves around a specific holiday which is in fact a religious holiday, but these songs themselves have no religious content. These, then, are the sort of Xmas songs that can most easily be sung by Barbra Streisand, or written by Irving Berlin. Even non-Xians can endorse a day off to spend with your family (though, of course, they might prefer if the day off were not given because of its importance to Xians in particular).

Perhaps the archetypal song in this category is "Home for the Holidays," which doesn't even mention Xmas. But there are lots of others too: "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year"; "Deck the Halls"; "Silver Bells"; "White Xmas" (and, for that matter, "Blue Xmas"); "I'll Be Home for Xmas"; "Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas," which I find quite moving when sung with the original lyrics, written during WWII (they seem to be making a comeback during the current wartime period). Many of these are among my favorite holiday songs, except "Most Wonderful Time," which is clearly overselling, in my opinion.

Some of the great modern pop songs about Xmas fit into this category too: "Xmas Wrapping" by the Waitresses; "Happy Xmas / War is Over" by John Lennon; "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues, which is frequently voted the most popular Xmas song in the UK, notwithstanding any controversy about its lyrics.

Category 3: Santa. Too many songs to name, and they're mostly easy to spot, though some are borderline (e.g., I'd put "The Xmas Song" in this category, though its spirit might be more in Category 2). Santa songs are more Xmas-specific than the Category 2 songs, though they're about an independent Xmas mythology of flying reindeer, diligent elves, etc., rather than about the birth of the (alleged) messiah (whose central message, it must be noted, flies in the face of any strict "naughty or nice" accounting scheme). Still, the Santa mythology is quite evidently Xmas-specific and therefore can easily be seen as emitting a pro-Xian, anti-non-Xian vibe -- more so than the Category 2 songs, in my view, though I'd be curious to know what others think. Santa songs might also irritate due to their seeming (or, sometimes, outright) embrace of Xmas-related consumerism, which Xians as well as non-Xians might oppose.

I guess "Father Xmas" by the Kinks, which imagines a department-store Santa getting mugged, would also fall in this category, though it's not exactly pro-consumerism.

Category 4: Baby Jesus. These songs are For Believers Only. Their lyrics contain one or more of the following: a manger; shepherds; three "wise men" and/or "kings" following a star; angels; a baby boy who would grow up to be Our Lord and Savior.

I tend to think Category 4 songs belong in church, or else in the home. Even the ones I like make me feel uncomfortable when they're sung, say, on a usually non-religious TV show. I also tend to think, maybe even more strongly, that only Category 4 songs belong in church. As a child attending Xmas Mass, I always found it inappropriate if Santa showed up at any point, which he sometimes did.

I don't know why I've been thinking about this, except that it's something to do other than grade exams.

Posted by Michael Cahill on December 29, 2008 at 07:15 PM in Culture, Music, Religion | Permalink


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I like the X idea... it gives us:

- Corpus Xi, Texas
- Xopher Cross (singer/songwriter)
- Charlie X-h (FL governor)
- Jim GilX (Minutemen founder)
- Xo (installation artist)


Posted by: Xopher Zorn | Dec 30, 2008 6:13:45 PM

Hi Michael -- your taxonomy seems right, and helpful. But, why do you think that "Category 4" songs belong only "in church, or in the home"?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 30, 2008 11:07:27 AM

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