You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Seeking the True Meaning of Christmas Music

I’ll hold my humbugs. We’re entering the blue center of the holiday season, and Christmas songs—that is to say, songs that we associate with the winter holiday season, regardless of the lyrics’ literal meaning—are all around us again. The Billboard album chart, itself a relic of a tradition meaningful mainly to box-store retailers and nostalgists, has in the number-one spot for the third week the Christmas CD by the smarm prince Michael Bublé. (It is titled, in an evocation of the music’s imaginative power, Christmas.) At the same time, the homepage for the respected alt-rock site, Pitchfork, has in its prime ad spot a promotion for the new holiday album by the cheeky, cutesy folk-pop duo She & Him, which is cheekily and cutely named A Very She & Him Christmas.

Both of the albums, like a great many of the holiday collections released every year, are lame—safely unadventurous variations on the Christmas-album formula of slickly packaged cheer and sentimentality. I’m not sure why anyone who already has one good Christmas album would buy either of these new ones, though the model of my Uncle Gabey comes to mind. Every two years for decades, he has traded in his two-year-old Oldsmobile for a new-model Oldsmobile. Like Michael Bublé’s Christmas or A Very She and Him Christmas, my Uncle Gabey’s latest car is the same old vehicle, reconfigured just enough to provide both the reassuring comfort of familiarity and the fleeting pleasure of superficial newness.

Both the Bublé and She and Him CDs—again, like most Christmas albums—defy criticism. After all, to complain about Christmas music for its commercialism and sentimentality is like criticizing little children for being young. Christmas, in practice in this country, is a ritual of commercialism and sentiment, and the music of ritual is always formally restrictive and endlessly repeatable. The holiday songs truest to the season are those that revel in the gleeful consumerism and consumerized glee that are the essence of Christmas in America.