Crisis Christmas Songs
Holiday tunes from World War II to the pandemic
I’ve written — many times — about Christmas songs. One of the most interesting aspects of American secular Christmas music I keep coming back to is how much cultural information these songs contain, and how much they reflect their eras. They’re almost only secondarily about Christmas.
For example, Chuck Berry advised Santa to let Rudolph “take the freeway down” only two years after Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act. The girl who wants the hippopotamus lives in a two-story house with a two-car garage, an aspirational luxury in the era of keeping up with the Joneses. (I could do this all day.)
Many of the classic midcentury Christmas songs, with their mix of small-town Americana, nostalgia, and consumerism, were very much products of the 1950s and its radical normalcy. But traumatic national experiences have also produced vaguely topical Christmas classics. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” — understood to be the lament of a homesick soldier, though nothing in the lyrics identifies who or where the singer is — is the most obvious. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is also often seen as an oblique World War II song, with its melancholy tone, and hope about an uncertain future.
About two decades later, the Cold War resulted in another modern classic: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, which tells a quasi-biblical story culminating in a prayer for peace. They didn’t have to say “Cold War” or “Cuban Missile Crisis” or “nuclear annihilation.” Nor did those earlier songs need to mention the war itself. (For that, give a listen to “Snoopy’s Christmas.”)
Nobody needed these meanings spelled out when the songs first appeared, and their abstraction has given them staying power for listeners today, most of whom have never actually lived through anything like the circumstances that forged those songs.
As far as I can tell, not since the Cold War has a global catastrophe led to a memorable Christmas song (we’re pretending, as one always should, that “Do They Know It’s Christmas” doesn’t exist.)
Until the pandemic.
Whatever you might think of the wisdom of the public health measures we took in 2020 and 2021, the fact is that the whole world went through a catastrophe with a death toll in the millions. Statistically, yes, most people survived the pandemic relatively unscathed. But then, most Americans survived World War II. It was enough of a shock to transform American life, culture, and art. And the pandemic will be the same. The political bickering over all of it has obscured just what a human toll it caused, just how real it was (and is), in the face of whatever we’d like to think.
And like those earlier periods of global trouble, the pandemic has left its mark on our popular Christmas canon. I think this is so interesting. It’s a sort of test: if an event can produce Christmas songs, it’s a big deal.
I’m aware of two “pandemic Christmas songs” so far, both, interestingly, from 2021—perhaps the most liminal point in this whole period. The first is Kelly Clarkson’s “Christmas Come Early.” The second is an Ed Sheeran/Elton John collaboration simply titled “Merry Christmas.” (And, fittingly, from an album titled The Lockdown Sessions.)
Neither song — as you might or might not expect — mentions “pandemic,” or “masks,” or anything that would too-specifically date them to a singular moment in very recent American (or British) life.
Kelly Clarkson’s entry only has one line that hints at the topical backdrop: “I don’t miss the crowd, just my friends.” The rest of the song simply expresses frustration with the vacuousness and forced cheerfulness of America’s commercialized holiday season. It isn’t a great song, but its context provides much of its meaning.
The Ed-Elton collab is a little more explicit (and also better). Though it describes a jolly party atmosphere, it obliquely refers to the pandemic twice:
“I know there’s been pain this year, but it’s time to let it go / Next year, you never know / But for now, Merry Christmas”
“While we’re here, can we all spare a thought / For the ones who have gone? / Merry Christmas, everyone”
The British press didn’t care for it, with reviews describing it as too saccharine and formulaic, or as too blasé about the pandemic. (One reviewer compared “Can we all spare a thought for the ones who have gone?” to “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”)
It’s impossible to say whether either of these songs, or any others that are written, will still get airtime in a year or two, let alone half a century later or more (a handful of the Christmas standards are now over 80 years old.) The shelf life of the pandemic Christmas songs may hinge on whether the pandemic itself becomes a grave, civic, apolitical memory, or not. Will they be viewed as kitsch? As trendy bits of pop-culture junk? Or as poignant indicators of how deeply the pandemic touched everyday life?
What I can say for sure is this. Those lines from the British duo — sorry, Kelly Clarkson — encapsulate what most people have experienced. Pain, loss, tragedy, moving on, returning to normal, not quite the same. Maybe a little older. A little more mature. Feeling a little less invincible, a little less certain. But alive, and full of Christmas cheer. I think that schmaltzy song says something about our human nature.
You may wonder what I’m on about, it being January now, but today is Epiphany, the last of the 12 days of Christmas. And also my last chance to say Merry Christmas, and to come back to one of my favorite topics.
While we’re on greetings, then, a belated happy New Year too!
The Christmas Song Cultural Barometer
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