Urbanization, Secular Holiday Music, and the Simulacra

I was in my kitchen this morning drinking tea and listening to Christmas music. Bing Crosby’s recording of “Silver Bells” came on, and I started singing along. In between the city sidewalks and the ting-a-ling, something struck me as odd, as not like the rest of the songs on the mix.

What the hell? But I couldn’t place it.

Next came “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland,” and suddenly it hit me: “Silver Bells” is about “Christmastime in the city,” and that setting stands in contrast to the bulk of other Christmas music.

I began flipping through my playlists and reading–really reading–the lyrics, and I posted on Twitter to ask if there were other Christmas songs about cities. It quickly become obvious that the validity of my thesis rested on how I defined Christmas music and the city. So I’ll explain my methods, codify my list, and explain why I think this might matter below.

For my purposes–and working from this list–I whittled down a set of popular American Christmas singles, which I’ll call “the Christmas standards” from here on out. I’ve included the date of the song’s original release as well.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (1949), “Back Door Santa” (1968), “Blue Christmas” (1949), “Caroling, Caroling” (1960), “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” (1963), “Christmas in Hollis” (1987), “Christmas Is” (1966), “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” (1946), “Christmas Time Is Here” (1965), “The Christmas Waltz” (1954), “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (1963), “(Everybody’s Waiting for) The Man with the Bag” (1950), “Feliz Navidad” (1970), “Frosty the Snowman” (1950), “Grown-Up Christmas List” (1990), “Happy Holiday” (1942), “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” (1970), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944), “Here Comes Santa Claus” (1947), “Holly Jolly Christmas” (1964), “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (1952), “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943), “I’ve Got my Love to Keep Me Warm” (1948), “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (1951), “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1963), “Jingle Bell Rock” (1957), “Jingle Bells” (Traditional), “Last Christmas” (1984), “Let It Snow!” (1945), “The Little Drummer Boy” (1958), “Little St. Nick” (1963), “Marshmallow World” (1950), “Mary, Did You Know?” (1996), “Mary’s Boy Child” (1956), “Merry Christmas, Baby” (1947), “Merry Christmas Darling” (1970), “Over the River and Through the Woods” (Traditional), “Please Come Home for Christmas” (1960), “Pretty Paper” (1963), “River” (1971), “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958), “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949), “Run, Rudolph, Run” (1958), “Santa Baby” (1953), “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (1934), “Silver Bells” (1950), “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” (1954), “This Christmas” (1970), “Toyland” (1964), “What Are You Doing New Year’s?” (1949), “White Christmas” (1942), “Winter Weather” (1941), “Winter Wonderland” (1934), “Wonderful Christmastime” (1979), “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (1966)

That’s only 56 songs, so it’s a pretty small pool.

In order to make the cut, a song had to be covered a lot. If only one person/group has ever recorded it, it’s not a standard unless it appears prominently and frequently in holiday films/television specials, in radio play, or on holiday compilation albums. This is an American list and a largely secular one. If I’d included more religious music, I suspect the list would have had an even more rural bias.

Here’s how I coded the settings of these songs:

  • Urban (big city) settings: “Christmas in Hollis,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Pretty Paper,” “Silver Bells”
  • Urban (village/small town) settings: “Caroling, Caroling,” “Christmas Is,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”
  • Rural settings: “Christmas Time Is Here,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Happy Holiday,” “Jingle Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Little St. Nick,” “Mary, Did You Know?,” “Mary’s Boy Child,” “Over the River and Through the Woods,” “River,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays,” “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland”
  • Party settings: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s?”
  • Non-specific settings: “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “Back Door Santa,” “Blue Christmas,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You),” “The Christmas Waltz,” “(Everybody’s Waiting for) The Man with the Bag,” “Feliz Navidad,” “Grown-Up Christmas List,” “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “Last Christmas,” “Let It Snow!,” “Marshmallow World,” “Merry Christmas, Baby,” “Merry Christmas Darling,” “Please Come Home for Christmas,” “Run, Rudolph, Run,” “Santa Baby,” “This Christmas,” “Toyland,” “Winter Weather,” “Wonderful Christmastime,” “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”

A few notes on my categorization decisions: caroling implies at least a village, so I coded songs with it in the small town category unless another lyric pushed them into one or the other. References to sleigh rides imply a rural setting. I made the decision that the North Pole was rural. The Nativity, with the field, shepherds, and manger, I treated as rural. If a song is about travel to or longing for a rural home, I treated it as rural. (The latter is sure to be controversial.) Songs about more vaguely sketched fictional places such Toyland or Whoville I left in the non-specific category (eg, how large is Whoville? is it a village or good sized town? I don’t know). References to snow or winter weather weren’t setting determiners for me as snow could fall anywhere. Finally, a number of songs I thought were rural proved to inconclusive upon close reading of the lyrics.

I’d also like to suggest that an important, not setting-related, category might be the “my lover left me” category. In fact, I was shocked by how many holiday songs are about heartbreak. This includes “Blue Christmas,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “Last Christmas,” “Merry Christmas, Baby,” “Merry Christmas Darling,” “Please Come Home for Christmas,” “Pretty Paper,” “River,” and “This Christmas,” which isn’t even to get into explicitly political Christmas songs a la “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”

As just one example of how I deliberated, let’s contrast “Winter Wonderful” (which I put in the rural category) with “Marshmallow World” (non-specific). They’re both about snow and the fun lovers have in it, so what gives? In “Winter Wonderland,” we listen to “sleigh bells” in the “lane” and we watch “birds” and we build snowmen in the “meadow.” Even the snowman we “pretend” is a minister is called “Parson Brown,” which has a distinct rural flavor to it. That’s not a city: it’s the country. In “Marshmallow World,” we describe the snow in food metaphors, but this frozen stuff could be in a park or yard. There are “evergreen” trees and you take a “walk with your favorite girl,” it’s not clear where this occurs. There’s nothing constitutively urban or rural about it at all.

So if we constrain ourselves to the most popular tunes secular American holiday tunes and follow this deliberative pattern, I feel vindicated: this songbook, while largely non-specific, does favor rural settings over urban ones.

Um, okay. So what?

The tipping point for American urbanization, which is to say the point when more Americans lived in cities than small towns or in rural areas, was between the 1910 and 1920 censuses. So by mid-century, let alone the twenty-first century, sleigh rides, etc. weren’t lived, every day experience.

And it’s important to emphasize most of these Christmas songs were first recorded between 1940 and 1960, with some coming much later. So why would song writers, artists, and audiences, who were a generation or more removed from majority rural life, continue to privilege rural idioms and images over urban or suburban ones?

It could be that these songs reflect the lived reality of their writers, complete with sleigh rides, caroling, the making of snow people, the eating of cookies, etc.

Except on reviewing the lyrics of 56 Christmas standards in a row, I was also struck by the sameness of them. The popular, secular American holiday songbook happens in the same world and rarely strays outside it, and that world hasn’t existed in a century if it ever existed at all.

I suspect the correct term for what’s happening the Christmas canon is simulacrum. In Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, cultural critic Fredric Jameson defines the concept (via Plato) as “the identical copy for which no original has ever existed” (18). He writes, “Nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination … yet it directs our attention to what a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste” (Jameson 19). In other words, nostalgia is specific and requires a real antecedent; simulacra is generalized and fictionalized. Given the repetition in the Christmas canon and the historical remove from rural reality, I think this is the appropriate concept for what’s happening. The move from nostalgia (frex Proust’s madeleines) to simulacra (the Christmas canon) is further proof of our move from market capitalism to late industrial capitalism and our unmooring from historicity.

Now, this is the point when I think I need to say that I love secular Christmas music. Love. And I have for forever. My own bias (which probably is self evident in the above list) is both campy and retro, a little bit self-aware, a little bit sincere, a lot over the top. So I’m not yucking on someone else’s yum here; I’m trying to understand the politics of a thing I like very much.

I need to digress to recommend two things: David Lehman’s book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs and Adam Ragusea’s discussion of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” It’s inescapable that many secular Christmas songs were written by Jewish songwriters. Heck, Irving Berlin, who wrote “Happy Holidays” and “White Christmas,” grew up in Russia and lived primarily in New York City. For these songwriters, rural Christian Christmas is an abstraction, not a reality. And part of what makes “All I Want for Christmas Is You” the rare 90s original to join the canon is that it plays with the mid-century musical idiom. It uses, in other words, the diminished chord structure. I can’t fully treat the cultural-outsider-as-songwriter here, nor am I conversant enough in music theory to write the latter, but both are relevant to my discussion. Listener expectations drive the conversation and the ascendance of retro musicality indicates that nostalgia/simulacra drives the genre.

To try to bring all of this together: most contemporary Americans performing and listening to canonical Christmas music are generations removed from sleigh rides and meadows, but we listen to the music all the same. We have nostalgia, but it exists without the pain of the actual loss, without ever having known what we’re mourning. Without knowing if we’re mourning something that ever existed.

So the logic of late capitalism is ahistorical but persistently sad. Jameson (and by extension Marx) argue(s) that we wouldn’t need to distract ourselves, to create a constant spectacle, if our lives had meaning. The simulacra is both utterly meaningless and “scars that never felt a wound.” It’s both at the same time.

The modern Christmas canon is analogous, which is why we’ve seen very little change in it over time. It’s a representation, and at some level, we know that it’s not real. But in the camp, it embodies an emotional loss we perceive if not feel. Refracted light when we can’t detect the source of the rainbow.

Certainly one of the greatest expressions of American Christmas pop culture is the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, in which Charles Schulz’s Peanut’s characters wrestle with the materialism of modern Christmas. In a neat bit of sexism, Lucy and Sally fully embrace the holiday, while Charlie and Linus struggle with its hollowness. Linus fills his void with the Christian Christmas story, and the conclusion finds Charlie’s friends singing to him around the sad little tree festooned by Snoopy’s decorations.

(All of this, incidentally, is in a non-specific setting. It could be in a small town, a suburb, or a large city: it’s not clear.)

Sally’s letter to Santa in all its unselfconscious greed, Linus’s sincere recitation of Luke, chapter 2, and the communal performance of song: the modern Christmas canon offers that same array. It’s this array that gives me optimism in the face of Jameson’s doom and gloom. Sure, there’s a sameness to the Christmas canon…but urban Christmas song exist. Moreover, my initial sense that the vast majority of the Christmas canon was rural was also incorrect. I (through nostalgia or simulacrum) was coloring the lyrics, seeing specificity where none existed.

The American Christmas canon is ahistorical. It is reductive. It is not a stretch to see these issues as, say, related to a certain recent obsession with coal miners, when there are substantially more retail workers. But given that so many classic Christmas songs were penned by coastal immigrants and seem to embody late capitalism ennui (even if they dislocate the source of the pain onto, say, an absent beloved or worship of a long-lost agricultural past), I can’t quite despair.

Besides, I’m too busy listening to Nat King Cole.

ETA: I fixed a few typos and, after it came on the radio, I moved “Pretty Paper” into the urban category. Oops!

8 thoughts on “Urbanization, Secular Holiday Music, and the Simulacra

  1. I loved this post Emma! Also I’m an equal fan of secular music (Irving Berlin classics) and religious favorites. Songs like the Advent carol ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ and traditional English/French/German carols like Coventry Carol, Oh Holy Night, Carol of the Bells, Silent Night, Es Ist Ein Rose Entsprungen, Oh Du Froliche, are my joy.

    1. It’s interesting because while I listen to mostly secular Christmas music, I’ve been learning to play mostly religious music on the piano. The “O Holy Night” arrangement I’ve been working on for months is my current fav (except probably not that of my family who’ve heard it 5000 times).

    1. Thanks, Jackie!

      I’ve actually never seen a Hallmark or Lifetime holiday movie (I know, right? I feel like I’m missing a cultural touchstone), but I suspect it’s the same dynamic.

      It’s broadly applicable to romance as well, which I’d been thinking about but couldn’t weave into the post neatly enough. It seems significant to me that the objects of our fantasies aren’t our real lives, that it’s Regency England and more specifically that of Almack-istan, or the idealized small town of today, but one that supports three cupcake shops and a knitting store.

      The way I’m phrasing it sounds dismissive, and I don’t mean for it to. I happen to love Almack-istan. But I actually think we use these capital-r Representations to do important work. Late capitalism isn’t always satisfying, and we feel the unmooring from history and from, say, agricultural labor (or whatever) and those emotions get embodied in the Christmas canon. I just hope there’s also room for fantasies that treat the loss more directly or, at the very least, play out in the spaces where we do live our lives.

      1. Almack-istan: that’s one for the keeper file!

        I agree that Almack-istan and Hallmark movies and Christmas songs all do important culture work. One aspect is definitely expressing distress over late capitalism. Most Christmas songs don’t have a concomitant conservative gender and race message, though, which I think most Hallmark films do, alas. Which is why they make me wary…

  2. I’m having trouble summing up the politics of the Christmas canon. It puts family (and often an explicitly nuclear family) at the center of the picture, and there’s a focus on capitalist rituals of consumption and accumulation, which make it hard to know what to do with the “all I want for Christmas is you” vs. “Santa baby” messages. Which are sincere? Ironic? Tongue in cheek? Given all the other gift giving and buying and ribbons and bows…I don’t know. So there’s some latent conservatism, but in the past week, I’ve come to believe that the note of ennui or melancholy in the Christmas canon is also super important, and a small form of resistance.

    I’ve officially thought about this too long. ; )

  3. i posted this on FB and a friend of mine who is a Jewish scholar responded: “I like the analysis, but I’m not sure why the conclusion is that it’s sad that mid-20th-century American Jewish songwriters hadn’t experienced the romanticized early-20th-century rural environment they described. Is it a sadness at lack of authenticity? Their work brought joy to many Americans; it’s as authentic as any holiday celebration. As someone who works on American Jewish nostalgia for pasts people haven’t personally experienced, I don’t at all see it as particularly sad, but as a longing for an irrevocable imagined past that brings to the fore meaning in our own day. Nothing sad about that.”

    1. Well, I wouldn’t assume they hadn’t experienced it, though I think the “shared universe” of the Christmas canon makes me think many of these songwriters aren’t writing out of lived experience but instead out of a shared set of idioms/conventions/tropes/etc. But I do see the question of authenticity as at least somewhat separate from the issue of sadness/loss/mourning that’s extant in the some of the music. It’s been a few years since I read Lehman’s book (I looked at it when I was studying for my comps), so I can’t remember if he writes about Jewish nostalgia/diaspora as directly connected to the Christmas canon or not, but that seems like one potential explanation for the repeated theme. (And, again, I think we’d really need into get into the biographies and historical circumstances of each songwriter/song to know. Ditto with the authenticity.) But in reading the lyrics for all these songs one after another, I was definitely surprised by the thematic poignancy, whether it’s the issue of being away from home, losing a lover, or general ennui. There’s joy too, but it’s somewhat tempered or complicated.

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