For the last few weeks, just about everywhere you go, songs of the holiday season fill the air. Some radio stations have even been playing only Christmas music since before Thanksgiving, probably because of the shorter Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period. Have you paid any attention to what’s playing? If so, you’ve probably noticed that very rarely—if ever—do you hear a rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” by the Vienna Choir Boys. You’re far more likely to hear “All I Want for Christmas Is You” sung by Mariah Carey. I know, some are asking, “Who?” That’s ok. Bear with me.
I was somewhere the other day and a Christmas song came on that I didn’t remember hearing before, “Someday at Christmas.” Given that it came out in the mid-1960s, I’m sure it wasn’t totally new to my ears, I’d just never noticed it. For some reason, the first line caught my attention, so I stopped to listen to the lyrics. I was struck by the longing expressed through songwriters Bryan Wells and Ronald Miller. If you’ve never heard the song or paid attention to the lyrics, here’s an excerpt:
at Christmas, men won’t be boys
Playing with bombs like kids play with toys
One warm December our hearts will see
A world where men are free
Someday at Christmas, there’ll be no wars
When we have learned what Christmas is for
When we have found what life’s really worth
There’ll be peace on earth….
Someday at Christmas, we’ll see a land
With no hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
A world where people care….
Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where people are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmas time
Someday at Christmas time
That got me to thinking about most of what passes as “Christmas music” today, wondered what the most popular songs last season. Here are the top 10:
- “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Walter Afanasieff (1994)
- “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” by Meredith Willson (1951)
- “A Holly Jolly Christmas” by Johnny Marks (1964)
- “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Johnny Marks (1958)
- “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of The Year” by Edward Pola and George Wyle (1958)
- “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Johnny Marks (1949)
- “Last Christmas” by George Michael (1984)
- “Jingle Bell Rock” by Joseph Carleton Beal and James Ross Boothe (1958)
- “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (1945)
- “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish (1948)
I won’t waste the space or your time to list the next 15, but it’s essentially the same kind of stuff. So then I did a little more noodling. It occurs to me that most of the Christmas songs written in the last, say, 75 years fall into one of five categories. Songs that express anxiety, remembering the past, romance, longing for the future, and happy or joyful feelings. Of course, many overlap categories. So some examples, just for fun.
- “I’ll have
a blue Christmas without you; I’ll be so blue thinking about you….” (#21)
- “Last Christmas I gave you my heart; the very next day you gave it away. This year to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special….” (#7)
- “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch….” (#15)
- “…And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom. Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you….” (#24)
- “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like
the ones I used to know….” (#13)
- “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays….” (#16)
Happy, Joyful ditties
- “Frosty the snowman, was a jolly happy soul….”
- “Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose….” (#6)
- “Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring tingle tingling too….” (#10)
- “Feliz Navidad…Feliz Navidad…Feliz Navidad…Prospero año y Felicidad…” (#17)
Romance (of some sort or another)
- “…I just want you for my own, More than you could ever know. Make my wish come true, oh, all I want for Christmas is you….” (#1 – though that’s supposed to be about a little girl wanting a puppy for Christmas!)
- “Presents, what a beautiful sight, don’t mean a thing if you ain’t holding me tight. You’re all that I need underneath the tree tonight….” (#23)
- “Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful. And since we’ve no place to go. Let it snow….” (#9)
Selfish (fortunately, only a miserable few!)
- “Santa baby,…” —O forget it, even though it’s #20!
Longing for a better future
In addition to the song mentioned earlier, Bing Crosby and David Bowie recorded a beautiful duet of “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1977 that laid the following lyrics over the original:
Peace on Earth can it be?
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see?
See the day of glory
See the day, when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again [by the way, when did they ever? – BB]
Peace on Earth
Can it be?
Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man
To give all the love that he can…
Similarly, Transiberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Canon” turns longingly to the children of the world with these lyrics to Pachelbel’s Canon in D:
This night…We pray…Our lives…Will show…This dream…He had…Each child…Still knows
On this night, On this night, On this very Christmas night…
Ok, so all of this is not going to turn into an anti-Christmas-song rant. I have no interest in being a curmudgeon, dampening everyone’s Christmas spirit, lest protestors show up outside my house blasting “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch!” at all hours of the night. My purpose in this little exercise is simply to make a couple of observations.
First, I find it interesting that what these various types of songs express are found in the real Christmas. As Phillips Brooks wrote in his carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” And Charles Wesley, in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” penned the only real key to peace in the opening stanza: “Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled….Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings….” In the first Christmas, the foundation of true love is expressed as “God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” [John 3:16] The one who “believes in him (Jesus)” and experiences God’s love in Jesus learns the meaning of true, self-sacrificing love—thinks more of what he can give than what Santa’s going to bring him. And joy? Well, the “Joy to the World” that came at Christmas isn’t a superficial, giddy thing, but an underlying confidence that “He rules the world” and one day will come to make his glories known. Thankfully, it’s not dependent on the pipe dream of all the children of the world somehow simultaneously abandoning all vestiges of selfishness and ushering in utopia. No, what man is longing for, crudely expressed by so many of pop culture’s vapid songs of the season, is found in the full message of Christmas.
My only other observation—connected to the first, really—is that it seems the farther we get from the true story of Christmas, the more we need it!