Family ideals reflected, reinforced in Christmas music, author says
While much popular culture seems disposable, our favorite Christmas songs keep coming back in old and new versions.
Some of these — “Winter Wonderland” from 1934, for example — are nearly 80 years old. Others, like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Christmas Song,” “Let It Snow” and “Blue Christmas” have been around for 60 years or more.
“That seems to indicate that these songs mean a great deal to us as a culture,” says Ronald Lankford Jr., author of “Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells & Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs” (University Press of Florida, $21.95).
Evidence is found everywhere.
For those addicted to classic renditions of holiday songs, Canonsburg's Perry Como remains one of Christmas' Three Cs: (Bing) Crosby, (Nat King) Cole and Como.
They are no less than “the bedrock of American popular Christmas music,” Lankford says. Como's “Home for the Holidays” is probably the quintessential Christmas song from the 1950s, “a happy song for families during a happy era.”
Lankford's book examines popular culture, consumerism and the dynamics of the traditional American family through the filter of well-known Christmas songs. He explores why Americans were so drawn to these songs from the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, and why they still enjoy them today.
“The idea for the book was to better understand how American values were reflected in our favorite Christmas songs,” he says. “Because they are so familiar, these songs represent our values or, at least, values we wish to aspire to.”
Many of the songs are idealistic, emphasizing the perfect Christmas, says Lankford, 51: “In songs, families come together and they never fuss and fight; kids anticipate Santa and never express disappointment with gifts; and we always remember the less fortunate.”
It can be said that Christmas songs call on our better selves, Lankford says. “They remind us of the standard: that we should be at home renewing traditions with loved ones, spending time with our children and remembering to give generously to those who have less,” he says.
For many, that standard was established in what Lankford calls “The Golden Age of the Christmas Song,” 1942 through 1963, because of the sheer number of classic holiday songs that were written during that period.
“In regard to Christmas songs that we still listen to, I doubt there's another era that comes close to matching this one,” he says. “The lyrics, music and performers of these songs offered an entrancing and expansive vision of American life.”
That time period also was the “Golden Age of Popular Music” says Pittsburgh's Grammy Award-winning conductor and composer Robert Page.
“It had composers who knew how to compose: Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Irving Berlin, we can name dozens of them,” Page says. “The family, the love of country, World War II, the GI Bill, all of these were positive influences on the popular music of that era.”
Those years from '42 to '63 almost mirror the baby boom itself, Lankford says. “Christmas music worked in perfect harmony then, with ideas about the American family, the U.S. economy and post-war optimism.”
He suggests holiday songs “act like generational glue,” connecting values, traditions and rituals.
Many songs, regardless of who interpreted them, remain familiar. “This is even truer of songs like ‘Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town' and ‘I'll Be Home for Christmas.' They're more like folk music, they seem to have always been there, and they're broadly embraced by the culture,” Lankford says.
Spiritual vs. secular
While most of the Christmas songs written since “White Christmas” are secular, Lankford senses that a lot of people don't even notice. He sees Crosby's version of “White Christmas,” for example, as “very spiritual.”
“And many of our adult Christmas songs are held as equally reverent. Over time, I think, many of the traditional distinctions seem less important,” he says.
Christmas songs in the 1940s, expressing a yearning for normality and home life, have to be understood in the context of World War II, says Dan Santoro, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown, who studies popular culture.
“I firmly believe that American culture was ready to ‘consumerize' Christmas largely because of the experiences of the generation that lived through and fought World War II,” Santoro says. “They experienced deprivation of the Depression and survived the horrors of war. They yearned for domestic peace and security and simply wanted their kids to be happy, to have things they never could have imagined having in their own childhoods.”
The American Christmas was remade by consumerism, a product of post-war economic expansion, Santoro says.
“The ‘Holy Day' of Christmas and the holiday of ‘Xmas,' with many more secular songs, now exist side by side, occupying the same space in our hearts and minds and we each move back and forth between the two,” Santoro says. “Some of us try to keep them separate and attend to each, others commit to one or the other.”
We like to listen to poignant Christmas music “to try to find meaning that has been lost in a life that revolves around technology that brings us nothing but bad news, lying politicians and twerking videos,” says Drew Fennell of Natrona Heights, principal flugelhorn of the River City Brass.
Fennell worries that the secular/cultural and religious/Christian aspects of the holiday, which he believes once lived in harmony with one another, are being “systematically separated by society right now.”
Some songs mirror that common conundrum over Christmas and the values associated with the holiday — the clash between Christian beliefs and materialism.
It presents us, Lankford says, with a new dilemma over how we, as individuals and as a culture, define the meaning of Christmas. In focusing more closely on the Christmas song and popular holiday culture, in general, certain ideals and beliefs reoccur more often, he says. Those include home and family, the prospect of gifts and need for charity.
Likewise, he adds, a good number of Americans continue to see many aspects of Christmas as sacred, even when these aspects do not fall under the auspices of traditional religion.
“We've figured out that family can be defined in a hundred different ways,” Lankford says. “Now, I think most of us feel free, as we listen to ‘White Christmas,' to insert our own family, however we choose to define it.”
Those personal moments and memories are what connect people to particular holiday music, says Maria Sensi Sellner of Squirrel Hill, founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh's Resonance Works.
“I think that, from the Christian traditions of Christmas, there are some very universal themes — peace on earth, giving of oneself, hope through dark times — and these themes resonate with people of very different belief systems,” Sellner says.
Musician B.E. “Bill” Taylor, whose holiday concerts in the Pittsburgh region have become a modern tr adition for many, says the message in most Christmas songs is love.
“Most promote love, and that is what we all need,” says Taylor, who has written and recorded several holiday songs, including “Feel the Love of Christmas.”
He agrees that Christmas songs are timeless for all ages.
“They touch everyone in a special way,” Taylor says. “When I hear Nat King Cole's ‘The Christmas Song,' I'm a little boy back in Aliquippa looking at the record spinning on a mono record player as my mother, father and grandmother are in the other room cooking. I get tears in my eyes.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.