Classical Minnesota Stories

Why do we love and hate holiday music so much?

Once the days started clawing light back from the nights, the Christmas music vanished as if by magic.Arun Kuchibhotla/Unsplash

November 01, 2021

If you love music, there's one genre that's cool to hate.

Holiday music.

Nutcrackers are derided. Sleigh Ride is harrumphed at. In the classical music world, conductors abandon Mozart and Mahler in favor of Santa hats and simple sing-a-longs.

I know this. I acknowledge this.

Nevertheless, every November, I surreptitiously sneak into my music library, put on my headphones, and listen to holiday music anyway.

Given how vocally most of my musician friends hate the genre, I always feel like some kind of traitor or rube.

The time has come to ask myself: Why?

My mom was a pianist. She was classically trained. But once she had no one to please but herself and her baby, she gravitated to playing solely by ear instead.

The dual challenge and comfort of improvising on carols from her childhood was appealing. So as the days grew shorter, with late-afternoon light spilling blue onto the snow, she'd rotate them into her repertoire.

Snow coats an evergreen tree.
Snow coats an evergreen tree.
Emil Vilsek/Unsplash

She loved carols that captured the melancholy of darkness. "In the Bleak Midwinter." "What Child Is This?" She even arranged "My Favorite Things" to strip it of all exuberance and clothe it in a pensive wistfulness instead.

But once the days started clawing light back from the nights, the Christmas music vanished as if by magic, along with the peppermints and the ruby wrapping papers.

Because my mother was such a maddeningly talented pianist, I picked up the violin instead. As a young adult, I joined an amateur string orchestra in my hometown of Eau Claire, Wis. None of us was a virtuoso, but it was for the best: Our shared inabilities, and resulting shared growth, bonded us.

The violinists began organizing on our own time and presenting performances at local nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. For two weeks every December, we'd head out together for quick afternoon sets, driving through ice or snow or light from the blindingly bright, white sun.

The existence of holiday music made our performances immeasurably easier. Cheap, easy arrangements were plentiful. We could sight-read the tunes. And our audiences not only knew the melodies, but the lyrics, too. We were always surprised and delighted when our performances turned into spur-of-the-moment sing-a-longs.

The omnipresence of Christmas music is often decried and derided, but for our purposes, that omnipresence served us well.

A few years ago, after dealing with three family deaths that occurred in close succession, I found myself lurching between emotional extremes like an 18-wheeler careening on black ice. One night I might cry myself to sleep, recoiling at my own melodrama. The next day, while going through their things, I'd buoyantly, joyfully drag a boulevard's worth of trash to the curb, fueled by the manic-panicked energy of grief.

It was a time when I didn't listen to a lot of music. I often found myself scrolling through my phone at discontent hyperspeed. Nothing in my music library seemed appropriate.

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms? No — too big, too distant. My mom's compositions? God, no — too small and too close. Binaural beats: relaxing trance-inducing soundwaves made up of next to nothing? Maybe.

The glowing primary colors of big-bulbed Christmas lights.
The glowing primary colors of big-bulbed Christmas lights.
Max Bender/Unsplash

But finally I found a genre that calmed me, holiday music. It didn't just remind me of a peaceful past; it brought me back to it.

Turns out that a lifetime of listening to this music at this time of year had paid out a dividend of cozy memories: The glowing primary colors of the big-bulbed Christmas lights tacked on the eaves of the house across the street. Giggling hysterically playing Yahtzee on New Year's Eve. Lying under the Christmas tree and next to the window during winter break, new book in hand, cold radiating through the glass.

Over time, my mind had equated the regularly reappearing carols with winter peace. Not only that, but now they were suggesting the possibility of future contentment in a time of great hopelessness — of festive Decembers populated by friends yet unmet and faces yet unknown, carrying on the old traditions that I feared were lost forever, and saving me from more goodbyes.

Holiday music's place in our lives is both beautiful and bizarre. It simultaneously inhabits worlds and themes of darkness and light — popularity and unpopularity — meaningfulness and utter meaninglessness — nostalgia for the past and, weirdly, nostalgia for an unlived future.

Given all that, I suppose it's not inexplicable why so many of us are drawn to it — and why so many are repelled.

Our collective opinions about the worth of holiday music are as tangled as a knotted strand of Christmas lights. Clearly, we'll never untangle them or come to broad consensus. Our experiences are too diverse — our lives too human, too messy.

But regardless of what your relationship with holiday music is (or isn't), peace can be in short supply this time of year. So in the end, I figure that you should embrace whatever sounds lighten the weight of your season, whether that means unabashedly binging Nat King Cole or Nutcrackers — or simply taking hushed moments to look out the window, watching the satisfying silent swirl of gently falling snow.

Emily Hogstad is a regular contributor to Classical Minnesota Public Radio. Read more of her musings about classical music on her blog, Song of the Lark.