“You can love it or hate it, but you can’t really ignore it.”
That’s a quote from John Waters, one of the music collectors interviewed in Jingle Bell Rocks!, a Canadian documentary that looks at the world of alternative Christmas music and the people who love it. To me it sums up Christmas music perfectly. Whether you sing it loud for all to hear or mutter expletives under your breath as each song begins, you can’t deny that at some point over the past month, you’ve found the words of at least one Christmas carol running through your head.
Christmas music resonates with people on many levels. It speaks to our sense of spirituality, to our sentimental natures, and even to our need for a little silliness sometimes. What once was a religious form of expression has crossed over into popular culture, creating a genre of folk music that’s unrivaled. What other songs can you find three or four generations of people, without a common background, singing together, except maybe a national anthem?
My husband and I travelled with friends to Charlottetown this month to see The Barra MacNeils’ annual Christmas concert. More than 1,000 people filled the seats at Confederation Centre. From the discussions I could hear, quite a few audience members weren’t familiar with the band. And yet voices were raised throughout the performance, singing along to familiar holiday favourites. When the bass player broke into a jazzy rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer the audience sang the whole song, start to finish, loud enough to fill the theatre, with only the wave of a band member’s hand as prompting.
In our rapidly changing world, where the entirety of human knowledge doubles every year, Christmas carols create a bridge across divides of age, economy, politics, and even religion. Our society seems to be simultaneously becoming homogenized and divided into smaller and smaller factions. And yet we have these touchstones that can bring us together. Finding these elements that unite us, creating moments where voices can join together in joy, is increasingly important.
For many people, those connections are made not just in listening to Christmas music, but also in sharing it. Have you ever made or received a mix Christmas tape or CD? Been gifted an unusual holiday album? Even the act of finding the most obscure holiday recordings speaks to the power of this genre of folk music. Peter Silverton, writing last year in The Independent, stated that “Christmas pop is a way to keep faith with that shared cross-generational pop-music culture which has now, for the most part, gone, probably forever, for the usual reasons – downloading, Apple smarts, music business dunderheadedness. It makes room for all genres, from country to gospel and even rap.”
So as the holiday season wraps up and the Christmas carols get tucked away for another year, let’s remember the way they pulled us together, and make it a resolution to continue to find the ties that bind us across our different musical tastes, family backgrounds, religious affiliations, and more. We can’t sing Christmas carols all year long, but we can keep building on the shared experiences that show us our common values.
I’d like to leave you with the chorus of one of the lesser-known Christmas songs that’s resonated most with me this year. Thanks to Ken Chisholm for these words.
For Christmas is a time of joy and sharing
So share your joy with those who need it most
Christmas is a time of love and caring
And when you care sweet love will bless your house