Pop Musicians Broker Truce in War on Christmas

Pop music versions of Christmas carols are a prominent part of the acoustic ambience during the holiday season. Far from trivial, pop music teaches the true meaning of Christmas to believers and non-believers, thus negotiating peace in the so-called “war on Christmas.”

Every year around this time, this most wonderful time of the year, reports of a so-called “war on Christmas” emerge as some Christians feel attacked by secular progressives and atheistic liberals who have the audacity to promote inclusiveness, democracy, and civil liberties. This has been going on since at least 2005, with the publication of John Gibson’s book, The War on Christmas (to which I will not link). With paranoid aplomb, the book rails against the liberal conspiracy to prohibit the celebration of Christmas. The typical example used to describe an attack on Christmas is the idea, well deserving of parody, that people should say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The phrase “Happy Holidays” supposedly sounds less exclusively Christian and therefore is less of an imposition onto the religious orientations of others. The idea that this change in the phrasing of the season’s greetings constitutes some kind of attack on Christmas or Christians is ridiculous and, indeed, arguably anti-Christian. The people who clamor on about the “war on Christmas” are scrooges who want to keep Christmas festivities exclusively Christian, hoarding the spirit of giving. Although some people are misers who try to hoard God, the good news is that there are others who are much more generous. There are people who want to celebrate together regardless of whether one is a believer or non-believer. It seems likely that Jesus was in the latter group, granting salvation to all who sought it, undoing the inequalities separating Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman (Galatians 3:28).

I don’t care about convincing any scrooges. Presumably, they will be visited by ghosts who will convey to them the true meaning of Christmas, which surely has something to do with generosity and loving one’s neighbor. I care about celebrating together, so I’ll turn my attention to one of the common features of celebrations: music. Not in short supply, Christmas music is relatively ubiquitous throughout the month of December. Even if you don’t listen to it privately, it pervades many public venues. Much of it involves traditional Christmas carols updated by pop artists. Would the miserly war-on-Christmas people feel that pop music is warring against Christmas, that it is attacking the holiday with electric guitars, keyboards, and cheeky fun? I suggest that pop Christmas music calls a truce in this “war.” More specifically, it provides evidence that a genuine meaning of Christmas is not under siege at all but is more pervasive than ever. The fact that rampant consumerism is part of the generous spirit of Christmas is a scandal to address another time.

The word “Christmas” is being uttered and heard more than ever before in the last two thousand years, as pop music blasts it around the planet along with related tropes about holy nights, silent nights, a child, a virgin, angels, kings, and so on. From Kelly Clarkson to Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande to Blues Traveler, Lady Antebellum to Boyz II Men, numerous popular musicians across many genres have released Christmas albums. That list could extend into television media, like Glee, which has its own Christmas episode and album, or Bill Murray’s musical comedy, A Very Murray Christmas. Moreover, the point here is not just the widespread dissemination of lyrics oriented around the sacred stories of Christmas. The lyrics are part of a whole atmospheric effect, whereby Christmas music seeps into the ambience of everyday life around the holiday season. It’s in homes, offices, stores, restaurants, cars, street corners, parades, and after sufficient repetition, in our heads. The constant repetition facilitates a kind of sonic entrainment that puts everyone in the atmospheric space of Christmas. In other words, it puts everyone in the Christmas spirit, which includes a range of moods, from the joy and levity of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Joy to the World” to the solemnity and contemplative reverence of “What Child is This?” and “O Holy Night.” The pervasive climate of Christmas music does not turn atheists into believers, but it does provide a standard container for shared moods and mutual sentiments, which is to say, sympathetic feelings. The ubiquitous ambience of pop Christmas carols entrains atheists and believers into atmospheres of mutuality, inviting them to practice social sympathy, which Christians refer to as loving one’s neighbor.

Take one song as an example: “O Holy Night.” Many of the usual suspects in pop Christmas music have released versions of this carol, including Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Josh Groban, Céline Dion, and Pentatonix. Tracy Chapman and NSYNC provide a couple of notable 90s versions. Cartman sang it on South Park. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra recorded a characteristically orchestral rock version of the song. Barenaked Ladies have a rendition, as do artists Scott Weiland, Train, and Ellie Goulding. This Christmas carol gives compelling expression to the sacred night – “o night divine” – of the birth of Jesus, whom we are called to worship. The lyrics invoke “savior,” “soul,” and “sin,” and ask the listener to “fall on your knees,” “hear the angel voices,” and praise the Lord. The evocative melody of the music sets a devotional mood, with reverence and ceremonial pomp. The dignified majesty expressed in the song might not fit with the typical image of pop stars, but for whatever reason, many popular musicians perform and record this song. Regardless of their specific intentions, those musicians are spreading the “good news” of Jesus Christ, using mass media to spread that news more widely and repetitively than any church can. This spirit of Christmas is thus popularized and pluralized, finding expression throughout the various sonic environments that surround people in everyday life.

Isn’t this precisely the reason for the season: to share with others the good news of God’s love for the world? In that sense, the ongoing success of pop versions of “O Holy Night” and other Christmas carols indicates that the spirit of Christmas is more popular than ever before, perhaps reaching more ears than it had in the last two thousand years. The point is not that everyone who hears these songs ends up practicing more love of one’s neighbor thanks to popular music. The point is that the apparent secularization of Christmas is not an act of “war.” It is actually a proliferation of multiple expressions of Christianity. Just because pop stars aren’t explicitly connected to Christian genres of music doesn’t mean that they aren’t aligned with Christian messages of love and generosity.

Christmas is not being attacked. It is being multiplied and diversified so that everyone is invited to participate in the spirit of sharing, much to the chagrin of belligerent misers. Exchanging “Merry Christmas” for “Happy Holidays” is like changing genres of Christmas carols from traditional folk to rock or pop. To complain that these language changes mix up the sacred with the profane is to fail to understand that such mixing is exactly what the birth of Jesus is all about: the incarnation of God (Creator) in the profane (creatures), giving the gift of love to the world. That is the true spirit of Christmas: a spirit of generosity, which we celebrate when we share in feelings of sympathy and mutuality.

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