If you listen to YouTube holiday playlists or FM radio during Christmas time, you’ll surely notice that most of the songs are old. Not centuries old, like the best church hymns, but old enough that your WWII-veteran grandfather probably heard them as a young man. And aside from mediocre covers of the midcentury classics, there’s not much else.
In fact, American Christmas and holiday music is virtually frozen in time. Not since Mariah Carey belted out “All I Want for Christmas is You” in 1994 has a newly-written Christmas song entered the popular playlist (1984’s “Last Christmas” by supergroup Wham! found modern success—and endless radio play—and first landed on the Billboard charts in 2016). Aside from those, in more than a quarter-century, our nation of more than 300 million has not crafted a single worthwhile song for what is arguably the nation’s most important holiday and cultural celebration. The vast majority of popular Christmas songs date from about 1940 to 1994; but very few were written in the 1970s or 1980s. Most are clustered during the big band/jazz and Golden Hollywood period between the 1940s and the 1960s.
Spiritual and cultural bankruptcy might explain the dearth of new tunes. A less apocalyptic angle is that the stubborn endurance of midcentury Christmas music is one more facet of the trend towards “retro” and “vintage” and “analog.” After all, 1950s housing fixtures command big money for people restoring their tract homes to the original Levittown style, and one of the hottest gifts this time of the year is a portable phonograph or a stereo turntable. Next thing you know, Gene Autry’s scratched-up Rudolph album from the thrift store will be commanding top dollar.
Yet there is even another aspect to the “freezing” of holiday-related cultural production. A society that sings is a society that is happy. Perhaps we aren’t writing cheerful holiday ditties these days because we are not happy. Surveys suggest that American happiness peaked in the early postwar years (the same is true of Britain). Many of the advertisements from this period were jingles; almost every notable product had one, and anyone who grew up in the ’50s can still be caught humming them. The jingle or musical commercial is now mostly relegated to parodies or to local, low-budget commercials. And God forbid we could let one holiday season go by without a witless and vulgar rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
Of course, those cheerful, peppy jingles were inducements to consumption in a decade of growth uber alles, and even the actual Christmas songs from that era bear a surprisingly strong imprint of their time. Their simple lyrics and catchy melodies, for one, often resemble advertising jingles. In terms of their content, there is wistfulness that echoes the war and the Great Depression (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”). And there is plenty of commercialism.
“Home for the Holidays,” penned in 1954, could easily have been a jingle for the auto industry, encouraging folks to jump in their vehicles and visit family—no matter where in the country that might be:
Put the wife and kiddies in the family car
For the pleasure that you bring
When you make that doorbell ring
No trip could be too far
A Christmas song using an idealized notion of the family gathering to promote endless motoring? For all that may have been good about the ’50s, that was the ’50s too.
Also striking is the number of lines about toys, described in great enough detail that they resemble advertising to children.
“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” starts off the trend in 1951 with the following lines straight from a Saturday morning commercial:
A pair of hop-along boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the wish of Barney and Ben
Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jen
“Up on the Housetop,” whose tune dates to 1864, was updated with new lyrics for its 1953 Gene Autry release, including these: “Give her a dolly that laughs and cries; One that will open and shut her eyes.” And for the boy: “here is a hammer and lots of tacks; Also a ball and a whip that cracks!”
“Run Rudolph Run” (1958) humorously features a “rock and roll electric guitar” for the boy and—is it not a little creepy too?—“a little baby doll that can cry, sleep, drink and wet” for the girl.
Yet this seemingly insatiable and rather odd desire for hulking tail-finned cars and crying dolls was only a logical reaction to the end of nearly 20 grinding years of war and depression. Automobiles, appliances, toys, and other consumer goods were barely manufactured and certainly not widely purchased from the onset of the Depression up until 1945. One can sense a sort of warm, post-disaster glow in these songs, the intense joyfulness of people who have been devastated and are finally making their way back. Today, the economic conditions of the 1950s are distant, but the sociology of that era may be even more distant. It was a time when Americans could finally simply be. No more ration booklets, no more days of agony waiting for a call or letter from the Army, no more waiting on a soup line in a tattered suit. What a luxury it must have been to drive to the newly-built supermarket, put away groceries in an ice-cold fridge, turn on the radio, and cook for your family on a warm, gleaming stovetop. From 1929 to 1945, Americans could not do that.
We know where that ended, however: the loneliness of America’s burgeoning suburbia and the restrictive gender norms of the period led, for many women, to depression, Valium, and ultimately feminism. No cultural moment can last forever, and those who believe that the 1950s were a golden age must also recognize that they spawned what came later.
Yet surveys tell us these were the years of peak happiness in the United States. If happiness really has declined, perhaps it is paradoxically because we suffer less. War- or depression-level privation is a distant memory or even unimaginable for most of us. Consider that the wistful words of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” could only be written in a world where many of the soldiers who heard that melancholy crooning never did come home. And when every big box store is piled to the rafters with cheap toys and games, the gifts that used to excite us now conjure about the same level of enthusiasm as gray flannel underwear. Browse a Life Magazine issue from the ’50s, and the sort of gifts that were then considered appropriate or even extravagant illustrate that it really is the thought that counts. Manufacturers of quotidian goods like electric razors and even ballpoint pens regularly took out full-page color ads.
Ultimately, those midcentury Christmas songs were really not Christmas songs at all—and not because they were written largely by Jewish composers who compromised with the cultural hegemony of Christmas by penning secular tunes. They were, rather than Christmas songs, songs about the long-awaited return of normalcy and domesticity. Few of us would wish to exactly reproduce that social milieu, yet the songs live on.
We cannot help but be thankful we are not in a position to write them again, underpinned as they are by deprivation and tragedy. But a little wistfulness for that time is not out of place either.
Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.