The season of joy is here. And while many of the same troubles that have beleaguered mankind since antiquity (wars, famine, suffering) are still afflicting much of the globe, Christmas continues unabated. Department stores are decked out in green and red. Multi-colored lights decorate houses in middle class neighborhoods. Makeshift Christmas tree shops have sprung up in vacant parking lots. Children are excitedly begging their parents for the latest and greatest gizmo. Brightness is all around.
In present-day America, the Christmas season is known for another tradition: 24-hour holiday music playing on local radio stations. Like many staples of life, the continual playing of festive tunes is met with a fair amount of derision. There are a few reasons for this. The digital revolution is slowly making FM radio obsolete. These days almost everyone opts for their own music rather than the pre-set choices on corporate airwaves. Not only that, but growing secularism and rampant consumerism have eaten away at the real meaning of Christmas. Luke 2:8-14 seems quaint compared to the new Xbox, or whatever video game system is poisoning young minds these days.
So when Bing Crosby hits that low note at the beginning refrain of “White Christmas” in the car, it sounds washed up. It’s now “hip” to trash Christmas music, especially among the more-ironic-than-thou millennial crowd. Muddying tradition is a rite of passage for young adults forging their own paths in life. Among twenty-somethings who grew up listening to Elvis and Perry Como belting out holiday classics, denouncing the radio Christmas cycle is standard talk at cocktail happy hours.
Such talk isn’t just trite, it’s also neglectful of the modest traditions that link us to the past. If society is, as Burke wrote, a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born,” then the 24-hour onslaught of Christmas music is another opportunity to regale over our shared youth in an age when progress and tech are buzzwords for burying the past under a digital mountain of dirt. Basically, it’s one more thing to cling on to as the world spins at what feels like an increasingly fast rate.
Think of your own memories with Christmas tunes. Perhaps you listened to the songs in the backseat of your family car. Maybe you sung along with your parents, everyone out of tune and garbling the words. You may have marked the beginning of the season of light when you first heard the hauntingly beautiful Tchaikovsky. Are these reminiscences really something we should toss away and forget?
Some of my own Christmas memories are more unorthodox, but are still just as meaningful. They include listening to modern variations of yuletide carols while eating cereal before school as my mother smoked cigarettes at the kitchen table, singing classic tunes in middle school music class, and opening presents on Christmas morning with songs from the living room stereo played in the background. There were the days working out in the bitter cold grilling sausage and melting marshmallows for s’mores at a local theme park while carols played over the loudspeaker. I remember sloppily dancing to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” in a club not long after I moved to Washington D.C. The memories provide a feeling of warmth, happiness, and gratefulness that my life has been relatively stable to this point. They are a means of reflection for the goodness I have been blessed to witness. My fondness for holiday music, like many impressions throughout life, has been a bridge between the past and present.
In the days of nonstop social media, valuing the past is an end in itself. But the past is not an idol to be worshipped. And there is such a thing as torturing memories and allowing them to dominate your life. Hanging on to old infatuations and focusing on poor choices are poison to good living. Balance is required to maintain physical and mental well-being. Temporal reality is a gift from God that should be cherished for its own sake. Our recollections are a means we can use to make sense of our world, and the world that lies beyond our earthly state. They should be used responsibly and with proper reverence to the ties that bind human civilization to the past.
Progressives, in their tireless crusade to push back against anything having to do with the past, have forgotten this lesson. They disregard nostalgia in their effort to crush traditions they see as stifling of human freedom. These include the nuclear family, civil society gatherings, patriotic reverence for country, and homely events. If we aren’t free to do as we please at all times, then liberty does not exist, according to the progressive worldview. The logical conclusion of such an anchorless philosophy is ennui, which makes its adherents predisposed to all sorts of soul-destroying behavior.
What does any of this have to do with Christmas music on the radio? Like the jingle of a passing ice cream truck in the summer or the taste of candy during Halloween, carols provide a link to tradition that is far older than us. It serves as a reminder that, as Leibniz wrote, “You have known the world only since the day before yesterday,” and that the mysteries of existence are far deeper than what we’ve witnessed in our lifetime.
Some interlocutors in the Christmas debate like to claim that older, more traditional holiday carols are superior to modern arrangements. That may well be true. But I don’t very much care in the end. I’m familiar with the tunes I grew up with, and they provide a tether to my past. They are, in a word, mine. So songs like “Christmas Canon” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra and “Christmastime” by Smashing Pumpkins will remain favorites. Centuries-old hymns need not apply.
Dostoevsky famously said “beauty will save the world.” But our poor souls were already saved by a goodness beyond man’s grasp. That is precisely what Christmas is all about. Thus it’s more accurate to say beauty preserves our world. It keeps the chance at redemption in focus by reminding us that our lives on this Earth are finite. More is waiting for us beyond death, but in the meantime we can reflect on the little things that give us meaning and show the wonders of life. Christmas music during the holiday season is one of those things. And thank goodness some radio stations still keep it on constant repeat.