Monday, December 24, 2007

Melancholy Christmas

In a homily I recently heard, the priest made some very interesting remarks about the modern celebration of Christmas. First, as many others have noted in the Catholic world, he pointed out that the secular, consumerist drive to push Christmas sales as forced the Christmas season further and further back into the year until it has swallowed up the liturgical season of Advent. Christmas stuff all is brought out almost as soon as Thanksgiving dinner is off the table, oftentimes even sooner, like the day after Halloween. Many Catholics in the blogging world have noted this, and so I will not comment on it here, save to say that it is very sad because it robs us of our attention on the preperatory nature of Advent. If we prepare for the Second Coming the way we "prepare" for Christmas, then we are all lost.

But what I want to dwell on here was the priest's observation that in modernity Christmas has a forlorn, sad and melancholy atmopshere about it that is exemplified in some of the best known secular Christmas songs of our times. By secular Christmas songs, I mean stuff like "White Christmas," "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," "Home for the Holidays" and such tunes, as opposed to religious Christmas music like "Joy to the World" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Most of our religious Christmas music comes from the 18th and 19th centuries and was written by churchmen of one branch or another, while our secular religious music comes from a few decades: the 1940's through the early-1960's.

The famous secular Christmas songs all have an air of sad nostalgia about them, longing for some departed golden-age of innocence and mirth. Let's look at a few lyrics from some of the more famous songs:

White Christmas (Irving Berlin, 1940): I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Where the treetops glisten, and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Blane & Martine, 1943): Here we are as in olden days, Happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.

In both of these selections, there is a nostalgic longing for something past, a Christmas "like the ones I used to know," a desire for the "olden days, happy golden days of yore." But, we could ask, why were the olden days the golden days, and what is deficient about Christmas now (or, rather, in the 1940's when these songs were written) that makes us turn our hearts towards and earlier epoch?

Many people have noted that Christmas music tends to depress them. I have no evidence to back this up, but I do not think it is due to songs like "Silent Night" and "Come All Ye Faithful." The religious, Christian-based Christmas songs are always joyful and triumphant, as the English "Adeste Fideles" says. No, I think that when people say they are depressed by Christmas music, they mean the secular Christmas songs, the stuff we are talking about here from the 40's and 50's. It is well documented that Christmas is the saddest time of year for many people, and suicides are frequent during the Yuletide, as well. I'm sure much of this has to do with the fact that when people are alone at Christmas, they feel it more intensely than at other times of the year, but I think some of this secular Christmas music exacerbates the problem.

I opine that the reason for the melancholy is this: this secular Christmas music exposes how bankrupt our culture is, both because of its spiritual shallowness and because of our web of technological comforts that keep us from experiencing the fullness of our humanity through immediate contact with creation. We extol many things in these songs which are no more than phantoms to most people, ghosts of a bygone era.

Think about it for a moment. When was the last time you smelled or ate chestnuts roasting on a open fire? Or experienced the joy of rushing over frozen fields in a single-horse drawn sleigh to the jingle of the harness bells? Or put up any real holly or ivy? Or kissed under some mistletoe? Or stood around the Tannenbaum and sung reverently? Or even had a real Christmas tree for that matter? Or saw, let alone heard, a real silver bell? Or went "home" for the holidays? You know, in the song, "Home for the Holidays," the word "home" does not just refer to where you or your parents happen to live as we tend to use the word today. It refers to an antiquated concept of home, to an ancestral farmstead in the country where we retire from the busy suburban life and return to our roots, to the place where our families first settled in this land and carved out a living out of the wilderness. When this song was written in 1954 by Rob Allen and Al Stillman, this concept of a rural, familial homestead was still a reality for many people, and some elderly persons still living were the same who had first settled the frontier in the 1880's and 90's. That generation, and that way of life, is long gone. Who goes back to an ancestral farmstead anymore? My family's ancestral farm that we had possessed since the 1870's in Virginia was recently torn down to make room for another crappy Pulte sub. Yes, the way of life we idolize in these songs has vanished forever.

But yet, every Christmas we sing about these things ad nauseam. When we hear these songs, we are reminded of a simpler time, a time when we were more connected to the earth and to family, a time when things were more meaningful and when we were able to take true delight in the humble pleasures life afforded us. But as we sing these words, we get a creeping realization that we have lost all that was good and beautiful in life and exchanged it for empty trifles. Family bonds, connection to the earth, spiritual depth and self-sufficiency have been exchanged for superficial relationships, dependence on technology, vain secularism and the plague of consumerism. As we sing about the life we exchanged for our modernist bowl of pottage, we feel a deep regret and pain of loss at the reality, a pain that is even worse because we know that we are to blame. In a way, it is a microcosm of the pains of hell, I think (but only a tiny microcosm!)

At any rate, we can beat the melancholy aspect of secular Christmas by refocusing ourselves on what we know to be the spiritual core of the holy day: Christ's Incarnation. It is right for us to deplore what has happened to our culture in the past hundred years or more, but we do not despair as those in the world who have no hope (1 Thess. 2:13), but rather our hope is in Christ and His redeeming work, Who on the last day will raise us up and restore unto us infinitely more than we ever lost by our sin. This is the great joy of Christmas.


Adrienne said...

Merry Christmas

Anonymous said...
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Staying in Balance said...

Checkout this site that talks about "Have yourself a merry little Christmas".
The song was, apparently, even darker than we know it today.

That priest is a genius. What a wonderful sermon. I think the same can be true of "Christmas specials". Even as a kid, I never liked Frosty the Snowman. I mean, how in the world is it Christmas to have a snowman melt/die (ok, he "comes back to life, but still). It just didn't seem to be properly "Christmas". Now I know why.

Staying in Balance said...

Hello again. I realized, after writing my comment, that *you* were the one who came up with the theory about the secular Christmas=depression. I applaud you. Excellent post!!

Mara Joy said...

(I didn't read the whole entry, but) I LOVED that homily that you're referring to! As a matter of fact, someone gave him (the priest) as a Christmas present a card that, when opened, it sings "White Christmas," referencing that homily! tee hee!

Anonymous said...

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? In march, when it snowed. We love to roast chestuts in our fireplace.
Real Holy and Ivy? Last Christmas.
Kissed under mistletoe? Personally never but watched my parents do it again at Christmas.
Had a real Christmas tree? Last Christmas again, we've never had a fake tree, well I had a miniature fake tree in my room one Christmas alongside the main one because I wanted to decorate but my parents are control freaks.

And as for the place where my family first settled in this land, lost to antiquity I am afraid, because we have been here (well down my paternal line) since before the Normans came (my mothers side, her adoptive family is Norman but somehow I doubt the Earl of Shrewsbury is going to let us go back to his home, if he still owns it, although it would be rather nice, nor would are we likely to be going back to the Basque country). But we live in the country anyway, not in suburbia, although not on a farm.

But seriously a lot of those things are easy, how hard is it to get a tree? or a fire, do they not build fireplaces into houses in the USA? or silver bells? or mistletoe and holly and ivy? Even the horse drawn carriage could be arranged for less than the cost of car insurance. The problem is none of those things will actually fix the problem being eluded to by the songs (they ARE nice though and well worth having - especially roast chestnuts and a real tree).

But yeah apart from that little quibble I agree (and I know this was written ages ago but I wanted to say).

Boniface said...


Thanks for the post.

These things are not difficult to get in America, but people simply don't do them. Actually, come to think of it, I do not know where I would get real holly or ivy.

90% of American homes are not equipped with fireplaces, so one could not roast chestnuts over them.

They sell fake Mistletoe at Wal-Mart, but I don't know where you'd get it for real.

Horse drawn carriages are sometimes brought out in the towns for $5 a ride around the block, but it is not the same as taking one "over the river and through the woods" in an age long past when this was the primary mode of travel.

So, yes, things are a bit different here...
Real Christmas trees sell for about $45 dollars (about 30 pounds?) and are sold on the street corners, pre-cut, by Arabs and swarthy looking foreigners.

Anonymous said...

I do agree that secular society often misses out on the joy of the Season, but I wanted to throw out a thought I had about the two songs you referenced.

White Christmas was written during WWII and sang in a movie (by the same name) that was set in the War. The first time it is sung in the movie, it is by a soldier singing to other soldiers on the battlefield...perhaps "dreaming of a white Christmas" like the one he used to know was a legitimate expression of how many people were feeling at that time.

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas was also from a movie (Meet Me in St. Louis). The context in which the song was sung was part of a sad part in the plot of the movie. Judy Garland's character's little sister was sad about having to move from their family's home and leaving all their friends behind. So, the lyrics fit the plot of the movie...

Both of these movies were made during WWII (although Meet Me in St. Louis was not set during that time) and the sense of nostalgia probably resonated with the people living through that time. I think that is a legitimate expression of what they were going through. Beyond that, I think that these songs just came to be a tradition in families.

Should we focus more on the joy of the birth of Christ than we do, of course! But, I just wanted to throw these ideas out there for consideration