It is Christmas music season, that (most wonderful) time of the year when, no matter what the prevailing style in pop music is the other 11 months, we are thrown into a sort of musical time warp where we indulge in listening to music from all eras.
The truth is if the Christmas standards seem a little old-fashioned now, many of them seemed somewhat old-fashioned even at the time. One of the odd things about the Christmas canon is how it insists there’s only one real Christmas: a rural, snow-filled Christmas.
Christmas song writers are determined to steep us all in that winning combination of snow, nostalgia, twinkling lights and omnipresent good cheer.
Perhaps the most famous Christmas pop song of all is White Christmas, whose introductory verse makes it clear that if you live in a place with no snow, you’re not really experiencing the season at all.
Within the broad genre of Christmas music, there are a few more specific categories: the bangers, like “All I Want For Christmas Is You”; the classics, like “White Christmas”; and the ones that make you sad and happy at the same time, like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and “Blue Christmas.” And while there really is nothing like a Christmas jig, those nostalgic, lump-in-your-throat, sentimental songs are often the ones we have on repeat throughout December.
At such a magical time, why are we drawn to stirring, seasonal music that makes us both happy and sad? Turns out, there are a few possible psychological explanations.
Music has a strong tie to nostalgia which is why hearing a song from the ’90s can take someone directly back to elementary school, and why listening to certain Christmas songs can make people feel warm, fuzzy, and return us to childhood. In a 1999 study, researchers examined people’s ability to recall memories after hearing a clip from a song. While they weren’t able to think of an exact event from the time when the song came out, they were able to recall the general emotion that they felt during that time. So, listening to some Christmas tracks might make you feel wistful for your childhood or just generally festive and happy, rather than remorseful about that Christmas when you broke up from your partner – your brain has already created positive associations with the music.
There is no doubt that nostalgia is an intriguing sensation because it can make you feel happy and sad at the same time. Interestingly, other studies have shown that listening to melancholic music can evoke feelings of comfort. This could explain why some people decide to listen to more emotionally raw songs they need a pick-me-up or to feel comforted. With Christmas music, in particular, the sad nostalgic emotions that you feel when listening to certain songs could, in theory, have the same positive effect as sad music.
Christmas music is also often structured in a way that makes it innately pleasing. When you hear a song for the first time, its melody gets tracked in your brain’s prefrontal cortex. Your brain is then always searching for that melody, or a similar one, and when you hear it again it feels very satisfying and soothing.
Compared to other genres of music, Christmas music and pop tend to have very predictable melodic structures. Hearing something you are musically familiar with automatically provides you with strong expectations. You are making predictions, having this moment of tension and then realising the prediction was correct. When you combine this aspect with nostalgia, it is obvious why Christmas music makes you feel such a diverse range of emotions.
Of course Christmas carols hold a particularly special place in many peoples hearts. We sing Christmas carols because they are a way of telling the story of the nativity and the birth of Jesus Christ. As well as explaining what happened around Jesus’s birth, the songs enable us to encapsulate and express the joy, devotion and awe-inspiring scenes of the nativity.
Apart from telling the nativity story, Christmas carols spread joy and warmth during the bleakest months. In Christmas, the Christian faith brought together traditional winter feasts and celebrations. They were designed to spread light in the dark, deep midwinter months, and the celebrations of Jesus’s birth. Christmas carols have an appropriately uplifting and celebratory style to honour such a memorable occasion.
Little wonder they have endured as a popular way to highlight and celebrate the arrival of the Christmas season.
Christmas carols, almost always have wonderfully memorable melodies and captivating harmonies. Performed by choirs of voices, often with an organ or instrumentalists accompanying them, the songs create a wonderful atmosphere and resound with positivity.
So, is Christmas music good, or do radio presenters deserve coal in their stockings? It is a truly individual answer. For the eternal romantics and fans of nostalgia the so-called songs of the season are joyous audible additions to our Christmas preparations whereas the Ebenezer’s of the world sneak earplugs under their earmuffs.
Like most things, it’s all a matter of perspective. It is important to remember that no matter how you feel about the holiday classics, the world is a fragile place these days and so are we. If a particular song or carol provides us with a warm glow, simply enjoy it.
The ultimate joy about Christmas music is we can all enjoy our diverse tastes and personal melodic preferences, as well as everything else Christmas related. Like all aspects of the season, it is our varying tastes that make it such a unique experience.
So, for Christmas songs fans – that is all of us, surely – remember that Christmas music:
- Improves Mood – Christmas music lets us relive the best moments from holidays past – anytime we want.
- Relieves Stress – Christmas music takes us on a vacation from our troubles and helps lower stress.
- Increases Relaxation – Christmas music
literally soothes our brains.