Tag: christmas song

Bah, humbug: the misery of Christmas in classic literature

Michelle Smith, Deakin University

Every festive season guarantees a television re-run of the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, with the deflating turkey, incinerated tree, and extreme Griswold household lighting display that is now sufficiently commonplace for the joke to be compromised.

Most modern Christmas films angle for comedy with a touch of sentimental schmaltz. In contrast, literary Christmases frequently tap into the anxiety and sadness that often accompany the “happiest time of year”.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) is the quintessential Christmas tale. Even for those who have never read any Dickens, the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge has permeated our culture, from 1940s Scrooge McDuck cartoons to the Muppets adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1992.

Scrooge (1935). The first sound version of A Christmas Carol.

Money-lender Scrooge’s greed extends to denying the pleasures of Christmas to himself and his employees. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come aid Scrooge in reconciling his pain at the loss of a past love and redeeming himself among the living, so that he can find a welcoming place in the world on Christmas day.

As Tara Moore explains, Dickens and other writers in the Victorian period shaped “a certain version of urban Christmas—plum pudding, mourning the lost, holly and hearth-love” that we continue to idealise and reproduce.

Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story A Christmas Memory (1956) transports the theme of mourning happier times and beloved people from the snowy cobblestone streets of London to small-town Alabama.

The seven-year-old narrator, Buddy, describes the pleasures of a poor – but loving and inventive – Christmas with his elderly cousin, complete with scandalous nips of whisky after baking fruitcakes.

This is Buddy’s last Christmas with her, as he subsequently moves to military school. As time passes, dementia erases the cousin’s memories of Buddy and a November finally arrives,

when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”

Other literary Christmases struggle to even find a bittersweet strand to the holiday. Dostoyevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding (1848) is a disturbing story in which the narrator recalls a past Christmas party in which a male landowner watches a rich girl playing with a doll.

The landowner calculates that when the girl is old enough marry that her dowry will total half a million roubles; he attempts to kiss the girl and extract a promise of love from her. The wedding of the title, which the narrator has just attended, is revealed to be that of the landowner and the rich girl, held five years after their Christmas meeting.

Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ’Twas the Night Before Christmas (1823) popularised an idyllic children’s vision of Christmas rendered magical by Saint Nicholas and his flying reindeer. In several of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales with festive settings, however, he does not soften his trademark melancholy for the sake of Christmas cheer.

Stories of perfect Christmases are often tinged with sadness, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Fir Tree’.
Author provided

In the little-known story The Fir Tree (1844), a tree is impatient for the day when it will be tall enough to take the exciting journey that other trees in the forest enjoy each December.

The fir tree is blissful when he is felled, transported, and decorated with candles and a gleaming star for a family’s Christmas Eve celebrations. He is then discarded in the household attic and eventually chopped to pieces and tossed on a fire. “Past! past!” the tree cries as he burns, realising that he should have taken pleasure during his lifetime in the forest, rather than eyeing an unknown future.

The Little Match Girl (1845) is similarly heart-rending, as a hungry, barefooted girl attempts to sell matches on snowy streets on New Year’s Eve.

She lights several matches to warm herself and is comforted by a series of visions, including a Christmas scene with a tree shining with “thousands of candles” and a stuffed goose that jumps from its dish,

and waddle[s] along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl.

The girl freezes to death on the street. As is typical of Andersen, her lonely death is intended to be a happy ending, as she will join with her grandmother and God in heaven.

Christmas is a backdrop for confronting feelings of isolation, strangeness and escalating family tensions in a range of fiction. Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), set in the 19th century, is a striking example of Christmas serving as a lightning rod for intergenerational conflict.

Oscar’s father, Theophilus, is a fundamentalist Christian preacher who shuns Christmas feasting and celebration as pagan in origin. The servants covertly cook a plum pudding for Oscar, but his father catches him eating the “fruit of Satan” after one life-changing spoonful.

Theophilus strikes his son, forcing him to spit out the forbidden pleasure. Oscar, seeking a divine sign, asks God “if it be Thy will that Thy people eat pudding, then smite him!”. His father is soon bleeding with an injury and Oscar’s rejection of his father’s religion is set in motion.

In literature, as in our lived experiences of Christmas, the expectations of family, togetherness, and plenitude can heighten a sense of loneliness, loss, and conflict.

While there are many cheerful stories of Christmas, for children in particular, a significant number of literary Christmases scratch away at its twinkling veneer of tinsel and goodwill.

The ConversationThere’s an element of humbug in the mythology of Christmas, as Scrooge would have it, after all.

Michelle Smith, Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Humbug, tinsel and gravy: in search of the perfect Christmas pop song

Earlier this year, musicologist Joe Bennett took a sample of the top 200 Spotify streams from the Christmas week of 2016 and dissected those that were Christmas-related.

The results, analysed according to parameters such as beats per minute, key signature and lyrical content, were passed to professional songwriters with a pedigree of hits for major artists to produce an “ultimate” Christmas song. The result is rather effective, even for unbelievers.

The ‘ultimate Christmas song’ – according to a group of musicologists who sampled Christmas-related Spotify streams.

Aptly enough, that project was commissioned by a chain of shopping centres. But while it distinguishes between lyrical themes, it primarily illuminates the aesthetic dead-centre of the Christmas pop song.

From commerce to campaigns – political Christmas songs

The concept of the “Christmas song” is rife with political contradictions. It marks a day to put aside division and commerce, and yet is aimed squarely at that most blatantly commercial and competitive institution, the pop charts.

There’s a broad umbrella of musical and lyrical tropes that – pardon the pun – rings bells for listeners in constituting a “Christmas song”. The machine-tooled nature of the archetypal Christmas pop song is such a recognisable format, in fact, that it’s been opened up to a hybrid of data analysis and songwriting, as Bennett’s work illustrates.

Other researchers have sought to bring a broader typology to the service of unpicking the ideological resonance behind Christmas songs.

The musicologist Freya Jarman, for instance, uses a framework of overlapping concepts linked to Christmas, including the “traditional/religious” (such as Mistletoe and Wine), “nostalgia” (White Christmas), “romance” (Last Christmas) or “parties/friends” (I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day).

Wham’s Last Christmas taps into the romantic Christmas spirit.

The last of Jarman’s categories though – “good will to all men” – most starkly highlights the complexities around commercial acumen and the political potential of Christmas music.

In the broader canon of “political” pop songs, many of the most well known are, in fact, Christmas songs rather than more overt “protest” songs – a political message smuggled in among the sleigh-bells. John Lennon’s Merry Christmas, War is Over is one example, another being Jona Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry, a universal soldier’s lament.

Other Christmas songs, notably Do They Know It’s Christmas, have involved direct political lobbying, such as when Bob Geldof tried to get the government to waive taxes on the single itself. This arguably became a more powerful intervention than other more obviously “political” songs – forcing the government to take a position on the tax arrangements around charity singles.

Some Christmas songs such as Bob Geldoff’s Do They Know It’s Christmas are an act of direct political lobbying.

Such tensions around commerce and authenticity in popular music become especially marked around Christmas, with the charts a key battleground.

When Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of became Britain’s Christmas Number 1 in 2009, it was the result of social media campaigning against the domination of X Factor releases as seasonal chart toppers. The song’s broad political message was deployed in the specific context of a longstanding debate within popular music consumption.

This method leaked from commentary on popular music’s internal politics into broader political discourse. Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead was pushed up the charts by social media after Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 and, latterly, the similar success of a protest mash-up accusing UK Prime Minister Theresa May of being a “Liar Liar” caused headaches for broadcasters regarding election regulations.

Striking a balance

But while the underlying politics of commercialism and community have now extended into the techniques of political messaging the rest of the year round, there are still attempts to strike a balance.

There’s a raft of Christmas songs that circumvent, without fully avoiding, the Yuletide by taking a sideways (or critical) view of it. These allow ambivalent listeners to participate in the festivities while maintaining their sense of critical distance from the more traditional trappings.

Fairytale of New York is a story of love gone wrong with Christmas as the backdrop.

Fairytale of New York is an obvious example here. Where the “traditional” Christmas song is about Christmas, it’s about a love story gone awry, with Christmas as the backdrop. This allows sceptics to buy into the aesthetic, and even the sentiment, while holding firm their anti-Christmas credentials.

Others look at the contradictions head-on. Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun uses the Australian December sunshine as a pivot to focus on family, taking a swipe at commerce – “selling Playstations and beer” – while embracing the sentimentality. Addressing the social context of Christmas is another means of tackling the broader, implicit, politics of class.

Tim Minchin takes a swipe at the excessive commerce of Christmas in White Wine In The Sun.

More universal ‘human’ Christmas messages

Family, fraught relationships and exclusion can make for a more potent, perhaps realistic, Christmas story than snowflakes and Santa.

In The Kinks’ caustic Father Christmas the narrator, a department store Santa, is mugged by a group of youths demanding practical help.

Give us some money … Give my daddy a job ‘cause he needs on”.

Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy, an isolated and fractious address from a prison cell, packs its emotional punch through mundane details and implied backstory. The story here is both personal and, through that prism, national.

Eschewing the standard Christmas musical and lyrical devices entirely, How to Make Gravy is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the typical tinsel-draped fare, and buries its politics in the personal. Yet it’s still become a Christmas classic.

Paul Kelly’s How To Make Gravy is an emotional Christmas appeal from a prison cell.

The search for authenticity and political punch

From outright celebration, through charity to explicit political salvos, there are many ways to musically address the pleasures and strains of the season. Aesthetic tropes – the musical bells and baubles – notwithstanding, the form is actually very broad and embraces a range of genres.

The “ideal” Christmas song in the sense of commercial pop is also open to subversion. Beyond this, there’s a strong draw among some sections of the public towards more cynical, or at least ambivalent, takes on the traditional Christmas customs – even if these often end up adhering to what are ultimately similar sentiments.

The ConversationAs in Dickens’ immortal story of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, there’s room, it seems, for the humbug to carry the day without ruining it.

Adam Behr, Lecturer in Popular and Contemporary Music, Newcastle University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.