Esquire’s editor-at-large and resident (unlicensed) therapist Dave Holmes answers a question from readers. Ask Dave your own question by emailing him a firstname.lastname@example.org. All answers are legally binding.
How soon is too soon to start playing Christmas music? Also, what is wrong with me that I want to play Christmas music? I’m 34, I don’t have kids, and the holiday season drives me nuts, yet I’m finding myself listening to Christmas playlists in my own home with a mixture of joy and shame. Am I okay? Is this a symptom of a nervous breakdown? What the hell is going on here?
Thanks and Merry Christmas,
(I swear to God my name is) Holly
Want more Dave Holmes? Who doesn’t? Join Esquire Select for unlimited access to Dave and every Esquire writer, plus a subscription to the magazine.
I can’t pinpoint the moment I became the kind of person who didn’t like Christmas music, but I do remember the moment I noticed it. I was in a CVS in mid-December, and the sound system—which had been bumping the holiday jams since what felt like early June—played a 1953 holiday novelty song, “I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas,” by an urchin named Gayla Peevey, who was ten years old when the song was recorded and probably still is. It was whimsical and sugary and just a little too much, like all the best holiday music is, and I looked around to see if anyone else hated it as much as I did. “Do you hear what I hear?” my eyes pleaded. “How can they allow this?” It was a moment of pure childlike Christmas merriment, and it made me want to start a fire in the hair care aisle.
Just like that, I flashed back to all those college winter breaks, when I’d work at The Gap for some holiday scratch and be regaled with a ninety-minute loop of jazzed-up Christmas classics, folding pocket tees while Dean Martin slurred for the millionth time about Rudy, the red-beaked reindeer. I remembered realizing that for any Christmas album to hit the marketplace in November, it would probably have to have been recorded in August, probably in a studio in blazing-hot Van Nuys. I considered all the times “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” had come on my car radio, and instead of turning it up, I’d turned it off. Even the Pretenders version, for Christ’s sake.
A transformation had taken place. That sweet, hopeful kid with visions of sugarplums dancing in his head? I smothered him with a pillow and he woke up a cynic. And I didn’t even give myself the pleasure of going full hater. I didn’t become a loud and proud critic, openly razzing each song like I would a good bad movie. I just stopped paying attention, and rolled my eyes when I was subjected to it. The opposite of love, in this case, was neither hate nor indifference but a barely-audible grumble. Just the Bah without the special kick of the Humbug.
For those of us who have a fraught relationship with holiday music, it boils down to its ubiquity. Its absolute inescapability. The mandatory cheer of it all. It assaults your ears from every speaker in every public space. It greets you at the grocery store, it jabbers in your ear for the full duration of every taxi ride, it sends you off at the train station or the airport and welcomes you at your destination. Wherever you go, it will be there with sleigh bells on, and it will shake those little bastards right in your ear. It is oppressive.
But you’re not going anywhere this year. If you’re going to be oppressed by holiday music, you’re going to have to oppress yourself. And I suggest you do it right away.
In 2020, more than in any time I’ve been alive, we need the phony uplift of Christmas music. We need the childlike wonder, even if we know in our hearts it’s been generated for an easy paycheck. We need to be reminded that Christmas can be about hope and joy and love and charity and kindness and generally anything other than the insane fiction that anyone anywhere was ever restricted from saying “Merry Christmas.” We need to be led back to our best selves, and if it’s Keith Sweat who takes us there, all the better.
This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.
Regardless of genre, holiday music is the most manipulative. It plays on our emotions, and it has an easy job, because during the season our emotions are right out there, unguarded like an open goal. We’re back in our hometowns, or we’re greeting the friends and family who left them. We’re getting ready to see that growing nephew or shrinking grandparent for the first time since last year. We’re worn out from shopping; we’re in the throes of seasonal affective disorder; and we’re drinking like college sophomores with holiday jobs at The Gap. We’re an easy get.
That’s in a normal year, which this isn’t. This year, we’ve been at home since March, we’re nervous and angry and restless and uncertain, and if we’re going to see grandma, it’s probably going to be over Zoom. We’ve got some unfamiliar feelings to feel, some tears to clear out of the warehouse, a stiff upper lip to let go limp. Christmas music can trigger that process, and I say that with authority, because Whitney Houston’s “Do You Hear What I Hear” came on thirty minutes ago and there are still pieces of me strewn about my office. Your body and soul are craving the emotional release. Don’t fight it.
You’re in control this year. You can choose the majesty of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift To You, the new-wave nerve of The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” the deep melancholy of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. You can acknowledge the pure songcraft that made Wham’s “Last Christmas” a standard in the States despite never having been properly released here, you can look past the F word in The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York,” and you can be honest with yourself that the synth tone in Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is a perfect noise. You can lay your whole body down in the path of the Mannheim Steamroller if you want to. It’s your show.
The skeptic in you is correct: much of the hope and joy in holiday music is manufactured. But you know what? So was much of the chaos and conflict of this year. COVID-19 is a fact of nature, our scattered response to it is the result of a purposeful bias against science, knowledge, and empathy. Our political differences have always been there and always will be, we’re fully at each other’s throats now because of a handful of billionaires’ greed and cynicism. We’re all sitting here in a tense and terrifying limbo because one guy is too fragile to take an L. You’re going to be manipulated into feeling something by someone, so you might as well make it a good feeling, and you might as well give the job to Mariah Carey.
You don’t have the luxury of getting sick of Christmas music in 2020, and it might just save your year. And since we’ve no place to go, let it play, let it play, let it play.
Except “I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas.” It’s beneath you.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io