When I made a reluctant trip to the mall yesterday–I had to park two time zones away–I passed several cars sporting “Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper stickers. The sentiment is expressed a lot around this time of year, especially in places where there seems to be controversy over the placement of nativity scenes and signs that read “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
As well as a religious holiday, Christmas has been a big secular event for a long, long time and a big part of this shift has been the result of popular music–or so The Daily Beast would have us believe.
Every year the arguments over the meaning of Christmas heat up with the intensity of a Wal-Mart crowd on Black Friday. But most people assume that the trend toward a secular Christmas—emphasizing family and snow instead of baby Jesus in a manger—is a recent development.
They connect secular notions of Christmas to retailers who train employees to say “Happy Holidays” or some cabal at Starbucks that decides to remove snowflakes from coffee cups. But like many social changes, from civil rights to student protests, this attitudinal shift first appeared in popular music. If you are looking for an index of future cultural changes, you are always best advised to turn on the radio, and listen to the songs.
An alternative Christmas narrative first took center stage in American culture with the popular music of the ’40s, when secularized holiday songs started dominating the airwaves during December. This was a golden age of well-crafted commercial Christmas songs, and few of them mentioned the holy family or angels we have heard on high. This marked an extraordinary change from the early decades of the 20th century, when the most frequently recorded song in the United States was “Silent Night.”
Here are some of the holiday songs that were megahits during the ’40s. “White Christmas” made its debut on a Bing Crosby Christmas Day broadcast in 1941, and went on to become the best-selling single in the history of recorded music. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was another huge Crosby hit from 1943, and still shows up on holiday playlists every December. In 1944. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” appeared in Judy Garland’s filmMeet Me in St. Louis, and has become a perennial end-of-the year hit—Sam Smith’s version made it to the Billboard 100 just last year.