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Why Some of Us Cant Stand Holiday Music

09/12/2023

Why Some of Us Cant Stand Holiday Music Songwriting Professor Kat Reinhert shares some theories. Plus: listen to a playlist of winter songs that ditch the festive baggage.

By

Bryan Parys

December 8, 2023

Image by Kelly Davidson

Back in December of 2020, I went to post on Twitter (as it was still called) some grumbling about how my households penchant for holiday music was messing with my streaming algorithms, only to remember that I'd posted that very complaint in December of 2018.

It's not surprising that I've thus gained notoriety among my friends and family for being Grinchy about holiday music, particularly as it relates to Christmas (though, to be fair, I don't need to hear Adam Sandler's Chanukkah Song ever again either).

The common misconception is that I hate the holidays, which is patently untrue. The first movie I purchased for my kids was The Muppet Christmas Carol, which never fails to elicit from me the kind of silly joy that people say holiday music creates in them.

I'm not alone in my feelings-just ask anyone who works in retail from November to the end of the year. But I also realize that those who don't enjoy holiday music (or at least grow quickly tired of it) are in the minority, as is evidenced by the recent news that Brenda Lee's Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree just hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100-65 years after its release.

I've been told many times a version of If you don't like it, just don't listen to it-why ruin other people's fun? For a number of reasons, it's not that simple.

Professor Kat Reinhert

Reason 1: There's No Escape I reached out to Kat Reinhert, professor of songwriting, to see if a songwriter's perspective would help make sense of my aversion. Not only was she able to provide insight in that regard, but she spoke from experience. When she was working as a music teacher, Reinhert released Winter Soup, an original album of winter-themed songs for children, and, as she says, I was like, Im not doing another concert with Jingle Bells.' Like, I just refuse.

According to Reinhert, a major reason people grow to dislike traditional holiday music is because it's all-pervasive. We cant escape it. You walk into a store and its playing. You walk into your classroom and your teacher is playing it. You walk home and your moms got it on the radio, right? Theres some sort of oversaturation that [makes] it hard to get away from.

Reason 2: It's Not Always the Most Wonderful Time of the YearA common reason cited by many people who dislike holiday music is that negative experiences can be brought vividly to mind at any bell that dares jingle. There's an intense relationship between music and memory that can be amplified by traumatic experiences.

However, you needn't have experienced a holiday tragedy to feel less jolly. Really, you just need to have experienced a range of complex emotions (aka, being human).

For a lot of people, it is triggering in a way, because all the music is happy, Reinhert says. If youre not really feeling great about the holidays, maybe you didnt have a bad childhood, but lets say your girlfriend or your boyfriend or your significant other just dumped you, right? And youre not feeling very holiday-esque. Everything around you tells you that youre supposed to be feeling this way.

Reason 3: Nobody's PerfectIn that sense, traditional holiday music creates friction-what we're hearing doesn't always line up with what we're feeling. Cognitive dissonance is a great word for it. Its like the Rockefeller Christmas [family photo], right? Reinhert says, referencing an iconic portrait of the extended Rockefeller family at Christmas in 1955. Everybody is smiling, theres no flour on anybodys shirt, and . . . everybodys happy. And youre like, Nobodys Christmas looks like that.' Thats what we all pretend that we try to do, right? And then we create this stress loop.

Reason 4: The Holidays End . . . Until They Begin AgainWhat about the holiday songs with real emotional muscle? The kinds of songs that don't just cover grief with wreaths, such as the aching for home at the heart of I'll Be Home for Christmas (with it's devastating closing line If only in my dreams ), the conviction of John Lennon's War Is Over (If You Want It), or even the indie darlings like Sufjan Stevens and She & Him that artfully interpret timeless classics for millennials.

Sufjan Stevens now even has his own yule-log video with nearly five hours of his holiday music:

But even these earnest and critically acclaimed contributions to the holiday canon are fated to return each year, like a reindeer to grandma, destined to run us over again and again.

So is there an antidote? For starters, Reinhert hopes that society gets more open about its struggles, as that could expand the emotional palette of the holiday music canon. The more interesting holiday music we produce, the less repetitive stress we need to put on the same small handful of thoughtful, emotionally nuanced Lennon and Sufjan cuts.

She's seen evidence of this in her classroom, where each fall semester she has her students write a winter-themed or holiday song. Often people write in minor, she says. They write slow. They write sad-they do not write your traditional happy Christmas song. She also says there's about an even split between happy and sad. Were half crying and half laughing, you know, at the same time. Honestly, sign me up.

To aid in the effort to expand that emotional palette, here's a playlist of songs that provide a wintry feel, but without the holiday baggage. Over time, will this just become another version of lovely weather for a sleigh ride together? Who knows. Maybe the best you can do is just listen once, and then walk out bravely
LINK: https://www.berklee.edu/berklee-now/news/why-some-of-us-cant-stand-hol...
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