I brought a CD of Christmas music to work last night, and we listened to it in the ER. I like Christmas music, as silly and sappy as most of it is. Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Lena Horne... When you think of it, Christmas is about the only time when most people younger than 60 or 70 listen to pop music that was written in the 1930's and 40's.
Christmas music is very conservative, not in the political sense, but in the sense that it changes with glacial slowness. Christmas music changes little from year to year, or even decade to decade. Or even century to century. Although most liturgical Christmas music has been replaced with popular secular music, even some old hymns such as 'Come, all Ye Faithful' and 'Silent Night' show up on the radio at this time of the year, just as Handel's 'Messiah' shows up in public peformances.1
Christmas culture in general is very conservative. Christmas trees and Christmas presents and Santa Claus have been part of the Western celebration of Christmas for more than a century. The Christmas decorations in my parents' house in the 1950's wouldn't look out of place today. Holly, mistletoe, reindeer, Christmas cookies, and jokes about bad fruitcake threaten to go on and on, indefinitely into the future of Western culture, and have even crept into other cultures. Every year there are a few new Christmas songs on the radio; a few will hang on as standards, but most will fade. Every year there are a few new recipes, but few if any new foods.
Why is Christmas so conservative, in a world that that seems to be changing more and more rapidly, change piling on top of change, where everything is reinvented and re-reinvented every decade, where everyone is famous for 15 minutes, where entertainers rocket onto the cover of People and then disappear without a trace in the course of a year or two, where Fortune's wheel has apparently been cracked and overclocked by group of 14-year-old hackers named after a death metal band? Where, in the words of William Gibson, life seems like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism designed by a bored researcher who keeps one thumb permanently in the fast-forward button? If Cirque du Soleil can 'reinvent the circus', and Seattle can reinvent rock and roll, why can't some postmodern Martha Stewart reinvent Christmas, out of neon and resampling and latex and silicon?
I think the answer, at least in part, is because we don't want Christmas reinvented. Christmas's highly conservative, even fossilized2 decorations and foods and music are valued precisely because they are conservative, and represent a core of stability in a world in which nothing else seems stable. No one can predict what will happen next year, or in what order. Planes can crash into buildings, there may be wars and rumors of war, new boy bands may conquer Billboard's list, cities may be redesigned to accommodate a gyroscopically-stabilized scooter, and everything that was hip and edgy and drugs and fashion-forward last year, will be boring and old and shopworn next year, but this we know for sure, next December 25th, it will be Christmas, come hell or high water, come war or famine or plague. Christmas is an anchor, a strange attractor of stability and predictability in a world swirling into chaos, and its culture reflects that. Its culture is predictable as well. We don't have to worry about coping with a new kind of Christmas music, or food, or decorations, we know exactly what we're going to get, and that's comforting in a world that is otherwise often very uncomforting.
Other holidays are much the same way. At least, I know in the US there will always be hot dogs and flags and fireworks on the 4th of July, and turkey and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, and I'll bet that the French know pretty much what Bastille Day is going to be like, and the British know there will be bonfires on Guy Fawkes day. Maybe that's part of the social function of holidays.
I like this contrast of change and lack of change, the dynamic of comforting tradition alternating with chaotic progress. "If every day could be like Christmas," goes the traditional Christmas pop song on my CD, "what a wonderful world this could be." No, it wouldn't. It would suck. I would hate to have every day be like Christmas. I like the constant change and novelty and future shock of the modern world. But I don't want it 7/24/365. Every year, just once, it's nice to know that Christmas is coming, and it will be very much the same as it was last year.
1. No Asuka jokes.
2. No fruitcake jokes.