Why is Christmas Music Trapped in The Post-WWII Era?

Do you hear what I hear? Of course you do, we’ve been hearing that endless loop of Christmas music since the ghosts of Halloween scurried away – those old classics dusted off each year for another two-month run of magical yuletide ebullience. But to anyone who’s stopped to actually listen to , it’s inarguably clear that we’ve been trapped in a vortex of baby boomer nostalgia for seven goddamn decades, celebrating the same few dozen songs from an era where milkmen, food rationing and a $.43 minimum wage was the norm.

The sound of Christmas we were raised on was defined by recordings more than half a century old, and it continues today. Two-thirds of these sacred seasonal songs were written in the 40s and 50s — when the baby boomers were small children. The most popular song of all, 1934’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” is tied with “Winter Wonderland” for the oldest tune on the list. But 1958 was a magical year for Christmas standards, with three of the most iconic holiday songs of all time debuting: “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

So in effect, every generation to follow has existed entirely in a pop culture echo chamber. Hollywood has reinforced these foundational pylons by weaving them into seasonal film classics. Pop culture staples like Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and so on have further ingrained the tracks in our seasonal nostalgia through Kevin McCallister’s CPS-baiting antics or Clark W. Griswold’s buffoonery.

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The saccharine adult-pop of the 1940s and ‘50s served as the default mass music for the first half of the 20th century, a short-lived era where the radio was a central fixture of entertainment in the home. The monochromatic values and tastes of pop culture at the time honed a fine point on which success was found, as opposed to today’s splintered demographic segments. Not even the cherished Boomer-era Hawaiian tune “ Mele Kalikimaka” – which also found its way into Home Alone – can fully wedge into the nostalgia, relegated to playlist periphery. 

Randall Munroe of the brilliant XKCD nailed the phenomenon a few years back, when ASCAP released its original list of the 20 top Christmas songs of the 2000s: “Every year, American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmas of Baby Boomers’ childhoods,” he wrote. And he was dead on:

To some extent, the romanticism is warranted; the postwar era was an exceptional time in American history, with prosperity reaching all sectors and cultural naïveté a decade away from Eisenhower’s hauntingly foretelling speech about the military industrial complex flexing too strongly on the world and our own constitutional freedoms. It was a time of ignorant bliss, having conquered the devil (Hitler) and established a new American standard.

Since then, what do we have to show for on the Christmas classics front? Nothing in the last half century comes anywhere near the legacy and staying power of the old classics. Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” makes you want to burn down your Christmas tree by the fourth chorus. Wham!’s breathless “Last Christmas” is infectiously catchy, but damned depressing. And as for that atrocious “Do They Know It’s Christmas” nonsense? As a mulleted Bono, flanked by Sting and Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon, encourages us to be “thank God it’s them instead of you,” we’re asked if the 500 million-plus Christians in Africa know if it’s Christmastime at all. The benefit single was rushed to market only four days after it was recorded, without any time for the staggering number of artists involved to question the taste of bleeding-heart condescension. 

Sure, we hear updated versions roll out every year, but virtually none have the staying power of the originals. Lady Gaga and Michael Bublé are likely concocting some master marketing plot as you read this to hijack a spot on the classics list, but the lion’s share of our Christmas music palette is ruled by celebratory post-WWII energy. We aren’t nostalgic for the cultural minefield era from which the songs emerged, the songs of the era are simply baked into the Christmas experience from birth. 

The music of the baby boomer era isn’t loosening its grip on Christmas anytime soon.