Popular Christmas songs, like advertising, are one of the clearest windows into the American psyche. Long after we’re gone, they will remain—perhaps on files encoded in an as-yet-uninvented format, or perhaps on dusty old vinyls in an archive room. As I’ve noted before, most of the songs aren’t really about Christmas per se; historians will one day find them to be invaluable primary sources for illuminating the rhythms, anxieties, and preoccupations of midcentury American life. We can too.
Indeed, virtually none of the holiday tunes written from the 1930s through the 1960s, which make up the bulk of the American Christmas playlist, include even a passing reference to Jesus or Christianity. This may tell you more about actual American attitudes than the “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaigns that pop up every December. (The only Christmas song I am aware of that mentions both Santa and God is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” Gene Autry’s less successful follow-up to “Rudolph.”)
The playlist tells us, despite the pervasiveness of a sort of genericized Christian theism in the post-war era, that true faith and devotion did not intrude very far into the Christian holiday turned commercial extravaganza. But to see only hedonistic consumerism would be to miss a lot.
Take the dopey, dated ditty “Dominick the Donkey” (“The Italian Christmas Donkey”), released in 1960 by Italian-American novelty singer Lou Monte. Monte, like the Jewish Allan Sherman, was part of an early ’60s wave of parodists and novelty singers, who combined wit with self-deprecating ethnic stereotypes and sometimes cut-rate social criticism.
“Dominick the Donkey,” with lines like “A pair of shoes for Louie and a dress for Josephine / The label on the inside says they’re made in Brook-a-leen,” would not, needless to say, be written today. Read the comments on a YouTube video or newspaper article about the song, however, and you’ll find that Monte was a beloved figure in Italian-American households. He was not viewed as a self-hating Italian, or as perpetuating harmful stereotypes, but rather as producing humorous and gentle self-parody and signifying, through his commercial success, that Italians had become part of the American family.
The other thing you’ll notice is that most of the articles about Monte highlight his New Jersey/New York roots. They depict him and his music as local or regional artifacts specific to that era’s New York City/North Jersey Italian-American culture.
It is ironic that even though advertising was more in your face in the 1950s, and the overall atmosphere less individualistic and more conformist, there was still room for this kind of local, distributed, regionally diverse culture. Americans in different places truly listened to different music, ate different foods, and shopped at different stores.
To some extent we still do, but it is often with hipster intentionality, having lost its everyday unselfconsciousness. The economic arrangements and built environments of suburbia, consumerism, monopolistic big-box stores, and online retail—some of which did not exist and the rest of which were in their infancy—had not yet flattened out that localism and diversity. (Ironically, the New York region caused some of that flattening out: it was largely the coincidence of New York City being both a powerhouse of cultural production and a snowy northern metropolis that led to the inseparability of winter and Christmas in American popular culture.)
The point is not that we can or should go back in time. The culture of the ’50s was to a great extent an epiphenomenon of its economic arrangements—and those arrangements are not coming back. Yuval Levin, in The Fractured Republic, notes that the era was uniquely transitional, a brief and necessarily temporary time when traditionalism and postwar modernity constructively coexisted. Many Christmas songs reflect that, combining domesticity and consumerism with an overlay of holiday cheer.
Consider the social and economic information embedded in many of them. “Frosty the Snowman” is about small-town life (it supposedly takes place in either White Plains or Armonk, New York). “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is about the American small town and the nuclear family. Both songs underscore how closely the built environment is intertwined with culture. Consider that no Christmas song describes holiday cheer taking place in a recognizably suburban, rather than urban or small-town, setting.
A few more: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is about World War II. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is about the threat of nuclear annihilation. “Silver Bells” is about shopping. “Home for the Holidays” is about endless motoring. (Of course, they are not literally about those things. But they would not exist, or at least not make much sense, without the context in which they were written, which was very much about those things.)
Saving the best for last, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” now as much a part of Christmas folklore as old St. Nick himself, was invented by a department store in 1939—before being turned into a fast-selling record and then an iconic TV special in 1964. Rudolph, spanning the three mediums of print, vinyl, and screen in 25 years, is one of the first examples of a merchandising and entertainment franchise.
Another thing you’ll notice is the voices performing many of these songs: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Burl Ives. They sound masculine, almost fatherly, without faux-machismo swagger or slick metrosexuality. You can almost imagine that there is a whole vanished civilization in those voices. Nobody really sings this way now except occasionally in imitation; one wonders whether human vocal chords themselves have changed in 60 years. How much of the human voice is socially constructed? Perhaps there is simply no point in trying to top this:
Yet if you dive deep enough, you’ll dig up the story of the midcentury Massachusetts cardinal who had opinions about crooning: “No true American man would practice this base art. Of course, they aren’t men…. If you will listen closely…you will discern the basest appeal to sex emotion in the young.” Then there were the Catholic clerics—also in Boston—who condemned “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” prompting its singer, then-13-year-old Jimmy Boyd, to meet with the archdiocesan officials and explain that the song was not really about a Christmastime affair.
Can you imagine such a world? Maybe not, but plenty of people alive today grew up in it. It’s always good to understand our history and where we came from. For better or worse, this is ours. So pour some eggnog, turn on the radio, and learn about the lost world of midcentury America.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.