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The Christmas Song Guide to Urban Design

The midcentury Christmas canon embodies a quasi-mythical mix of suburban comfort and urban vitality.

I suppose Christmas songs are my seasonal specialty—in 2017 I wrote a general appreciation of the secular Christmas canon, which remains culturally resonant despite being overplayed and a little stuck-in-time. And in 2018 I delved deeper into the fact that this collection of songs has as much to do with midcentury nostalgia as it does with Christmas per se.

This year, I’m returning to Christmas music, but this time taking a look at what these songs reveal about the physical form of the houses and neighborhoods in which they take place. There is a long association of Christmas with traditional land-use patterns and neighborhoods, as the “Christmas village” home decor phenomenon shows. Nonetheless, it would not be possible today, in the vast majority of American locales, to build a neighborhood resembling a tabletop Christmas village display. These evocations, which are also present in the popular Christmas song canon, are part myth, part aspiration, and part a real description of how midcentury America was physically and architecturally laid out on the ground.

It is curious that while Americans of this era were obsessed with boat-sized cars, talking dolls, electrical appliances, and suburban faux-homesteads, the Christmas music dating from the post-war years reveals virtually nothing about these then-new developments. What cultural and architectural clues they do drop suggest a world in which few of these innovations have occurred—but not quite. They sketch a dream world in which talking and walking dolls accompany Janice and Jen to the bus stop, Rudolph careens Little Saint Nick down the freeway, and the girl with the hippopotamus lives in a house with two stories and a two-car garage. And yet, Frank Sinatra walks home in a snowstorm after spending the day at his girlfriend’s single-family house with a fireplace, and the kids follow Frosty the Snowman down to a New England-style town square. Oh, and there are still no toy stores, because Christmas means that the toys are in “every store.” If this world ever existed, it was perhaps between 1940 and 1970; the exact era when the majority of secular Christmas classics were penned. But this does not mean that they are nothing but obsolete, curious artifacts. They tell us something about what some part of our national mind understands our ideal living arrangements to be.

It should be noted that there is an entire parallel genre of Christmas music, often melancholy country tunes which merely happen to take place at Christmas time, and the seasonal setting of which merely increases the melancholy. Those songs have their place, but I am focusing here on the canon of tunes that you’ll hear for a month at the store or on FM radio when it switches from pop hits to holiday cheer. I’ve taken some lines from songs you’ve heard hundreds of times, and pondered what they suggest about the physical settings in which they take place.

I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas (1953)

I can see me now on Christmas morning, creeping down the stairs…

There’s lots of room for him in our two car garage. I’d feed him there and wash him there and give him his massage

These lines inadvertently reveal that the child dreaming of a hippo for Christmas lives in a house with both two stories and a two-car garage. Most houses in 1953, to put it simply, did not have two stories and a two-car garage. And many Americans did, and do, not live in houses at all. No Christmas song that I am aware of takes place in an apartment building. This is curious, especially given the quasi-urban setting of so many Christmas classics.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (1952)

She didn’t see me creep down the stairs to have a peep; she thought that I was tucked up in my bedroom fast asleep. 

Another two-story house, this one with either an only child or enough bedrooms for our singer to have one to himself. Again, this is not the norm for the early 1950s. It is not exactly advertising, but these songs boast an uncanny mix of traditionalism and consumerism, a perfect encapsulation of the post-war mood.

Frosty the Snowman (1950)

Down to the village, with a broomstick in his hand, running here and there all around the square saying “Catch me if you can!”

This short line reveals that the kids chasing Frosty live somewhere on the edge of a classic small town, complete with a town square. One anecdote says Frosty the Snowman takes place in either White Plains or Armonk, two New York villages a bit north of Long Island. This region of New York, including Long Island, does, in fact, host many small towns and communities settled in the 19th century which later expanded massively in the post-war years. Unlike many other newly-built midcentury suburbs, however, some of these—a good example is Massapequa Park on Long Island—expanded entirely along traditional streets that connect seamlessly with the older core. (New development surrounding old town centers today rarely connects this clearly to the old street grid.) Frosty the Snowman describes a real urban land-use pattern, but one which is no longer produced.

Let It Snow (1945)

Oh the weather outside is frightful, But the fire is so delightful

When we finally kiss goodnight How I’ll hate going out in the storm! But if you’ll really hold me tight, All the way home I’ll be warm

This song, apparently, takes place in a neighborhood of houses which boast fireplaces, and where it is possible for these two lovebirds to walk to each others’ homes. The fire referred to is not an electric one, so the song cannot take place in an urban apartment building. How common was it, actually, for two people dating to live close enough to walk home? Probably common enough, because there’s nothing to suggest that this is remarkable or even notable. But this can actually mean two distinct things: if you were more likely then to be able to walk home from your date’s house, you were also more likely to be dating someone to whom you lived close by. That, in turn, brings to mind dances, church, civic activities, and other receding social settings in which it was possible to meet people and root oneself in a particular place. The automobile upset this old dynamic long before the smartphone finished the job. The real significance of “Let It Snow” is not the distance between houses, but the fracturing of local community ties.

Holly Jolly Christmas (1964)

Have a holly jolly Christmas, and when you walk down the street / say hello to friends you know, and everyone you meet

There’s nothing special about this line, except that it clearly isn’t meant to evoke a suburban street or a strip-mall sidewalk, but a small town or city. Of more significance, it imagines this unselfconscious human interaction as inherent in the Christmas spirit.

Silver Bells (1950)

This is an entire song about the joys of American urban Christmases, bringing to mind the era when even small-town residents and early suburbanites understood the city as the central fixture of their region, and when the urban department store still dominated the mid-range and upscale retail landscape.


One thing of note is that there is barely a reference to cars or driving in Christmas songs, with the exception of “Home for the Holidays,” with its sarcastic reference to holiday traffic, and “Silver Bells,” with its ingenious line noting that traffic lights flash in Christmas colors. (And, of course, the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” transformed Santa’s sleigh into a bright red sports car.) Despite our enthusiasm for the mobility unlocked by the automobile, the near-total absence of the car from cultural imaginations of Christmas suggests either that we were ambivalent about the social effects of the automobile, or that they had not yet been overwhelmingly felt.

The descriptions of houses, however, are perhaps the most interesting. While many pre-war houses featured two stories and fireplaces, they mostly lacked garages, and at most featured small ones that might fit a single automobile (but may not even have been designed to). Most of the houses we associate with midcentury suburbia—the “little boxes” and the Levittown ranches, and other houses from the 1950s and 1960s that can be seen all across subdivisions from that era—tended to be small-ish one-story structures, and rarely had two-car garages. Some of the early post-war houses lacked garages entirely. While many of these houses are in “inner ring” suburbs today, they were fashionable and modern in their day. The combination of three features in Christmas-song houses—wood fireplaces, two-story floorplans, and garages—is a creative assembly of features which were not commonly found all together in the majority of houses in that period. Furthermore, no house described in a Christmas song resembles a post-war suburban home, but rather the larger houses that might have been found on farmsteads or in residential districts of classic towns.

Finally, nearly all these songs paint a picture of walkable and mixed-use neighborhoods, where shopping, socializing, and enjoying the general holiday mood can all happen simultaneously and unselfconsciously.

How “real” is this? This is a similar question to that of which class the family in Home Alone belongs to. The answer would appear to be similar as well; the portrayal is affluent enough and idealized enough to be aspirational, but ordinary enough to be relatable. While midcentury secular Christmas songs can overtly resemble advertising jingles, and feature plenty of consumerism, they were also a part of the midcentury conflation of virtue with consumption in this less conscious way.

But they also, taken collectively, reveal a tension between the old, small-town America they mostly take place within and the new and burgeoning America of car-dependent suburbia, allegedly a driver of loneliness, sameness, and atomization. Like Norman Rockwell portraits, they take place in a world which may never quite have existed, at least not for all Americans. They contain no cars, yet no apartment buildings. They imagine a world of both large detached houses and small tight-knit communities. The songs, like America writ large, do not wrestle with the fact that these things may well be contradictory.

This was a transitional period. Such music, with its Americana backdrop, its universal if paper-thin Christianity, and, most important here, its implicit urbanist vibe, could not be earnestly written today. It would be too simplistic to say that Christmas needs walkable neighborhoods, cozy, densely-built homes, and mixed-use urban shopping districts. But the images we set to song and still regale ourselves with every year suggest that on some level, we might think it does.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.