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The magic of Christmas: wrapped up in music

Dec 05, 2019
With just a few jingling bells, a festive track transports us back to childhoods of Christmases past; warm, fuzzy memories of writing letters to Santa, trees festooned in multi-coloured lights, paper hats pulled from the cracker, and the one day on the calendar families can be found all in one place. But is the nostalgia we feel a yearning for those carefree moments of our childhood… or is it more than that? Are we nostalgic for something more than our own experience?

For those of us lucky enough to grow up believing in Santa Claus, Christmas is more than tradition – it takes us back to a magical viewpoint of the world. In a study conducted in 1999, researchers examined people’s ability to recall memories after hearing a clip from a song. While listeners weren’t able to remember an exact event from the time the song came out, they were able to recall the general emotion that they felt during that time. So, the music which formed a backdrop to our youthful holidays, simply charms us year after year with our own reminiscences filled with hope and possibility.

The ambient longing which Christmas music creates is snowballed with sentimental associations. Be it church bells, trumpet fanfares and the glockenspiel, or the chords we owe to the jazz-era in which so many classics were born – these are sounds we recognise as uniquely festive. Lyrics also play a huge role in this; simultaneously defining our traditions and sharing in them. Mel Torme’s, The Christmas Song, most famously performed by Nat King Cole, wonderfully exemplifies this through tapping into sensory stimuli in his opening few bars:
Nat King Cole Quote
Immediately, the magic happens: the scene is set, and that warm fuzzy feeling arises in your chest... even if you can’t remember ever roasting any chestnuts of your own. That’s the irony about nostalgia, its lead by emotional association rather than factual memory. Hence such mid-century songs, filled with old traditions and mysticism, have accompanied our Christmases so much that they’ve become traditions of their own, encompassing all the bittersweet yearning for bygone years as the memories themselves.

Like many words in the English language, the word ‘nostalgia’ has Greek roots. It begins with the words ‘nestos’ meaning ‘to return home’, and ‘algos’ for ‘longing’ – these two components explain what is also known as ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective’ nostalgia. It’s this restorative kind that allows Christmas music to bear all the anticipation, magic and love of times gone by, without bringing with it actual memories of the more mundane parts, and sometimes the harsh reality the period can bring for some.

Perhaps it’s the festive season’s deep-rooted tradition that explains the general public’s shock when a Neilson study revealed 36% of holiday music consumers are millennial. However, as Matthew Mugmon, Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Arizona points out, this isn’t all too surprising. Aside from the fact that this age group (now aged between 24 and 38) are likely to take up a significant portion of music consumers in general, he suggests:
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In other words, people associate Christmas music with the magical world they remember as a child, so naturally we want to recreate that in our own families. Music has been a part of the cultural phenomenon of Christmas since many adults now were infants in cribs, and its conditioned spot in western culture means, for many of us, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas without it. It’s become its own tradition; one which jingles to the rhythm of Bing Crosby, Eartha Kitt, John and Yoko, and even the more modern Mariah Carey. There’s something uniquely moving about firing up your radio, Spotify or Bluetooth speaker to a Christmas song, because while the technology might change, what the song means to us does not. After all, what else can transport you to not only some of the merriest moments in your life, but a time when reindeers could fly, jolly old men climb down your chimney, and miracles could happen?