Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

December 7, 2021

PONTIN | Here We Come A-Caroling

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During the holiday seasons of my youth, my parents worked hard to instill within me an enduring recognition of my own privilege. Phrases like “Your grandfather would be lucky if he got an orange in his Christmas stocking!” were common utterances in my household, and for good reason. These reminders made me feel a sort of trans-temporal melancholy for my Depression-era relatives, yet they also helped facilitate a critical connection between the realities that colored my own experience and the far harsher ones confronted by my family members even just a couple of generations away. 

In our current moment, it is admittedly hard to imagine a December without gift-giving. It is also difficult to picture a holiday season that doesn’t begin with artificial trees in department stores the day after Halloween, or a Thanksgiving weekend that doesn’t consist of being utterly bombarded by Black Friday sales advertisements. These more recent developments have shrouded the holidays in a palpable aura of materialism, thus threatening to contaminate them with commercialization in the place of community. This less-than-ideal evolution begs a return to the more rudimentary facets that render the winter festivities so heartwarming, ones that bear no reliance on monetary resources or tangible assets. 

Holiday music seems like the perfect place to start; Christmas caroling is a tradition that has been largely foregone in the name of mass-produced, chart-topping radio hits. These days, finding anything other than an Amazon package at your doorstep is typically an unwelcome sight — salespeople seeking to rope you into a knife-selling pyramid scheme, religious zealots looking to share their views on salvation or flyers from a local political representative urging their stance on the education budget. 

Going door-to-door Girl Scout cookie style has long been a means of spreading positivity during the desolation and isolation of the winter months, with records of caroling cropping up in Europe as early as the 1200s. In these earlier iterations, however, the central goal was to share not music, but more mundane exchanges of encouragement. If you lived in a particularly generous region, some wassail (an age-old precursor to today’s eggnog) may have also been part of the equation. Saint Francis of Assisi ultimately helped to popularize the infusion of music into the celebration of Christmas, in turn inspiring a verbal repertoire of pieces with strong Christian themes that were sung devotedly each new year. 

Centuries later, these exuberant singers began to make a practice of taking down their songs for the written record; a prime example is the “Boar’s Head Carol” from 1521. In the 1800s, it became popular for carollers (also called “waits”) to gather in local hubs such as town squares or plazas to share their music, often accumulating edible tokens of gratitude from onlookers in the process. It was around this time that we saw an explosion of new carols, with many of them still holding a special place in the modern holiday music vernacular: “Silent Night” in 1818, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” (Just kidding about that last one!)

The coming-of-age stories for some of the most beloved contemporary Christmas carol cornerstones are similarly intriguing. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” for example, was crafted as department store Montgomery Ward’s tactic for drumming up consumer demand as the country sat perched on the brink of war in 1939. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” was initially dubbed a failure by its own author Hugh Martin, whose frustration quickly moved him to toss it into the trash. Of course, it was retrieved and became a crucial piece of the 1944 classic Meet in St. Louis. The tale behind “White Christmas” is decidedly less upbeat; the song was in part an ode to the composer’s son who had passed away on Christmas day a few years prior. 

Regardless of their more specific origins, it is clear that these songs were crafted with the intention of being enjoyed in ensemble — to be sung together and danced together, and to form the backdrop for the way our communities experience the holidays in collective. 

Of course, however, it is no secret that December has a reputation for being a particularly challenging time for lots of folks. Watching others drift through the holiday festivities with their loved ones reminds us of our own loved ones who, for one reason or another, cannot be with us this season, or for the love we wish we could see reflected in our own lives. 

Vaguely holiday-oriented songs with more wistful, melancholy undertones are in the early stages of proliferation within the popular music scene, and their very releases play a foundational role in constructing a musical record that more accurately conveys the whole experience of Christmastime. Mt. Joy’s “Every Holiday,” Phoebe Bridgers’ “If We Make It Through December” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Christmas Always Makes Me Cry” are early favorites, yet this subgenre is likely to become ever more crowded in the coming years. 

As we enter a time of festivities, no matter what you celebrate or if you’ve already started celebrating, I urge you not to wait until your last final exam to get in the spirit. There are no rules against feeling jolly while school is still in session, and it’s often surprising how far even just a little bit of wintertime cheer can go in making the earlier sunsets and colder temperatures more bearable.

Maybe if I’m lucky, a group of carolers will drop by my front door and serenade me with the jubilation of the season while heavy snowflakes fall down on us and the neighborhood glistens with multi-colored lights. If I’m extra lucky, maybe I’ll find an orange in my stocking this year. 

Megan Pontin is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected] Rewind runs alternate Tuesdays.