Am I the only one who thinks Christmas carols are creepy?
I first became aware of this phenomenon when I was living in San Diego in the mid-90s. There’s a neighborhood there that gets so totally decked out in Christmas lights that it’s become a tourist destination. My future ex-wife had a friend visiting one Christmas, so one night we all went for a drive around the prescribed course of this (70 degree) winter wonderland. Signs up along the route advised us to tune to an AM station for Christmas carols while driving.
It may have just been problems with the ionosphere that evening, but the station sounded low volume even when turned up high. Through the echoey staticy haze you could barely make out sonorous music and an occasional line like “merry Christmas”, as “merry Christmas” would sound if delivered from beyond the grave. While the fact that I was unsettled by Christmas music that evening was clearly a matter of delivery, from that night forward I began to realize that even under the best conditions an air of the uncanny pervades holiday jingles.
Let’s look at a few examples:
The Carol of the Bells. This song has always struck me as being like the soundtrack of a nervous breakdown. Not only are the bells relentless and growing more frantic as the song progresses, but the lyrics themselves seem to celebrate this. One seems to hear words from everywhere, filling the air… Oh how they pound, raising the sound... On on they send, on without end… Upon research I learned that this song is based on a prehistoric Ukrainian chant. That actually makes sense, as it sounds like it could be used to summon the Elder Gods from their centuries-long slumber.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. This song produces a feeling that might be called “heartwarming dread”. The fact that it twice tells us that from now on our troubles will be “out of sight” and “miles away” conveys, more than anything else, the feeling that we must be pretty darn heavy-laden with troubles. And then there’s the line Through the years we all will be together if the Fates allow. It’s hard to know what’s worse- is it the crushing inevitability of our forced togetherness for all time, or the icy powerlessness of this togetherness being the plaything of fate?
Frosty the Snowman. The tale of this snow-golem is inherently fraught with peril. The song tells us he was “alive as he could be”. Well, who worked this magic- God or some demiurge? What does it mean to be alive? Though animated, does Frosty have a soul? If not, do we? Then there’s this: Frosty the Snowman/ Knew the sun was hot that day/ So he said let's run/ And we'll have some fun/ Now before I melt away…followed slightly later by Frosty the Snowman/ Had to hurry on his way/ But he waved goodbye/ Saying don't you cry/ I'll be back again some day. If you want your eight year old to grapple with questions of being and nothingness, action and responsibility in the face of extinction, and death and resurrection, then by all means continue to expose them to the existential maelstrom that is Frosty the Snowman.
Little Town of Bethlehem. Now we arrive at the dark heart of Christmas carols. This one is worth quoting in its entirety:
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Deep and dreamless sleep. Silent stars going by. Everlasting light shining in darkened streets. Meeting the sum of all hopes and fears on a winter’s night. This is practically a goth song!
I could go on with more examples, but I don’t want to spoil the joy of discovery for you. I encourage you to go forth and listen, and try not to shudder. And, of course, happy holidays to all, and I’ll see you in 2008!