What is the perfect Christmas album? Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown’s Christmas? Bing Crosby’s White Christmas? Or (maybe) the Christmas album pictured on the right? This is a foolish question if by it we mean the Christmas album that is the most popular, or that bears the objective musical qualities that render Christmas most accurately. No, the thing about Christmas albums – the reason why, sometimes, during the rest of the year we want to indulge ourselves with a little “winter wonderland” – is that they are magical. Now, by “magical” I, of course, do not refer to the kind of things contained in the world of Harry Potter. Here I am using magical to refer to the peculiar sense in which Christmas music is capable of bringing about that wondrous space that people typically call “Christmas time.” So, I am suggesting that we not only listen to Christmas music because it is Christmas time (i.e close to Dec. 25th), but also that it is “Christmas time” because we listen to Christmas music. Christmas music enacts “Christmas time.” We press play on our Ipod’s Christmas list and the aural space is filled with a sense of wonder, mystery, joy, sadness, nostalgia, longing, or whatever else we associate with “Christmas time.” With Christmas music, our lives become thick and saturated with a greater density of meaning and significance than they often do.
For those of you who don’t celebrate Christmas I imagine, and hope, that you can point to other moments in life when music does a similar thing. Perhaps there are other festive parts of the year during which music is used in a similarly “magical” way. In fact, the festive nature of Christmas seems to make the “magic” of Christmas music that much more potent. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer comments that the temporal nature of festival is puzzling because it is the nature of festival to be repeated: “We call that the return of the festival. But the festival that comes round again is neither another festival nor a mere remembrance of the one that was originally celebrated … The time experience of the festival is rather its celebration.” (Truth and Method, 121) There is a sense in which festivals, at least the repeated ones, occupy a time that is discontinuous from our normal experience of the succession of events. Indeed, one of the most “magical” things about “Christmas time” is that it gathers together all past celebrations and points us toward a hope of greater future celebrations so that past, present, and future seem to converge in “Christmas time.” Again, Christmas music contributes to this palpable sense that “Christmas time” is weightier and denser than ordinary time.
It is wonderfully appropriate that festival time should operate in this “magical” sort of way because in “Christmas time,” Christians recognize that a singular and remarkable event in the succession of time brought about a change for the whole of time. Music, and other forms of art, are a common feature in nearly all festivals, but this baffling temporality is the reason why for Christmas, in particular, the arts are so important. We might say that a further “magical” property of music, beyond the enacting of “Christmas time,” is its capacity to bring the story of Jesus’ birth into the present. But, surely, this is something that all the various forms of art can do. Novels can make a story present to me so that I imagine myself as a character in it. Paintings can bring a scene before me so that I can imagine what it would be like to be there now.
The season of Christmas is, for many, a “magical” time, whether that time be filled more with joy or grief. The Christmas album is a remarkable example of the way that art can contribute to a sense of wonder and meaning in our lives. We prize them primarily not because of what they are, but because of what they can do.
What music helps you to enact “Christmas time”? Are there examples of other forms of art, or particular works of art, that you find especially appropriate during Christmas?