COLUMBIA — Every year, it happens. Around Thanksgiving, stores begin the subtle switch from old pop favorites to canned Christmas melodies. Instead of walkin’ on sunshine down the bread aisle, you find yourself walking through a winter wonderland and wondering what snow and sleigh rides have to do with the turkey dressing you’re attempting to perfect for the first time this year.
But why this complete switch to holiday tunes? It seems as if stores try to get shoppers in the Christmas mind-set earlier every year, whether through the music or the Christmas stockings subtly placed next to the Halloween costumes.
Music is an integral part of the Christmas season; it has a way of entrancing listeners and connecting them to Christmases of the past. There are, of course, copious exceptions: The barking dogs singing “Jingle Bells” might score points for novelty but few for quality. For music done well, there is a definite appeal.
“Christmas is something that we remember about our childhood,” said Alex Innecco, director of music ministries for Missouri United Methodist Church. He said it is often the simplest of carols, such as “Silent Night,” that brings tears to the eyes of many a singer during a Christmas Eve service.
For me, “Silent Night” conjures images of childhood Christmas Eves in my home church in Jackson, northwest of Cape Girardeau. I excitedly waited for the hymn to come along in the service. At that point the church was darkened. The ushers lit their candles from the altar candles, passing the flame to candles clutched by each church member. I’m from an area with strong German heritage, so the first verse was sung in German. Being of German descent doesn’t guarantee an ability to speak German, however. As such, most congregation members tripped over the words of “Stille Nacht,” arriving with a feeling of relief to the familiar English translation, sung lovingly by the glow of hundreds of little flames throughout the brick church.
It’s memories like these that give Christmas music meaning for many people. Ellyn Forbes, music director at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, said she can’t imagine Christmas without music.
Many of the carols we know today date back centuries. The form of the carol itself dates back to the Middle Ages. At the time it was simply a form of popular or sacred song, according to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, but the style survived as Christmas music — for example, the French carol “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which helps tell the story of the nativity.
Other secular songs, such as “Jingle Bells” or “White Christmas” are, as Forbes put it, “just fun.” But perhaps it is the timeless feel of carols such as the 500-year-old “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” written by Michael Praetorius, that draws us to these songs.
Even people who prefer contemporary music at church come back to the traditional music at Christmastime, Innecco said. When used “at the right place and the right time and with the right instruments, it feels really cozy,” he said. These carols are what people associate with Christmas.
“I would expect it touches everyone,” said Forbes. “That’s why they’re there.”
Sarah Luehrs is a graduate student in magazine writing at the Missouri School of Journalism.