Saturday, December 26, 2009

Merry Christmas, and a pox on Snoopy

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 23.)

There are two types of people in the world: those who squeal with delight when Snoopy’s Christmas comes on the radio and those who run screaming from the room with their hands clamped over their ears. I am in the latter category.

Who would have thought, when this novelty song made its debut in 1967, that more than 40 years later it would still come back every December like a recurring nightmare? I find myself taking note of the date on which it re-appears each year, in much the same way – albeit with much less pleasure – as readers of The Times of London traditionally compete to hear the first cuckoo of spring.

This year I got as far as December 2 before the rumble of distant artillery and the opening bars of O Tannenbaum, which announce the Royal Guardsmen’s song, had me reaching for the radio’s off switch. But of course the only way to avoid Snoopy’s Christmas altogether is to abandon all visits to shops, malls and supermarkets until Christmas is over, which seems a bit extreme even to me.

It amazes me that when the internet makes it possible to download songs and listen to them ad nauseam in the privacy of one’s home, thereby sparing people who loathe Snoopy’s Christmas the misery of hearing it yet again, people still insist on phoning radio stations to request it. This could mean one of three things.

The first possibility is that they haven’t yet discovered there’s a thing called the internet – or if they have, they haven’t figured out how to use it.

The second is that they are misanthropes motivated by sheer malice, but that’s too grim to contemplate.

The third and most likely explanation – and this too is acutely depressing – is that they can’t believe the rest of the world doesn’t share their joy at hearing the song for the 500th time, and are doing us a favour by requesting it on behalf of us all. This is a cruel variation of the holiday photos syndrome, in which people assume all their friends will want to see 72 pictures of the family in various poses at Kaiteriteri motor camp.

But enough of Snoopy’s Christmas, or you’ll be thinking I’ve developed some sort of complex.

In recent years another Christmas song has given me reason to get all twitchy and apprehensive whenever I turn on the radio or walk into a store during December, and the peculiar thing is that it’s a song I once loved.

O Holy Night was composed by the Frenchman Adolphe Adam in 1847, and even as a child I thought it the most moving of carols. It was rarely heard in those days, but in the past 20 years it has been debased by a succession of abominable pop adaptations. This is an even crueller form of aural punishment than that inflicted by the Royal Guardsmen.

Record producers must recognise the song’s intrinsic beauty, or they wouldn’t keep ripping it off. I just wish they would treat it with the respect it deserves – in other words, leave it alone. Subjecting it to pop treatment, with all the usual vocal gymnastics and histrionics, is the equivalent of tagging the Sistine Chapel or rewriting War and Peace in text language.

Sadly, the transformation of the profoundly sacred O Holy Night into a tacky pop song continues a trend that started decades ago. It involves the systematic secularisation of Christmas music – the stripping away of all references which acknowledge the religious significance of the event.

Strangely enough the trend has been most pronounced in that most religious of countries, the United States (and no, I’m not being sarcastic).

Americans take Christmas extraordinarily seriously, going to extravagant lengths to decorate their homes – a cause of much friendly neighbourhood one-upmanship – and enthusiastically indulging in the other trappings of the season, especially music. Virtually every American singer – even drug-addled rock stars – is expected to release a Christmas album, the latest example being Bob Dylan.

But what’s notable about American Christmas music is that it’s almost 100 percent secular. The songs you hear everywhere in the US during December are not traditional carols but songs such as Jingle Bells (which makes no reference to Christmas), Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Christmas Song (aka Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) and of course, White Christmas.

Many of these songs were composed in Tin Pan Alley by professional songwriters, most of whom (for example, Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Marks and Felix Bernard) were Jewish. Christmas wasn’t part of their heritage, so they wrote about snow, sleighbells, Santa and other non-religious symbols.

Snoopy’s Christmas is a more recent take on that same tradition of secular Christmas songs. Despite the English-sounding name of the band that recorded it, who were cashing in on the popularity of British music in the US at the time, it was a thoroughly American record.

On the other hand, most of the classic carols we grew up with – the ones with explicit religious themes, such as Silent Night, Joy to the World, The First Nowell and Hark the Herald Angels Sing – originated in England or Europe (though not all of them: Away in a Manger was American).

You don’t have to be a devout Christian (I’m not) to value this rich Christmas musical tradition, or to lament the fact that it’s slowly but surely losing ground to the purely secular. This trend is demonstrated by what are misleadingly promoted as carol evenings, which degrade what few carols they include by treating them as pop songs so as to make them more “accessible” to a young audience.

If this sounds a bit bah, humbug-ish, I make no apologies. Traditional carols will be played in our house on Christmas morning, and a pox on Snoopy.


Vaughan said...

I sympathise with a lot of these sentiments.

Silent Night is, for me, still the most moving of the carols.

The Christmas song (not carol) that used to cause me to have a KduF "snoopy moment" was Winter Wonderland.

It seemed to me that whenever there was a Christmas program from the US on TV the song played was Winter Wonderland. According to the font of all knowledge, the net, the composer of this 1934 song was Felix Bernard (1897-1944) and the lyricist was Richard B. Smith (1901-1935).

I used to find it maddening, one of those tunes that would worm into your very brain despite all efforts to ward it off. But after a recent spell in a snowy alpine region I found myself saying this is a "winter wonderland" and tried to remember the lyrics.

Perhaps I have been battered into submission by the power of the marketers.

Once Van Morrison was known by only those of us who thought we were in the vanguard (so to speak). "Something in the Air" was a call to a demo. Recently I have heard this music gentrified, softened, emasculated .... in supermarkets.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thanks very much, Vaughan. Now Winter Wonderland is firmly lodged in my brain, where it will probbaly remain for the rest of the day.

Baz said...

Every year whenever I hear Snoopy, I feel a little nostalgic buzz..simpler times etc. Something in my diet must have immunised me from the normal hair-shredding reaction most people have. Admittedly I have missed hearing it the last couple of years. Also it is nice to think that once again the band-members' mortgages will be paid from the royalties.

kassto said...

Snoopy's Christmas was the first 45rpm record I ever owned. Given to me as a Xmas present when I was about 8 and so I am sentimental about it. I find it a lot less annoying than some of the other more secular Xmas songs you mention, Karl. To me it conjures up WW1 and truces in the trenches, with soldiers from both sides having a drink together.

One Xmas song you've forgotten, Karl — John Lennon and Yoko Ono — Merry Christmas (War Is Over).