Christmas Carols Are the Purest Expression of Christmas. Why Save Them for December?

For me, Christmas Carols evoke hope in a way that Christmas itself never can.
By Hanif Abdurraqib ,
Mariah Carey performs during the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington, D.C., on December 6th, 2013.

To grow up without access to resources often means growing up without access to certain feelings and experiences. I was also raised Muslim, so my family didn't have much use for any of the traditional American holidays. On Halloween, my father would turn off all of the lights in our house so that we wouldn't get any stray trick-or-treaters ringing our doorbell. As boys, my brother and I would hover on the couch, peering through the window to watch all the costumed neighborhood kids, wishing we could be among them.

Christmas, then, was something of a hollow echo through our home. It is fascinating to be a child and have December 25th mean nothing, especially when the marketing of the holiday is closing in on you from all angles. Christmas, for most of my late teens and early twenties, was a day of isolation: a time to watch basketball and eat whatever food could be scavenged from a supermarket the night before. I began to think of it as my own translation of a holiday, where I knew I'd have no responsibilities to anyone but myself. My longing for the holiday changed as I aged. I became less interested in wanting to take part in it as tradition, and more interested in the holiday as a window into my own bit of empty joy. Nothingness, in this way, became an eager thing to run into.

It is hard to explain any of this in November, particularly early November, and particularly when driving in a car while blasting Christmas music as loud as the other passengers can bear. It is true that I am very partial to my Christmas tunes, and it is also true that I have been known to press play on them earlier in the calendar year than most Americans would consider appropriate. While listening to Ariana Grande's "Santa Tell Me"—a song that is sure to become a standard for the season within a decade—I was told it was too early to go full-Christmas, and I suppose for those who have had a strict Christmas timeline for their entire life, this may be true. For me, if I couldn't have the holiday itself, I would compensate by taking in the sights and sounds of it as fully, and as early, as possible. It was never draining for me in the way that it might be for others, who find themselves (often justly) stressed out by the consumer-driven nature of Christmas. As a child, I would go out and walk into my snow-hushed neighborhood, looking at lights. There's something deeply pleasurable about what this does to the senses, the way a blanket of snow brings silence and a certain brightness to the night, contrasting against a string of lights against a house. Or—if the homeowner found themselves to be particularly ambitious—a makeshift Santa with reindeer. Sometimes I would make this retreat with headphones, drowning out the silence with any CD of Christmas standards.

What I like about the Christmas song is that it can be both timeless and hopelessly of its own moment. A classic one, like Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," can be repurposed every five years or so to fit a newer soundscape or a different emotional climate. But really, all Christmas songs are the same, working within the same boxes of imagery: gifts, fire, snow, warmth, presents, Santa. I appreciate the predictability of the songs, particularly how they arrive at the end of a year, when everyone around me is in frantic mode, running from store to store, bags overflowing in their arms. The Christmas song is simple and idealistic. Mariah Carey insists that all she wants for Christmas is a vague you, who might be anyone lingering long enough to love her. "Last Christmas" is an ode to heartbreak, something that none of us is immune to, regardless of season. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," when sung well, is equal parts hopeful and wistfully sad. It's a wish that feels like it is being made from miles away. Every Christmas song is some type of love song, rooted in the kind of idealistic hope that the actual holiday often turns away from.

Because I don't have enough experience fighting over gifts in malls or arguing over a dinner table with difficult family members, I can romanticize the parts of a holiday that largely means nothing to me. I can't ignore what Christmas drives people to do in the name of capitalism, beyond the abject need for Americans to keep consuming at all costs. But the songs are about the gloss: They sound the way snow crumbling underneath a boot feels. Even the cold becomes romantic when there's no Christmas misery to focus on. I get similar feelings about trees drenched in lights or a late-night viewing of It's a Wonderful Life. None of these things actually matter to me beyond being nostalgic and digestible. The aesthetics of Christmas, to someone who has no interest in celebrating the holiday itself, are like a tray of cookies, a type that never makes you full, no matter how much you eat.

Last Friday, I realized that I needed a new suitcase. It was inconveniently late for this revelation, nearly 7 p.m. on the night before I had a 6:30 a.m. flight. Still, I needed a suitcase. Rather, I told myself I needed a new suitcase. The old one was largely fine, except for being old. It still held all my clothes and books, it still rolled on both carpet and tile. It was simply old. So I went to the mall, which was jammed with traffic; I hadn't accounted for the annual Christmas tree lighting, which was taking place that night. As the traffic began to ease, a massive tree emerged from the mall's skyline. Children circled around it and ran into the blocked-off street. Carolers circled the tree and sang songs. When the lights flickered on, there was a collective sigh of joy that floated into the night sky and hung in the air, the tree's star glowing and heavy, seemingly miles above our heads. I think what I'm saying is that none of this is real anyway, so let's pick and choose which parts of it make us feel most in love with the season. Christmas, like pretty much all holidays, is manufactured to play on our emotions, and I choose the ones that still allow me some peace in the winter moments before I walk into a store and buy something I've convinced myself that I need.

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