I love listening to Christmas songs and songs about winter! So I thought I would spend a little time reflecting on what popular American Christmas carols and other holiday songs suggest about our feelings about nature.
Which songs will I discuss? A series of songs normally listened to, almost entirely, in the run-up to Christmas, but many of which actually have no references to Christmas in them. So there’s no reason not to listen to them all winter long, like I do! Whether you read this whole entry carefully or not, I hope you will pay a little more attention this week to how Christmas songs can connect us to our environment… and consider listening to them after Christmas as well.
My basic conclusions: we like references to snow, and songs get people excited about snow as part of winter. However, deeper engagement with winter weather is limited – and often depicted through archaic activities. (Note that this is particularly well-represented in our secular Christmas songs, perhaps reflecting how Americans can encounter winter weather that warmer regions do not.) Snow is an iconic sign of the season, which both traditional and newer songs look to reference to establish their link to the season – along with mistletoe, presents, and other elements.
The two songs which may have done the most to powerfully invoke the joys to be had observing, and playing with, snow actually have little to say about snow outside their title lines. “FROSTY THE SNOWMAN” may function as a great inspiration to get people outside and making snowpeople of their own, getting hands-on experience of the weather. However, the plot of the song is really about a magic creature coming to life, and playing with children. The word snow is repeated often, but there’s nothing snow-specific about the activities people engage in during the song.
“WHITE CHRISTMAS” – for many years not only the best-selling and most-heard Christmas song, but the leader in both those categories among all songs – certainly devotes a high percentage of its lyrics to talking about snow. What does the song suggest about snow? That it glistens, and that sounds of sleigh bells (perhaps as an image of Santa, or an invocation of older transportation practices signaling guests arriving?) are things to be cherished. More broadly, this song resonated with those nostalgic about Christmases past, a feeling of nostalgia for the individual and community past which is a strong current in modern feelings about Christmas (and that dates back to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as well). This was a song that earned its legendary status during World War II, when American servicemen found its images of Christmas a reminder they yearned to hear while serving away from home.
Some of the songs that appear to pay the most attention to snow are really songs about how ‘its cold, but that’s irrelevant to me because I can spend time with my love (and perhaps that will warm my spirits enough that I won’t notice the cold).’ So they comment on whether more to ignore it than to responding to it. The key examples here are “Let it snow,” “Baby its cold outside,” and “ I’ve got my love to keep me warm,” and “Winter Weather” might also qualify. As “I’ve got my love to keep me warm,” this can perhaps go so far as to suggest an impractical inattention to weather, depending on how one reads the line “Off with my overcoat, off with my glove / I need no overcoat, I’m burning with love!” (“Good King Wenceslas” takes a related tack, since its references to the cold and wind are invoked primarily to suggest that the power of good deeds allows one to miraculously manufacture heat.) So while I do cherish “Let it snow” for the chorus, which can function as one of the best slogans in favor of winter weather that exists, these songs don’t really work as winter anthems. (Allow me also to say – just how much corn for popping does the “Let it snow” protagonist have? Going to fill up eventually, no?)
Which songs do I think most directly engage the experience of being in a snowy landscape? I’ll nominate “SLEIGH RIDE” “Jingle Bells,” “Marshmallow World,” and “Winter Wonderland.”
The first two take part in the trend of invoking archaic practices rarely used today. Christmas celebrations bring out sleighs for rides, and reindeers to see, which receive much less use during the rest of the year. The latter song was written in the mid-19th century and remains popular today; the former was written in the 1940s, so it was consciously looking back to a vanishing era of horse transportation. These songs feature more references to rural practices, and animals, than found in almost any other currently popular songs (even country songs). Both are about the experience of travelling over the snow in a sleigh. In “JINGLE BELLS,” we get a few different descriptions of sleighing events. I appreciate how the narrator keeps celebrating this even though he falls into the snow on two different occasions (including the rarely-sung second verse).
“WINTER WONDERLAND” again gives us that key image of snow as glistening. It also features a plot revolving around a series of outdoor experiences. Unlike some other winter love songs, this one celebrates being outside: “When it snows, ain’t it thrilling / Though your nose gets a chilling /
We’ll frolic and play.” (The reference to “the Eskimo Way” is one I am not comfortable with, but it is another gesture toward Northern and snow-bound practices. I am not familiar with a version referring to the Inuit way, so I’ll suggest singing it as Diana Krall does, in tribute to her homeland – “the Canadian Way” 😉
“MARSHMALLOW WORLD” is perhaps the strongest at trying to creatively depict snow. Unsurprisingly, given the title, this song is sweet in multiple ways. It is cute and lovey-dovey, and has references that make one think of eating, particularly sweet things; marshmallows, sugar, whipped cream, perhaps other “yum-yummy” sweets. Few other songs are as excited about being outdoors; “what if spring is late,” this singer is out observing clouds, trees, and the sun. And he calls us outside, noting “the world is your snowball just for a song, / Get out and roll it along!”
There are a few songs that are even more straightforward in their celebrations of snow – “Suzy Snowflake,” the Snow Miser’s song, and “Snow” from the movie “White Christmas” – but these do not receive as much airplay. Those songs indeed focus clearly on people experiencing it, and expressing their affection for it. The latter two songs can be seen and silly and campy… but then, maybe this isn’t such a bad season for that!
Most other winter songs to not appear to do much more than mention ‘snow,’ necessarily, or the fact that it glistens. Songs like “I’ll be home for Christmas,” “Christmas Waltz,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” and “Christmastime is Here” invoke snow (or frost) as a key element of the Christmas experience, among other elements. (Jingling bells, which could have a practical function of alerting people to sleighs quietly moving over snow as James Fuld has noted, are another frequently invoked image.) Special credit goes to “Little Saint Nick,” with a lot of images of snow and snow travel in this tale about Santa and his sleigh.
This is an unusual genre to analyze. Many of these songs were written in the 1930s and 1940s; often even the versions of those songs which receive heavy airplay are from decades ago. Why exactly these ones have stuck around is unclear. The fact that it is difficult for newer songs to become popular suggests an odd crystallization of a canon – a series of key songs was established relatively quickly, and we haven’t moved on beyond them.
So actual depictions of experiences and observations about snow, or having it play a key positive role in the plot of a song, are limited. But for snow appreciation, for making it a part of joy, these songs are exciting! Compared to most popular music, the weather actually has a pretty large role.
Let me know what you think. After Christmas, I’ll add some reflections on other songs about winter, including John Denver’s “Aspenglow,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a winters night,” and “White winter hymnal” by the Fleet Foxes.