As I finally got out the Christmas CDs last week, I was pondering the enduring popularity of the mid-twentieth century in the realm of secular Christmas music. I admit that I like that era of music all year round, but it seems that at Christmas it appeals to a lot of other people, too, and the radio and stores inevitably resound with Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Dean Martin. Even more modern stuff is often simply remakes of the songs from that era.
It's all about nostalgia of course, but I think that says something bigger about Christmas as a cultural phenomenon. Christmas has become primarily a holiday about nostalgia. The only trouble is, we can't remember exactly what it is we are being nostalgic about. The mid-twentieth century Christmas music doesn't exactly depict a culture who actually was celebrating the birth of Christ, either, but it gives the feel of a culture where people could still remember when they did. They might not really believe God invaded earth, but they could remember when they did and after they'd sung "White Christmas," sing "Silent Night" with a straight face based on the memories of the past.
In today's culture it's hard to remember that far back, even. So we can only be nostalgic about being nostalgic for it. A pretty thin sort of celebration. No wonder most modern stuff about Christmas is cynicism about the stress and the misery of having to put up with your relatives for a day.
This article by Gene Edward Veith makes much the same point, only about movies. And it's a good reminder that those of us who do know what we're celebrating shouldn't let ourselves get sucked into the spirit of being stressed-out and complaining about the season.