Every year the arguments over the meaning of Christmas heat up with the intensity of a Wal-Mart crowd on Black Friday. But most people assume that the trend toward a secular Christmas—emphasizing family and snow instead of baby Jesus in a manger—is a recent development.
They connect secular notions of Christmas to retailers who train employees to say “Happy Holidays” or some cabal at Starbucks that decides to remove snowflakes from coffee cups. But like many social changes, from civil rights to student protests, this attitudinal shift first appeared in popular music. If you are looking for an index of future cultural changes, you are always best advised to turn on the radio, and listen to the songs.
An alternative Christmas narrative first took center stage in American culture with the popular music of the ’40s, when secularized holiday songs started dominating the airwaves during December. This was a golden age of well-crafted commercial Christmas songs, and few of them mentioned the holy family or angels we have heard on high. This marked an extraordinary change from the early decades of the 20th century, when the most frequently recorded song in the United States was “Silent Night.”
Here are some of the holiday songs that were megahits during the ’40s. “White Christmas” made its debut on a Bing Crosby Christmas Day broadcast in 1941, and went on to become the best-selling single in the history of recorded music. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was another huge Crosby hit from 1943, and still shows up on holiday playlists every December. In 1944. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” appeared in Judy Garland’s film Meet Me in St. Louis, and has become a perennial end-of-the year hit—Sam Smith’s version made it to the Billboard 100 just last year.
Even after the war, this shift to a secular Christmas could be seen in late 1940s hits such as “The Christmas Song” (1946) and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949). This was the great era of Christmas “novelty” songs, with humor displacing nostalgia and reverence. In 1948, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” was a surprise hit—written by a second-grade teacher, Donald Yetter Gardner, who noticed how many of his students were missing a few pearly whites. The emphatic “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” was a No. 1 hit in 1946, and Gene Autry enjoyed success with “Here Comes Santa Claus” the following year. The decade also saw the birth of the holiday seduction song with the release of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” featured in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter.
That was the last golden age of holiday songs—no subsequent decade has produced so many hit Christmas melodies. Not one of them was overtly Christian in tone, or even especially religious in attitude. Yet the public craved precisely these kinds of songs, and even today, our image of December festivities is shaped by this music. Many of us dismiss these tunes as sappy and painfully nostalgic, but that didn’t stop them from changing attitudes and shifting the narrative of end-of-year rituals and observances.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this shift is how little controversy it provoked. Today the very word “Christmas” is divisive, and many feel they need to take a stand either for or against it. Yet the nostalgic and humorous holiday songs of the ’40s offered a different stance, one that accepted the reality of Christmas festivities, but imparted a secularized spin on them, serving up a whole phalanx of images and rituals devoid of religious overtones. This created an inclusive holiday spirit in which believers and non-believers could join voices, celebrating snowy weather, family togetherness, and diversity among reindeer—and thus acknowledging diversity amongst themselves in the process.
Why did this happen in the ’40s? If one judged the cultural landscape by stated religious beliefs, such a change wouldn’t make much sense. In 1948, Gallup conducted its first poll of American’s church affiliations, and found that 91 percent of those surveyed called themselves Christians. (By comparison, in 2014, that figure had fallen to 70 percent.) Why did these people start singing pop tunes instead of religious hymns in December?
Was it the prominence of Jewish songwriters in the music industry? Jews composed many of the songs cited here, but that can hardly explain the popularity of these tunes. Others might call attention to the growing consumerism of the ’40s, when Americans celebrated the end of the Great Depression by turning Christmas into a shopping season. But I don’t see how a secular song such as “Silver Bells” can jingle the cash register bells any better than “Adeste Fidelis.”
I suspect that World War II and its psychological aftermath played the key role in this switch. The separation of families during the holidays turned even the most humble December rituals—eating roasted chestnuts or sitting by the fireside—into emotional touchpoints for a huge percent of the population. Both civilians and soldiers had access to religious services, even during the worst years of the war, but many were deprived of the joys of home and hearth. Instead of songs that celebrated a holy family in Bethlehem, the public craved tunes that reminded them of their own family members who might be in an even worse place than a manger.
Even after the war, the generation that had lived through it held on to the holiday sentiments it engendered. Many now call them the “greatest generation,” a fitting testimony to those who survived the Great Depression and defeated Hitler. But when members of this courageous cohort started raising families of their own, they wanted to set a cozier, more relaxed tone for the holidays, one that marked how far they had come from the deprivations of the past. Few things did that better than funny, cute, or sentimental songs that commemorated end-of-year rituals.
How odd that the biggest war in history made us so sentimental, and even today shapes how we view our yearly encounter with Christmas. But perhaps the real lesson here is that these two narratives of holiday festivities—the religious and the secular—can coexist without friction or contention. That’s what the holiday songs of the ’40s ought to teach us. After all, even pop tunes can spread peace on Earth and goodwill to all—especially if they help us overlook our differences and celebrate the many things we have in common.