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A cheesy stock photo of Santa Claus singing a song. (Getty Images/Ingram Publishing)
A cheesy stock photo of Santa Claus singing a song. (Getty Images/Ingram Publishing)

Russell Smith: On Culture

The true meaning of Christmas? It's bad art Add to ...

You are probably right this second within earshot of a radio playing the song Happy Christmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon (the one with the chorus, “And so this is Christmas”). And so let me say for you what we all secretly know: This is the worst song ever written, recorded or imagined by John Lennon, or, for that matter, by anyone else in the history of the world.

I’ll tell you the true meaning of Christmas: It’s bad art. Bad art seems to be its primary function. Every seasonal ritual has its specific role, usually cathartic, and corresponding to one of the seven deadly sins: Halloween is for the temporary suspension of sexual inhibition, for example; Thanksgiving is for a brief societal sanction of gluttony. Christmas, strangely, serves a non-Christian sin: It is a temporary rupture in the fabric of civilization through which the worst music hisses out like a great blast of sweetened steam from the dark core of the Earth.

Why do we require this sudden relaxation? Why is it that Christmas music must, as if by statute, be bad? Why do we turn down our taste meters toward the end of December, dully accepting that we now tolerate a daily soundtrack of Lobby Jazz and Soul Carols, of ever-softer, ever more saxophone-heavy, vocal-trilling, R&B versions of Santa Baby? I’ll tell you who is the Grinch here, who is the Great Satan in this nefarious and insidious attack on your temperament – it’s the C Bloody C.

The CBC believes that Christmas demands such fanatical innocuousness, such a passionate national drive for inoffensiveness that every radio program must be punctuated with a kind of elevator music with words sung in the international deep-south voice of the U.S. blues singer. When my local CBC Radio drive-home show did its annual fundraising drive for a food bank, live from the lobby of its national headquarters, they broadcast such a queasy fanfare of melismatic Muzak I couldn’t listen, much as I supported their cause.

Why jazz music specifically is thought to be somehow representative of this season is something the most sophisticated of sociologists have yet to decipher, and yet here it is, everywhere, jazz trios in giant supermarket lobbies, jazz pianists in every hotel bar, all of them wearing red Santa caps as a uniform of the genre itself, a white-fur-trimmed consumer universe of jazz: jazz as Christmas.

The jazz thing might I suppose be explained by the popularity of A Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon that has been broadcast on TV every year since 1965 and famously featured unbad music by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. But please don’t try to tell me that all the new schlock is for kids. I have a kid, and he likes Jingle Bells as much as the next two-year-old, but he’s really not interested in a hip-hop version of it.

No, this is not the infantilizing of grown-up entertainment, it’s the inverse: It’s the adultizing of infants’ entertainment. We seem to want all our songs to have a rap break in them, so we apparently want our Christmas songs to have that as well.

Are all the Christmas movies – the Home Alones and the Miracles – that play on all the channels round the clock also aimed at children? They can’t be: They’re playing in the middle of the night as well as after school. The Top-40 dance-music radio stations that generally pump out the Auto-Tuned Katy Perry all day are aimed at grown-ups too, but since the beginning of December they’ve been playing the John Lennon song that you are probably hearing now for a second time since beginning this column.

And the groovy hairy downtown people who are hosting “ugly Christmas sweater” parties are adults too, just that particular sort of adult who has lost all track of what’s ironic and what’s deadly earnest.

It’s grown-ups who crave ugliness at this time of year, in the darkness and stress, as they crave sugar and fat. I told you it had a cathartic role: The ritual of bad art is a winter solstice emesis, a hysterical expression of our yellowest innards. Bad art is cultural eggnog: an instant but very short-lived sugar high with a nasty mouth-feel. I very much hope it makes us all feel happier while it is so dark, or at least relieved once it is out of us.

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