Christmas music, paganism, and tradition

Why is today’s “holiday” music so awful?

Andy Sabl writes (under the heading “Holly Paganism, Batman”):

You’re right about the general superiority of classic Christian carols to classic secular ones (though the comparison is a bit unfair in that the former have been around a lot longer for inferior ones to be weeded out).

But: the comparison is unfair, since the best nonreligious songs are pagan, not “secular.” Do you really believe that “The Holly and the Ivy” is “Christian”? The awkwardness of the overlay is pretty obvious: this was pagan through and through (Holly being sacred to Druids) until the Christians got hold of it. There are even pure pagan recastings of the song on the web–none of them noticeably inferior as to lyrics.

The music remains terrific with any words.

And then there’s “the Boar’s Head Carol,” which is a pure Yule feast song as well, I think.

Andy is surely right about pagan origins. And the idea that traditional music tends to be better than current music because it’s had a longer time to get winnowed out is certainly plausible. But to my ear, at least, the current shlock isn’t a sample from the same distribution that produced the Yule classics. So I think there’s more at work.

As we look back at the history of any art, what we see is mostly a vast wasteland, with very small islands (in time and space) of high creativity. More great plays were written in fifth-century Athens (pop. 20,000) than in 19th-century America.

So, although (as Mike O’Hare has pointed out) population growth means that there are more potential musical geniuses alive today than were born, cumulatively, before 1900, it’s quite plausible that the actual level of music-making here and now is simply much lower than it was in some earlier times and places, either because our musical culture is less healthy or because some of those natural musical geniuses are writing software instead.

And it’s also possible that Christianity as a social organism has much poorer musical taste today than it used to.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: