The Meaning of Christmas, a Quantitative Analysis

I’ve often heard atheists say that the things people associate with Christmas are mostly secular, and so in a real sense Christmas has stopped being a religious holiday, if it was. But I’ve never seen anyone try to quantify that. Aha! A lacuna that I can fill!

Originally, I was going to google “What Christmas means to me”, see what people come up with, and sort that into “Religious”, “Secular”, and “Mixed” (or “could go either way, depending”). But then What Christmas Means to Me turned out to be a Stevie Wonder song, and I couldn’t be bothered to find the posts that didn’t refer to that song.


But what the hell. In the spirit of Christmas, let’s see what Stevie lists, and whether it’s religious:

  Rel Mix Sec
Candles burnin’ low    
Lots of mistletoe    
Lots of snow and ice    
Choirs singin’ carols    
little cards you give me    
runnin’ wild, as anxious as a little child    
Greet you neath the mistletoe    
Wish you a Merry Christmas baby    
happiness in the comin’ year    
deck the halls with holly    
Sing sweet silent night    
Fill the tree with angel hair[1]    
pretty, pretty lights    
Christmas bells are ringin’    

[1] A note says that “angel hair” means tinsel, so I’m counting it as secular.


After that, I googled “What I like about Christmas”.

Rozario Fernandes, Express Tribune, 8 Things I Love About Christmas:

  Rel Mix Sec
Listening to Christmas carols    
Fairy lights and pretty decorations    
Buying gifts for your loved ones    
Keeping a secret stash of holiday sweets    
Another reason to stay out late    
Family get-togethers    
Vacation time    
Attending the midnight prayer service    


Next on the list was a Yahoo! Answers entry, which I didn’t pick because honestly, it’s a discussion thread, so it’s not clear where it ends, or how the entries were chosen.


What Do You Like About Christmas by Carey Kinsolving is an explicitly-religious piece, a list of children’s answers to the titular question interspersed with Bible verses. The site was down when I tried accessing it, so I had to rely on Google’s cache. But let’s see how it fares:

  Rel Mix Sec
giving people presents    
celebrating Christmas[2]    
donees’ faces lighting up with joy    
celebrating Christ’s birth    
the lights, because of the light in the sky when Jesus was born    
spending time with family    
share Christ’s love    

[2] Could be either secular, religious, or a mixture, depending how the person celebrates.


Aprille Rose at allwomenstalk writes 7 Things I Love About Christmas:

  Rel Mix Sec
The smells of Christmas[3]    
Seasonal flavors    
Christmas movies and cartoons[3]    
Christmas songs on the radio    
Stringing up lights around the house    
Decorating the tree    
Baking cookies    

[3] All the examples listed are secular.


The 25 Greatest Things About Christmas by Belinda Moreira at Arts.Mic:

  Rel Mix Sec
Christmas trees    
Chance of snow    
Vacation time    
Hot chocolate    
Christmas parties    
Ugly Christmas sweaters    
Ice skating    
Carols and music[3]    
Christmas sales    
Gingerbread houses and men    
Time of giving    
Time with friends and family    
Classic Christmas movies    
Holiday cheer    
The chance to feel like a kid again    


I skipped this page at Amazon’s Askville, for the same reasons as the Yahoo! Answers one.


Jesse Carey at Relevant Magazine lists 7 Reasons Why We Still Love Christmas:

  Rel Mix Sec
Spending time with friends and family    
opening gifts    
getting away from work    
Celebrating the birth of our Savior    
Inflatable lawn ornaments[4]    
Christmas sweaters    
Claymation specials    
Family Christmas cards    
Advent calendars    
Christmas carols    
Office gift exchanges    

[4] I’m counting this as secular because I have yet to see an inflatable Jesus.


I count 6 religious, 11 mixed, and 56 secular things to love about Christmas. I think we can confidently say that you can give up religion without giving up the things that make Christmas special. Numbers don’t lie.

Some Traditional Christmas Music

Christmastime has a lot of traditions associated with it, so allow me to share one of mine.

Back in, oh, 1984 or so, my best friend in High School and I went down to Barcelona for summer vacation. Aside from the usual stuff you’d expect two teenage boys on vacation away from their parents to do, like trying to pick up girls in night clubs, smoking joints, and plotting to crash the China Crisis/Simple Minds concert, we stopped at a used record store (remember record stores? Remember records?) and picked up something called Navidades radioactivas.

It was a compilation. A Christmas compilation. A punk Christmas compilation. A Spanish punk Christmas album. Naturally, we had to have it. And until YouTube stops being the repository of all music everywhere, you can hear an approximation of what it sounds like:

I made a point of listening to this every year, as a way of countering the endless barrage of Ecksmas Muzak played in every goddamn store throughout November and December, until my tape player died. I eventually converted my tapes to MP3s and have resurrected the tradition. Except that by then, online shopping had been invented, and became less necessary to put up with brick-and-mortar crap. I found out a while back that my friend also, once a year, pulls out his vinyl copy and plays it. I like that. It makes me feel that even though we don’t correspond much anymore, we’re still somehow connected.

So yeah, this is quite personal. So even if you’re listening to it now, I don’t expect you to make it to the end, unless you’re morbidly curious.

Some notes on the album

Unless you were a DJ in Madrid in the mid-80s, the only artists you have any chance of ever having heard of are El Aviador Dro and Derribos Arias (no, the Alphaville that performs Un día de diciembre is not the same band that did Big in Japan). I think Dro, who were big enough to have their own label, were trying to promote some bands they thought deserved wider recognition.

El Aviador Dro — El nascimiento de la industria: This is not the version from the LP. Apparently the track listing was changed when the CD version was released, so this is a different recording. Try to forgive the performance. It was the 80s, after all.

T.N.T. — Ratatata: a punk cover of The Little Drummer Boy. Back before we had things like YouTube, College Humor, and Boing Boing, this was considered some pretty weird shit.

Los Iniciados — El abominable hombre de nieve: This is a dark variant on Frosty the Snowman: it tells of how the children build a snowman, which then lasts all winter. Spring comes, and it doesn’t melt. Seasons come and go, and the snowman is still there. Years pass, boys grow up to be men, their children grow up and have children of their own, and still the snowman remains there, casting its unholy shadow over the town.

Agrimensor K. — Resurrección blanca: This may very well be a racist white power anthem. Sorry about that.

For anything else, Google — both its search engine and automatic translator — is your friend.

Sing Like You Mean It

What with it being late December and all, I’ve been listening to a lot of Christmas music lately. And one thing I’ve decided is that I really need to separate my collection into “Christmas music (straight)” and “Christmas music (ironic)”. It hurts my brain when I put the MP3 player on shuffle and it goes from Bing Crosby’s Silver Bells to William Hung’s version.

Another thing is that I need to purge my collection of such schmalzy glurge as Christmas at the Dentist’s and Stuck in an Elevator for Christmas.

Which brings me to my main point: that playing or singing like you mean it counts for a lot. I just listened to Etta Jones’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I can’t think of a single objective criterion (tempo, syncopation, inflection, etc.) by which it should be excluded from An Uncool Square’s Treasury of Easy-Listening Christmas Favorites, but I like it. There’s something I can’t define, but basically she sings like she means it, like it gives her joy to be singing this song, rather than singing like “hey, it’s a gig.” (And yes, I hear a lot of the same thing in gospel music, which is why it goes on my list of genres that I respect, even if I don’t enjoy the music itself.)

Mannheim Steamroller could easily have been a novelty act: A Synthpop Christmas. But I think there’s a joy that comes through in his playing, a feeling that he actually likes those songs, and wanted to do them justice in his own style. Ditto Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, though Dean Martin could get a bit too schmalzy for me.

Of course, singing like you mean it isn’t everything. Wing is quite earnest, as is William Hung. But that doesn’t mean I want to listen to more of them than I absolutely have to.

I completely understand people who hate shopping in December because all the malls are playing the same twelve goddamned songs for a solid month. I too put on my iPod to drown out the Extruded Music Product. But if you look, you can find performances of those same twelve songs (and a lot more) that actually sound good. To a large extent, I think it’s simply because the musicians have genuine love for the material.

(PS: for the people who are tired of hearing the same twelve songs over and over, every year I make it a point to listen to Navidades Radioactivas, a Spanish punk Christmas compilation. It’s definitely… different.)