By Brooke Chabot
Music is often the best remedy for filling all the dark nooks and crannies of our souls with a warm glow. Music has the power to amplify our emotions by psyching us up to extreme highs and bringing us to melancholic lows.
Holiday music is uniquely qualified to exacerbate emotional polarities. The enduring tradition has lasted for centuries and continues to bring us closer together as it sets the scene for a lifetime of memories.
Why do we have such strong emotional ties to these songs? How do they tug so insistently on our hearts and then drive us mad by the end of the season? I asked local musicians, scholars, and teachers about their thoughts on the topic. What became clear is that most people have very strong attachments to holiday music; their favorite songs are entwined with memories of holidays gone by.
Little Bird Music
“Music is intimately tied to memory,” said Alice Cotter, director at Little Bird Music in Truckee. “Hearing the first few measures of a Christmas or Hanukkah song can take us back to a moment in time with our closest relatives and friends around the table or the crackling fire.” When Cotter hears the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” she thinks fondly of her Grandma Marilyn. “She’s been gone for a long time, but she played the piano beautifully,” Cotter told me. “As a little kid, I’d sit next to her on the piano bench while she played this song. Each time she’d cry with tears of joy because of its slow, delicate beauty.”
Holiday music brings communities together, she added. “Everybody can sing ‘Jingle Bells,’” she said. “There’s a fundamental simplicity to the musical language that allows for that warm feeling of community and togetherness. Many holiday songs rely on simple forms, allowing for accessibility and communal participation.”
Dead Winter Carpenters
The vocalist and fiddle player Jenni Charles, of the bluegrass band Dead Winter Carpenters, described how music expresses the season’s emotion. “The nostalgia it ignites is just as powerful as the music itself,” she said. “At this time of year, we are able to gather with our family and/or loved ones. It is such a special time of year, with a reoccurring soundtrack awakening our spirits. With that, we are inherently reminded of those who have passed on or those who we cannot be with.”
At no other time of year do generations of families and friends gather to sing and play music as during the holiday season. “Holiday music distinctly bonds all generations through the art of singing and playing purely for the act of bringing joy and holiday cheer to all,” Charles added. She teaches music from her home in Tahoma.
Truckee High School
Truckee High School band teacher Jesse Steele loves the song “Frosty the Snowman.” “The reason holiday music tugs at our hearts has to do with the power of music to connect us to specific times and places in our past,” he said. “Some of my best childhood memories are of being with family during the holidays. The smells, tastes, sounds — all contribute to that special feeling of being together with family and feeling all warm and cozy. So, when I smell the freshly cut tree in our living room, or the spice of the snickerdoodle cookies in the oven, my mind takes me right back to being 6 years old. The same thing happens when I hear “Frosty the Snowman” playing over the loudspeaker at the grocery store. Hearing those old holiday classics brings me right back to my happy place, and I think that is why holiday music has such power.”
BRITTANY ROSE, Glenshire Elementary School
Brittany Rose, music teacher at Glenshire Elementary School, leads the Eagle Chorus in caroling in downtown Truckee at the Christmas tree lighting event. “Many holiday songs fall into a theme, one that is either centered around a specific holiday and/or religious belief, or a theme about the winter season itself, which make them accessible to children,” Rose said. “The lyrics are also often very repetitive, making them easier to learn at a young age. I think the main benefit of children learning holiday songs each year is that the songs have been around for generations. Having children learn songs that their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents also know can help bring families together around the holidays. Singing together across generations plays a major role in many cultures around the world.”
JOCELYN KREISS, Psychiatrist
According to Truckee-based psychiatrist Jocelyn Kreiss, “Music affects many areas of the brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus, which modulate emotions and memory. This is likely why a song, especially a holiday tune, can bring you right back to childhood on Christmas morning. For some people, this is a positive experience. For others, holiday music can trigger challenging feelings. Music can activate dopamine in the reward center of the brain which can certainly elevate mood even during difficult times.” Asked about her favorite holiday song, she said, “Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ is definitely my favorite. It always makes me cry. My work involves the witnessing of a lot of pain as well as healing, and this song seems to trigger both these experiences.”
Tahoe Truckee School of Music
Ben Martin, director of Tahoe Truckee School of Music, said recognizable holiday melodies are beautiful. “Holiday songs sound simple but can be quite challenging to play as it is not unusual for the chords to change every beat rather than ever bar (four beats),” he said. “Many of the holiday songs are old traditionals written hundreds of years ago. They have stood the test of time. I believe that quite a few of the songs are of German origin where they have a great history of music.” The song “Oh, Christmas Tree” is a favorite of his. “I heard it in church at the Christmas Eve candlelight service as a child,” he said. “I also wrote a simple arrangement for solo ukulele that I think sounds really pretty too.”
As these music-immersed people attest, holiday songs bring us closer together across generations. They give us rare opportunities to connect musically. The emotions these songs evoke can connect us with our loved ones and give us hope for the future, when the next generation will keep the songs alive. Most of all, these songs are a bright light on our darkest days.