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The psychology behind Christmas music, explained. (Photo: Getty Creative)

One sign that it’s officially “the most wonderful time of the year” is the arrival of Christmas music. Whether you’re out shopping or driving home from work, there’s a good chance that, come November, you’re bound to hear at least one rendition of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”

While Christmas music may evoke positive emotions and memories for many, the psychological effects of the holiday soundtrack aren’t always overwhelmingly positive.

Nate Sloan, assistant professor of musicology at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and co-host of the podcast Switched on Pop, says that while not all Christmas music sounds the same, there are a few cues that tell our brains we’re about to listen to something evoking Santa and the holiday spirit.

For one thing, if you hear sleigh bells, it’s either Santa’s sleigh approaching — or a Christmas tune. While there are some exceptions to the rule, like “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys, Sloan points out that in most cases, you’re listening to a song created for the holidays.

“The other marker is a certain kind of throwback sound because so much of the Christmas canon were developed in the period between 1930 and 1960,” Sloan explains. “If you hear even new Christmas songs, they’ll use some of the musical language from that period, some of the formal structures and harmonic language, sometimes the swing rhythm and the more orchestral or big band instrumentation of music from that period, to tap into that nostalgic sound.”

There are also “lyrical tropes,” such as “presents under the tree, sleigh rides through the snow,” and other “stock Christmas imagery,” Sloan says. 

As positive as these concepts are, not everyone is a fan of Christmas music. In fact, a 2011 Consumer Report survey about holiday woes stated that 23 percent of people dread seasonal music — just one percent less than “seeing certain relatives.”

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair has a theory as to why that might be.

“When you receive a trigger or a cue, when something reminds you of something you need to do, or something you’ve lost, or in other ways creates a pressure, then you feel bad,” she tells Yahoo Life. “For a lot of people, hearing Christmas music makes them feel pressured. Maybe it’s, ‘I have to buy presents, but I don’t have the money right now,’ or, ‘I really don’t want to see my mother-in-law.’ It triggers ‘shoulds,’ which are always things we’re trying to do to please others and uphold a reputation, rather than an intrinsic desire.”

This year might be particularly hard for people to hear Christmas music, Blair says, because it’s now the second holiday season the world will spend during the coronavirus pandemic. Blair, who lives in the U.K., notes that this season will look different from Christmas 2019, even if it’s not as fraught with worry as last year’s holidays were, prior to adult vaccinations.

“We’re not all that sure what kind of Christmas we’re going to have — whether we can get together with the people we want to get together with, whether there are going to be shortages of goods,” she says. “These are all worries at the moment. Christmas music can make you feel like you’ve lost that wonderful carefree feeling of looking forward to Christmas. If you’ve lost someone due to the pandemic, you may miss them even more [around the holidays].”

Sloan says the themes of Christmas music are “diametrically opposed” to those of modern-day pop music that’s typically played on the radio.

“There’s a certain kind of darkness and sadness to contemporary pop music that is somewhat unique in the history of the pop landscape, I think, and probably proportional to the very challenging year, and decade,” he explains. “I could see someone who sees Christmas music as having a sense of denialism, or a refusal to engage with the world, which is what you encounter in this Christmas cocoon — there’s no acknowledgment of the difficulties of the world. Perhaps that’s increasingly at odds with popular artists like Billie Eilish and Kendrick Lamar, who are really tackling the individual problems and societal problems head on in their music.”

Of course, even those looking forward to the holiday season — who have no issue with lyrics about candy canes and hot cocoa and kissing under the mistletoe — can find a psychological problem with Christmas music. The simple repetition of these songs, Blair notes, can irritate people because it makes it challenging to ignore. 

“I feel sorry for the people who work in shops [around the holidays], because they can’t walk out like customers can,” she explains. “It can be really hard for those workers, because it’s loud, and the playlist is short.”

Sloan can relate.

“I was once one of those people,” he says. “I felt like it was an assault on my ears and sensibilities to be battered by Christmas standards. There’s a limited number of Christmas songs in the canon — maybe 30, 50 at the most. So if you’re shopping, if you’re going to the pharmacy, you’re hearing these songs over and over. It’s almost like a funhouse mirror of music.”

Yet Sloan’s own experience with Christmas music may be the reason it remains so popular to play these tunes throughout the last two months of the year — even if some people find it annoying. Sloan, who is Jewish, says while he initially dreaded the holiday season, that changed when he met his Christmas-loving wife. Once he started associating Christmas music with happier times, it felt less like an irritation.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I get why people like this music. It reminds them of this uniquely joyous and comforting and warm time that you spend with family and friends,'” he says. “Hearing the same songs over and over again is not a bug of the Christmas season, it’s a feature. It’s a chance to be continually wrapped in that warm embrace of nostalgia and family and hearth and home. The more you hear it over and over again, the more comforting and secure it is.”

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