Anatomy of a Christmas Song

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and kitsch is in the air.

How people can live in America year in, year out, without memorizing the lyrics to Christmas songs mystifies me. Since childhood I’ve been able to sing the entirety of “Sleigh Ride” without knowing anything else about the song; I only learned the title a few years ago. It’s December, so supermarkets and department stores play the ring-ting-tingling song. Certain melodies become so mechanically familiar over time that when you pay attention they disarm, and that’s how Christmas music works. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and kitsch is in the air.

Like many of the most popular Christmas songs (“The Christmas Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), “Sleigh Ride” is a ‘40s light-orchestral concoction that harkens back to an idealized notion of human existence based in 19th-century modes of both music and lifestyle. Song aside, nobody has uttered the words “it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you” since the invention of the automobile, but in the popular imagination, Christmas means a rosy antiquated alternate universe — candlelight, trees decorated with ribbons and bows, the one-horse sleigh.

I wonder why the postwar period in particular spawned so many Christmas songs, what inspired the rush to flood the market with the sappiest, most heartwarming music imaginable, wherefore the sudden influx of holiday cheer.

Originally composed as an instrumental piece by Leroy Anderson in 1948, “Sleigh Ride” acquired lyrics soon after, when Mitchell Parish heard, astutely, the way the melody mimics falling snow and the clippety-trot of horses; the song that resulted is a precise union of content and form. The Andrews Sisters recorded the first vocal version, featuring percussive cracks of the whip to accentuate the song’s forward motion. Johnny Mathis’s version delights for its sleek, clean string section, sleigh bells jingling along, and actual hooves, rhythmically clicking and clacking. How much one loves the popular Ronettes version depends on one’s affection for Phil Spector’s sparkly, densely cluttered orchestral production; it all whizzes by in an impulsive blur of energy, omitting the bridge entirely.

And the Carpenters’ cover, released on their epochal Christmas Portrait, chills and captivates, as the immaculately expert studio-perfect arrangement deploys woodwinds, strings, and glossy, burbling electric piano to construct several nostalgic layers. From our sadly alienated modern standpoint, we behold echoes of ‘60s girl-group rock & roll ( such as the Ronettes), plus memories of the time the song was written, and finally, memories of those olden days, happy golden days of yore, back when people really did take sleigh rides and frolic in the snow, all painted over musically with an achingly warm wooden glow.

As an activity, the sleigh ride indicates both class and leisure, but it’s also a metaphor for musical propulsion, for a melody whose downward cascading arpeggios really do evoke a horse’s manner of galloping. “Let’s take the road before us and sing a chorus or two” — it’s an image of relaxed recreation, but also adventure and escape and release. You don’t know where the road goes, but you can feel the wind whipping past your face, see your breath in the air, imagine the snow atop the pine trees.

Escape and rest become a familiar synthesis in Christmas lore, possibly the archetypal synthesis. Since Christmas comes at the end of the year, you’re supposed to wait through the entire calendar for your eventual reward; a year’s worth of suffering is corrected by the holiday’s occurrence. One may have faced hardship for eleven long months beforehand, but with every Christmas comes a temporary moment’s respite, when all the pain is purged by the power of love and sentiment — an intriguing mix of relief and catharsis.

The Carpenters’ arrangement, all cozy and radiant yet tainted with undercurrents of longing, captures this mood as exactly as music can, and Karen Carpenter’s distinctive vowels (“a sleigh ride together with yiiiiieeeeeeeeew”) have a way of distilling the emotional structure into single syllables.

Without benefit of sleigh bells or horse noises, the jumpy rhythms of the music itself suggest the itch for adventure, the need to ride off into the woods on that road before us. The song exists in an ideal world where the sleigh riders feel both the excitement of adventure and the comforting reassurance that nothing will ever go wrong, for how could it in an alternate universe this benign, in a “wonderland of snow”? “Sleigh Ride” has it both ways — the yearning for tame transcendence.

Then comes the bridge, with a different backup singer delivering each line and Karen herself taking the fourth and eighth, a veritable panoply of sincere, caring, all-American voices, clad in Christmas sweaters, cheeks aglow. The bridge’s lyrics are so astounding I can only quote the whole thing:

There’s a Christmas party at the home of Farmer Gray [the original version says “birthday party”]
It’ll be the perfect ending of a perfect day
We’ll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop
At the fireplace while we watch the chestnuts pop (pop pop pop!)
There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
As they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier & Ives
These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives

Consider the last couplet. “A picture print by Currier & Ives” — wow! Real life could no more resemble such a thing than it could a painting by Norman Rockwell or, gosh, Thomas Kinkade. It’s a nostalgically imaginary reference, for the famous 19th-century printmaking firm closed in 1907, over 40 years before the song was even written.

This line is the song’s wormhole: a tacit admission of representation, and moreover one that acknowledges how archetypes are constructed and how human experience moves in and out of archetypal realms. The lyrics’ comparison of a supposedly experiential scene to another work of art, and presumably an example of kitsch, forces you to realize that the song is an exercise in imagination, that the sleigh ride is a fantasy to aspire to. That this Christmas party will “nearly” be like such a print suggests that this fantasy is unattainable, or at most a state inhabited intermittently — one state among many that life moves between. Representations based on life become life’s impossible model.

The constructed nature of Christmas dovetails with a cultural narrative of Christmas under attack. It’s unique among holidays in that its value always requires protection from imaginary naysayers, defense against a gang of bogeymen, against Scrooges, Grinches, and liberals waging war on Christmas. The holiday’s partisans are above all defending the value of conventional sentiment — not just sentimentality, but structures of feeling explicitly defined as universally valuable, which is what both enables dissent and makes it a grave offense. But the Christmas narrative needs skeptics to exist, for believing in sentiment requires an active leap of faith. It’s this leap of faith that Christmas music addresses, intent on defeating heretics with an excess of emotion, strategically deployed kindness, a righteous defense of the eternal verities. As long as songs like “Sleigh Ride” permeate the ether, Christmas will be here to stay, every December of every year eternally recurring and reborn anew.

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