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Have a Holly Jolly Christmas? Not Necessarily

David Stowe, left, and Russ White in the MSU Audio Studios
David Stowe, left, and Russ White in the MSU Audio Studios

David Stowe is a professor of religious studies in Michigan State University’s College of Arts and Letters

Professor Stowe has written a piece titled Christmas isn’t always holly jolly – even some of its best-loved songs are bittersweet at The Conversation and titled A blue Christmas song can be a comfort, when everyone else seems to feel joy at the Los Angeles Times.

“I have been researching music and religion for most of my career. I’m especially interested in the study of religion through the experience of people. It’s called lived religion. It’s not as much the sacred texts and the books, but how people experience religion and how they act it out. Music is very important to that experience. It’s a big part of why people stay connected to churches.

“In this season, we’re all aware that religious music is never heard more often than during the holidays. Everywhere you go you hear the familiar Christmas jingles, but also some of the hymns of Christmas that go back hundreds of years. And now we don’t think of them as particularly religious. Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and Silent Night are actually hymns. So, it’s a great time to think about how religion enters the experience, not just of religious people and Christians, but everyone in America who is surrounded by this music.

“I’m also interested in the double-edged feeling of Christmas. Because on one hand it is a holiday of joy, and for a lot of people it’s their favorite time of year. But it also has a different side. There’s often a lot of stress associated with the tempo of the season. And other people feel disconnected during a time of year when people are supposed to be enjoying their families, friends, and loved ones. A lot of people are not really a part of that, especially with the isolation that has come along with the pandemic. It can be a difficult time for those people.

“But I think for everyone, there’s what I call a brew of nostalgia and melancholy that is characteristic of the season. Even if you have family and are surrounded by loved ones, there are inevitably people who are no longer in your life. We lose parents and grandparents. And children grow up and move away and can’t always make it home for the holidays. So, it’s really easy to feel dislocated this time of year. It’s a time where we think about the passage of time and reflect on how we’ve changed and the people around us have changed and may not exist anymore. The music can capture those feelings because music holds memories for people. Aromas and music trigger memories like nothing else.

“I want to reassure people that if they’re feeling this ambivalence and conflicted emotions around the holidays that that is natural and almost universal. There are good reasons for it. Hopefully people won’t get themselves into a Charlie Brown-like funk over it but just recognize that this is a season of the year where we reflect, and it’s OK to be a bit introspective. We all need some time away from the hustle and bustle of family life to think about the kind of world we live in and the part we can play in making a better world.”

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.