O Come, All Ye Hot Takes

Vintage photo from 1980 showing students holding candles and singing for holidays.
Image credit: Wellesley Archives
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

The Wellesley campus community knows winter break is coming soon when at 2 p.m. on Mondays after Thanksgiving Sydney Nguyen ’24, a senior member of Wellesley’s Guild of Carillonneurs, plays Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on the bells. But while Carey’s classic may feel festive to some, others would be happy never to hear the song again—as with anything, the Wellesley community has strong opinions about winter holiday music.

“It’s a cacophony in the best and worst ways,” says Kaleb E. Goldschmitt, associate professor of music.

“On the whole, I like the Christmas spirit that comes around after Thanksgiving,” says Claire Fontijn, Phyllis Henderson Carey Professor of Music, who played the flute and sang in Collegium Musicum’s A Renaissance Christmas concert this month. “I like hearing the different renditions of carols, on the radio or playing in a store. But after a month, that’s enough.”

Meanwhile, Ines Cuero ’25, who is Jewish, says she loves listening to “catchy, upbeat” Christmas music so much that she sometimes puts on her holiday playlist in the summer.

“I think I can speak for most choral directors that this time of year is insanity,” says Lisa Graham, Evelyn Barry Director of the Choral Program and a senior lecturer in music. In addition to directing Wellesley’s annual Christmas Vespers concert—a College tradition hosted by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life—she is the music director of the Metropolitan Chorale, the touring branch of the Boston Pops. In December, Graham sometimes does three holiday concerts in one day. “It’s a lot, but I don’t tire of it because of how people respond to it,” she says.

“As a Jewish American, growing up with Christmas music was a lot,” says Goldschmitt, who was raised in California, so even secular songs about snow and sleigh rides didn’t resonate.

“Growing up in South Florida for 15-plus years, I genuinely don’t remember a single year when Christmas Day itself was less than maybe 70 to 75 degrees,” says Tatiana Ivy Moise ’21, who tweeted about how she can’t relate to Spotify’s holiday playlist. Moise said many families in her hometown spend Christmas Day at the beach.

“Christmas music was one of the first ways I understood that I didn’t belong,” says Goldschmitt, who was once humiliated by their high school choral director when they didn’t know a carol. “But as a music scholar, I cannot help but love the fact that for one to two months out of the year people are listening to music across history. Some of these songs are from the Middle Ages––‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ is really old––to the jazz age through Golden Age Hollywood era to contemporary stuff.”

One Wellesley alum loved Christmas songs so much that she wrote her own: “The Little Drummer Boy” was composed by Katherine Kennicott Davis, class of 1914. “We don’t have a lot of graduates who are composers,” says Fontijn. “More nowadays, but back then it was really unusual.”

“My favorite recording of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ is the one with David Bowie and Bing Crosby because it’s so weird,” says Goldschmitt. “What are these two guys doing together? Only Christmas could get a pairing like that.”

Abigail George ’23, an English and environmental studies double major and the president of Wellesley’s choir, wrote her Wellesley100 application essay on “The Little Drummer Boy.” “I love how [Davis] wrote the song specifically for non-cis-men voices,” George says, describing the song as an “act of resistance” against the traditional Christmas music arrangements, which rarely featured only women’s and nonbinary voices. George loves Christmas music because of the nostalgia factor; she says listening to “River” by Joni Mitchell and the album Christmas Portrait by the Carpenters reminds her of riding around with her four siblings in her parents’ minivan.

“Every song has a memory associated with it, for better or for worse,” says Rachel Sih ’22, a digital coordinator for Warner Chappell Music, which administers the rights for “The Little Drummer Boy” everywhere except the U.S. (where the rights are mostly administered by EMI Music Publishing). Some holiday music gets a “year-round pass” from her, she says, like the A Charlie Brown Christmas album by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and some songs, like “Underneath the Tree” by Kelly Clarkson, she didn’t like at first but “got conditioned” to enjoy.

“Why are people drawn to Christmas music?” asks Zehra Fazal ’05. “I think indoctrination is a big part of it, and I mean this in a positive way.” Fazal, the daughter of Muslim Pakistani immigrants, grew up singing Christmas songs in her school in rural Indiana. “We never celebrated Christmas at home,” she says, “but I felt educated about Christmas due to my Christian classmates.” Still, Fazal, an actor for television and movies who frequently provides voices for animated features, often wished for equivalent Muslim tunes (“Why don’t we have a good Ramadan song?”), so she was delighted when she got to perform in a musical Eid episode for the Disney animated series Mira, Royal Detective: “We are making progress, so little Pakistani American girls in the Midwest now have something!”

Jewish composers actually wrote many popular Christmas songs, Goldschmitt says, because “that’s where the money was”—and Goldschmitt doesn’t blame Irving Berlin, for example, for trying to cash in by writing “White Christmas.” Though Goldschmitt says they wish songs for Passover and Rosh Hashanah got the same attention as anything relating to Hanukkah, which gets the focus it does due to its proximity to Christmas. “Oh my god, all the Hanukkah songs are terrible,” says Goldschmitt. “Though I guess it was cool when I was a teenager to hear ‘The Chanukah Song’ on the radio. When you don’t have much, you will take what you can get.”

For Emily Gardner Xu Hall ’10, a composer, lyricist, playwright, and actor living in New York, the music this time of year is all about community. Raised in London, Hall grew up in the English choral tradition, singing favorites like “Once in Royal David’s City” and “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.”

“Singing together is the healing balm that people need,” says Hall, pointing out how few opportunities there are now outside of the winter holidays for people to sing together. “Music and community is more powerful than any set of [religious] beliefs. … We’re in the darkest moment of the year, and I really think that is at the heart of everything. We want to get together and celebrate.”