A Child’s First Christmas, Or: How Do We Really Understand Music?

I know, of course, that it’s another year of crisis and that Christmas will continue to be indelibly different this year. But in my home, there’s an additional source of Christmas joy this year that’s hard to ignore: My three-month-old son, who for the first time will experience the joy of Christmas – and Christmas music.

Five children celebrating their first Christmas at the materinity ward in Tierp, Sweden, in 1965. Photo: Arbetarbladet, Tierp / Upplandsmueet CC-BY-NC-ND

Five children celebrating, in so far as that is possible, their first Christmas at the maternity ward in Tierp, Sweden, in 1965. Photo: Arbetarbladet, Tierp/Upplandsmueet CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

My sister, at whose house we usually celebrate the holiday, told me she thinks this year will be a great one. “For the first time in years, we’ll have a child in the house again!” (I’m much younger than my siblings. My nephews and nieces are all in their late teens or early twenties.) Now my son is around – a bouncy, smily, sociable little baby, who happily babbles away and has just learned to chew on his own thumb.

It’s easy to see the family’s joy as something symbolic of an excitement to come – after all, I know that my son is blissfully innocent, far too young to understand what Christmas is, someone who will never remember his first Christmas in the years growing up. I admit, there’s a certain delight to be had in the idea of dressing up my child in a little adorable seasonal outfit, ready to be photographed with the family in front of a fragrant Christmas tree.

But at the same time, this is a period in my child’s life where his mind and heart takes in so much, from the most loving feeling of security to the marvellous twinkle of the little lights he loves staring wide-eyed at. That is certainly also the case with music. Music starts to affect the unborn child already in the womb, and can be a fantastic source of calm, happiness, social connection and motor development in a newborn. Like language, the type of music played for a child before they can even articulate what music is can help create pathways of neurons that will remain in their brains their entire lives.

So the natural question, I suppose, then becomes: What Christmas music should this Christmas-music-obsessed parent present as the very first holiday music heard by their son? Is it even meaningful to think of it in terms beyond the inherent, well, comfort and joy that Christmas music seems to inevitably bring forth?

Perhaps the question instead should be turned on its head. Anyone from a country that celebrates Christmas will build up a subtle and many-faceted relation to it, a feeling for what Christmas immanently is and what feelings it contains. How do we build up this understanding? How do we come to understand what Christmas is, from that state of blissfully unknowing hand-eating nativity that my son is currently living in?

A family at Christmas, with a wide-eyed baby getting a first feeling for what the celebration entails. Hungary, 1935. Photo: FORTEPAN/Scheidl Antal, CC-BY-SA 3.0

One potential answer comes from the philosophical study of understanding, the field of hermeneutics. German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, perhaps the most important figure in hermeneutics, contends that all understanding must be in tandem with tradition. We must work in relation to existing thought, existing tastes, existing practices, in order to get any deeper into a concept. Where we currently are in knowledge – in a very small place, in the case of a baby –  is only able to be expanded along a thin horizon; we must first get a feeling for the cultural canon of where we come from, be a literal child of our time, before we can reach beyond it.

This is an appealing thought for something as steeped in nostalgia and vintage recordings as Christmas music. It’s no coincidence that the music of this website has its most central focus some sixty years ago, and reiteration of the familiar is a central theme in what makes Christmas so comforting.

But there’s a lingering question that is difficult to address in this appeal to tradition: which tradition, exactly, are we talking about? I’m Swedish-Hungarian, with a passionate love for the traditional Christmas pop of both Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, my wife is Dominican, brought up on a completely different conception of what Christmas music is. “You’re not a real Dominican,” she says, “unless you know your Volvio Juanita,” a seasonal song with a story of return that resonates deeply with a culture where the diaspora plays such a large role. And of course, I do indeed want my child to be a real Dominican, together with all his other identities.

Is there a danger in going too deep into any one tradition, at the expense of others? One thinker who would certainly claim so is Martiniquais philosopher Édouard Glissant. In his worldview, going very deep into a tradition of thought, passing on knowledge unbroken and uninfluenced from father to son, comes with the potential of hurting others around, violently closing off and excluding anyone who is different or thinks differently. Instead, his ideal is to venture into the relation between different ways of thinking, into the much vaster space between and around tradition. This way, you open up for an expanse of your cultural starting point, and make the tradition you started out with all the richer, more productive and open to flower.

I see the value, I think, in both of these ways of thinking, Gadamer’s and Glissant’s. I want my child to both understand all his traditions and to dare see and experience things differently. Like with all child-raising, really, a mixture of providing a safe home to run back to on one hand, and the courage and security to joyfully go out and explore on the other.

With this in mind, I want to start this year’s writing with bridging some of the gaps in my own cultural canon. This website, purporting to be a comprehensive resource for Christmas music, is conspicuously missing the best-selling Christmas album of all time: Elvis’ Christmas Album by Elvis Presley. I may not be very fond of it, but explaining why that is – and what relationship it has with the rest of music history – is just as important when creating that musical home as praising any of its more exalted members.

And perhaps, one day, my son and I will be able to fruitfully use thinking about these well-trod, safe traditions to venture out beyond their limits, together.

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