Something interesting has happened in the past year when searching for almost any Christmas standard on a streaming platform. Now, among well-known records new and old, an unfamiliar set of a dozen or so albums has appeared, all on the same label. Remarkably, they are all South Korean, and all were published in just a few years in the early seventies.
What gives? Well, why they turned up in the first place is easy enough to explain: A concerted, well-publicised effort by record label Oasis to reissue vinyl and eight-track classics from their archives, straight from the master tapes. But why so many Christmas records, from a fairly small and – at the time – hardly wealthy country?
In the late sixties, very much against the wishes of the nationalist military dictatorship, finding kinship in popular culture from the United States became a trend. Christmas, in particular, would bring hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets every year, adapted into raucous celebrations quite unlike anything seen anywhere else. It lasted just a few years because the dictatorship, under the increasingly authoritarian hand of Park Chee-hung, decided that people having fun was an existential threat, banned the music and undercut the celebrations. (They were probably right about the threat. Parties and popular uprisings share much of the same DNA.)
Even though South Korea is now a democracy and connections to American pop culture are probably stronger than ever, that intense Christmas moment never returned. Celebrations, such as there are, are now much more subdued. And there is relatively little Christmas music, with just the one Korean Christmas album released in the past thirty years, as far as I can tell. Memories, and mementos like these 1970s Oasis records, are all that remain of a once vibrant cultural scene.
The reason I mention this story is because it’s fascinating how Christmas – a thoroughly globalised phenomenon, with common touching points in practically every time zone – nevertheless constantly creates these little localised scenes and variants. For me, all these fantastic takes on what Christmas can be are an endless source of fascination, and a potent counterpoint to the idea that cultural exchange creates homogeneity.
And while there may be patterns of what will engender one of these scenes, it’s never uniform, and eludes all attempts to find a catch-all explanation. Many countries with a lot of Christmas music are, of course, Christian, but others are largely secular or even have other religious majorities. To return to South Korea for a moment, in the 70s, only about 15 percent of its population was Christian, about half of what it is today. What about a strong US influence, and a connection to the American Christmas music tradition? South Korea certainly had that – but that’s not the case for, say, the Parang tradition of Trinidad, which has its own sources and directions.
Each scene is its own, its ideas and interconnections unique to the place and time it appears. And that is yet another reasons Christmas music never stops providing us with surprises and reasons to dig deeper.
This year, I’m going to try to review records that help expand and explain the globalised Christmas world, and highlight local scenes you may not have heard about. We’ve already been to the US (including the separate scenes in Puerto Rico and Hawaii) and UK, to Canada, France (including Guadeloupe), Germany, Sweden, Denmark, to Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, to Hong Kong, in the Southern Hemisphere to Argentina and Australia. By the end of this Christmas season, I’m planning to have added at the very least the Philippines, Venezuela and (yes) South Korea to that list.
And we’re starting, this week, with an album that may well be the best Christmas record of the past fifty years…