Seasonal Separations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Maintaining distinctions between sacred and secular music is a common religious concern. Ever since people began writing critically about music, faithful authors have wasted little time and much ink appealing to a higher authority and inventing higher demands for the music of worship. Views on the issue can be passionate, imaginative and thought provoking; but they ultimately fall short of delineating objective qualities. While attempts are made to outline intrinsic differences between sacred and secular music (that is, looking at non-textual and non-contextual attributes), such efforts are always subjective, frequently elitist and habitually ethnocentric. Taste and convention play a far greater role in determining the “sacred” in music than anything else. Music is music, and all sounds are susceptible to multiple applications, religious and other.

The debate could—and perhaps should—end here. After all, if there is no such thing as a sacred interval or a secular chord progression, then critics are simply couching their opinions in pious language. However, while the scientific search for separate essences comes up empty, cultural conventions inform us otherwise. Continuous usage in one setting or another creates fixed associations. Add to this thematic content and musical purpose, and disco obtains a secular character, while plainsong earns a religious one. Pure reason tells us to abandon efforts to place genres in their “proper” place (a socially constructed concept); but visceral reactions to perceived musical encroachments remain real and often intense.

As mentioned, this is most frequently a religious problem. It is, in fact, a symptom of a larger religious concern: separating sacred from profane. Fans of popular music are not as likely to complain when a church-linked idiom creeps into a Top 40 hit. But religious intrusions into secular music can be just as jarring, and may occasionally ignite criticism.

A seasonal example is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” written by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman. Christmas is a double holiday: one part secular, one part sacred. The first part manifests in snowmen, ugly sweaters, dazzling lights and fruitcakes, while the second includes nativity scenes, scriptural passages, angels and worship services. The two halves of Christmas have their own soundtracks: “carols” for one and “songs” for the other. Sonic differences between the two are sometimes clear and sometimes not, but the lyrics rarely conflict. “Angels We Have Heard on High” retells a New Testament story, “Jingle Bells” depicts a winter joyride. Among the few exceptions is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a song that intentionally confuses the territories.

As a cultural icon, Santa Claus fits neatly on the secular end of the Christmas spectrum. Santa is not Jesus, and Jesus is not Santa. Autry and Haldeman stepped over this line. “Here Comes Santa Claus” utilizes light and dancey music typical of the non-religious category, and travels through the usual secular references: reindeer, stockings, presents, sleigh bells. But beneath this innocuous façade is a religious agenda, evident in these sneaky lines: “Hang your stockings and say your prayers”; “Santa Claus knows we’re all God’s children, that makes everything right”; “Peace on earth will come to all, if we just follow the light. So lets give thanks to the Lord above, that Santa Claus comes tonight!”

Not surprisingly, this song is a favorite of the “Jesus is the reason for the season” crowd. In their minds, it shines a much-needed religious light on the “frivolous” celebration of a sacred holiday. But just as religious people complain when elements perceived as secular seep into their music, secularists are justified in objecting to the Autry-Haldeman concoction. If distinctions between sacred and secular songs exist at all—and they certainly do to the ears of many listeners—then respect for borders should be upheld on both sides of the divide. For this reason, “Here Comes Santa Claus” is, at the very least, an uncomfortable hybrid.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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