Xmas: the Moveable Feast
By: Matthew Battles | Categories: Browbeating

In New England this week the mail carriers were still wearing shorts. But the oldies stations have pulled the Christmas trigger, and are hitting the holiday music hard. Which means we’ll be treated to nearly two full months of the signature voices of the twentieth century dialing it in.

Especially in the bowels of the economic downturn, the nostalgic tones of holiday music evoke the magnificent material media of the American century. It was a rich time, and music feasted on the fat of the land. Think of the world of mid-century music — the dulcet-toned choruses, the harmon-muted batteries of horns, the phalanxes of strings like longbowmen at Agincourt.

This music was born nostalgic; escape was already its affect. Partially, it’s the liminal glamor of the holidays. But it’s Frank and Bing’s false bonhomie that really makes the magic — their insouciance untouchable, beckoning us to unbutton our own fantasies of grace under pressure. It’s an interesting move nostalgia makes: we’re listening to catch the strains of a bygone era, a simpler time. And yet, so listeners were doing when these songs were new. The music was the means of escaping the time to which it now returns us. Nostalgia is a moveable feast, a portable plum pudding, a fruitcake that never fades.

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Matthew Battles, Hilobrow's cofounder, has written about language, history, and the natural world for many publications. When he makes poems, he puts them here. A fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, he's also the author of Library, An Unquiet History.