Is Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” a Christmas Song?

Every year, a few conversations begin to occur simultaneously before, on, and after Thanksgiving and continue through the new year. There are things you can expect to talk about with friends, family, coworkers, and passing acquaintances. Most are safe but, like all things holiday-related, are accompanied by a certain level of mild controversy and the potential to boil over until genuine disagreement.

Here are a few of the American holiday conversations one can be sure to experience annually:

  • “Can you believe _____ put up their Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving?”
  • “Guess which radio station already started playing Christmas music?”
  • “What’s your favorite Christmas song?”
  • “What’s your favorite Christmas movie?”
  • “We don’t say Happy Holidays in this house! It’s Christmas, damn it!’

It’s two of those that demand further inspection in this moment. Before answering the question of favorite Christmas song or favorite Christmas movie, we have to give further consideration of what constitutes a Christmas song or movie?

The Rise of the Unconventional Favorite Christmas Movie

Over the last few years, society has realized and embraced that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. This began, by most accounts, with a Cracked dot com article and now stretches across conversations, advertisements, and the internet. (My mother texted me this week that even an Xfinity ad recently highlighted Die Hard as a holiday favorite).

In response to this, it has become a meme to identify other unconventional Christmas movies, with examples including:

  • Batman Returns
  • Die Hard 2
  • Gremlins 
  • The Thing
  • The Thing (1982 remake)
  • Lethal Weapon 
  • The Shining 
  • Eyes Wide Shut
  • LA Confidential 

This conversation has been tackled by various blogs and writers, some of whom have tried to put the conversation entirely to bed by writing pieces like 538’s “The Best Movies That Are Kind Of About Christmas” or Vulture’s “10 Great Christmas-Adjacent Movies That Aren’t Die Hard”.

Music, meanwhile, works differently. It seems there is a clear line about whether something is or is not a Christmas song. It appears to be more straightforward: Christmas music is music for and about Christmas. (However, there are a few occasional comedic takes on what it is to be Christmas music, including popular comedian Brock Wilbur claiming every Ben Folds song is a Christmas song.)

Which brings me to the question I’ve asked here today…

Let’s Talk About “Happy Xmas (War is Over”) by John Lennon

This post is prologue so far. Here’s what I really want to talk about, what the top of the page exclaims, what I’ve been thinking about for years: is the song that begins with John Lennon whispering Merry Christmas to children really a Christmas song?

war-is-over
This song.

Originally I intended this to be a parody of such reads as “is gremlins a Christmas movie” and my own “why die hard 2 is a better christmas movie than die hard” or the recent, delightful “Is Holiday Classic It’s A Wonderful Life Secretly (or Actually) a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Movie?”

However, as I set out to write this, I realized that wasn’t the article I was writing.

Happy Christmas and Mix CDs

I am 32 years old. This means that I spent my high school and college years in the post-cassette and pre-streaming oughts, making mix CDs that would were often close facsimiles of the playlists for my college radio show on Denison University’s WDUB. Arcade Fire would melt into My Morning Jacket, followed by TV on the Radio and the Flaming Lips.

Earlier—in high school and junior high—I’d burn CDs that leaned heavily on the other CDs I already owned or were re-assemblings of best-ofs and compilations. One distinct memory of mine is putting the song “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” on a non-seasonal mix CD.

lennon-legend
I was first introduced to the song in question by this Best Of in sixth grade.

Every time I would play this CD—and I cannot recall what else was on it but I do recall that it lasted until college and I’m fairly certain that it also included “Do You Realize” and “Closing Time”—whether on a road trip or with friends or at the intentional community in which I lived, people would comment on it being “funny” or “weird” or unfitting to have this song playing.

It seemed, in the opinions of those subjected to my mix CDs, that the only appropriate time to listen to John and Yoko and the crew sing a song beginning with the lyrics “so it is Christmas” was during the Christmas season. Which, in the United States in the mid-oughts, began shortly after Thanksgiving and ran through the end of the year.

I understood the desire to listen to the song during December. In particular, it makes sense to listen to it on John Lennon’s birthday (December 8th). What I didn’t understand was the suggestion that the song should not be listened to during the rest of the year. After all, it wasn’t just a Christmas song. Christmas was only half the title. It was also a protest song.

It included the lyrics:

Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And

War is over, if you want it
War is over now

And

Let’s stop all the fight

Eventually, of course, I never put it on any more mix CDs because I stopped making mix CDs. They don’t exist anymore, at least not in my life.

But… what are Christmas songs?

But what it makes me wonder, now, years later, is what is a Christmas song?

While “Christmas movie” appears to have no real definition, no Wikipedia page, no listing in any dictionary, Christmas song does.

“Christmas music” is an oft-edited Wikipedia entry, rife with debate and discussion. It leads to subsets, including carols and noels, classical and instrumental, pagan and Christian, secular and religious, Jesus and Santa.

The Websters New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged) defines a carol as either “a song of joy, rapture, or gladness; as the carol of birds” or “a hymn of praise, especially in honor of the Nativity; as, a Christmas carol”.

As of today, Wikipedia tells us Christmas music “is a variety of genres of music normally performed or heard around the Christmas season.” When asked “what is a Christmas song”, Google pulls an answer from Wikipedia and tell us “[a] Christmas carol (also called a noël, from the French word meaning “Christmas”) is a carol (song or hymn) whose lyrics are on the theme of Christmas, and which is traditionally sung on Christmas itself or during the surrounding holiday season.”

To boil it down, the definition of Christmas song, then, appears simple:

  1. Songs about Christmas
  2. That you listen to during the Christmas season
  3. That it would be weird to sing or listen to when it’s not the Christmas season

This third, oft-unsaid element of Christmas songs is, in my opinion, where this entire conversation lies: Christmas songs are exclusive to the season, to the point where they demand a listening-to during it.

war-is-over-album-cover.jpg

Which returns to this question, then: if most of the lyrics are about Christmas, but the message is about war, is it about Christmas or is it about war?

Is the same true of Christmas movies?

Let’s consider the Christmas movie debate and conversation, through the lens of both the classic films and the non-conventional. Let’s try this same test:

A Christmas movie is:

  1. A movie about Christmas
  2. That you watch during the Christmas season
  3. That it would be weird to watch when it’s not the Christmas season.

I can’t help but think that this is the true crux of the “did you know _______ is a christmas movie” conversation. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Die Hard and Die Hard 2 and even Batman Returns are about Christmas.

But do these films fit into the third element of this category? And, more importantly, would they want to?

Consider that the Die Hards were all summer blockbusters. Batman Returns came out in June of 1992. Eyes Wide Shut was released in July of 1999 (although perhaps that one would be different had Kubrick lived). Every other non-Christmas Christmas movie is the same: spring or summer or fall, but never Christmas.

Which could lead to a new argument: is it actually unfair to refer to something as a Christmas movie? Is this why Bruce Willis famously, in 2015, said that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie? Is it like saying that horror can only be watched on Halloween or romantic comedies on Valentine’s Day? Are the labels Christmas movie and Christmas song not a badge of honor but a failing, a suggestion that something does not transcend seasons and become art?

Neither Love, Actually nor Eyes Wide Shut deserve to only be watched during December. A Muppet’s Christmas Carol is arguably Michael Caine’s crowning achievement and can’t be relegated to one twelfth of the year. Die Hard might be a Christmas movie but does that mean it isn’t also a year-round blockbuster?

I can’t help but be reminded of superhero films. Some of the greatest films in recently years fall into the superhero genre, including Logan and The Dark Knight. But their label as superhero films only drags them down in the eye of critical and public opinion, rather than elevating them to be viewed as the art they are.

The power of two stories at once

In a writing class in college, the poet David Baker taught us that one good story is never enough. You need at least two stories happening at once in anything you write.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of this than Lennon and Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”. They’re not just singing about the holidays and the new year. They make no mention of Jesus or Santa or gifts. No snow, no sleigh bells, no mistletoe. No winter.

war-is-over-lennon-ono
“Merry Christmas 1971 from the Lennon-Onos”

Instead, they sing about the same ideas as the ones in “Imagine” or “Give Peace a Chance”, the same themes present in “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”.

And it could seem inappropriate to draw this comparison, but “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” works for the same reason as Spider-Man: Homecoming, which doubles as coming-of-age and superhero tale. It’s not something that can be boxed in, added to just one list and omitted from others.

We already know it’s time to stop being so precious about what can and cannot be enjoyed, and when, and why, and the Christmas movie and Christmas song label is yet another dangerous and alienating aspect of this. If someone has a favorite Christmas song or Christmas movie—even if you think they’re wrong, even if you’re certain they should not be listening to that particular Lennon or Springsteen or Crosby song in the spring or fall—perhaps it’s time to just listen and let listen.

There is nothing worse than toxic fandom, be it for Doctor Who or James Bond or Baby Jesus.

Oh, and one last thing, the original inspiring reason for writing this: rest in peace, John Lennon, who died thirty-eight years ago today. Whether or not it’s a song to listen to during the spring or summer or fall, it is a song to listen to today.

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