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Can you hear the sleigh bells in the distance? Christmas music: it's unavoidable during the festive season. While Christmas enthusiasts warm up to Wham, others can't stand it. Where does this love-hate relationship with Christmas music come from? We asked Dr. Martina de Witte, a music therapist and researcher exploring the effects of music. Her favourite Christmas tune is Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas, which reminds her of the annual car ride to her family in Friesland.

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‘Music you enjoy activates “happiness hormones” in your brain, making you feel better’, Martina explains. ‘Additionally, it can also work as a stress reliever. If the music's rhythm matches the average human heart rate (60 to 80 beats per minute), chances are big your own heart rate will eventually slow down, making you feel calm.

Lidya Yurdum, research assistant at the UvA, discovered something similar in her research on children's songs: ‘Playing a lullaby from a different culture for Dutch babies elicits the same response as a familiar Dutch lullaby: their heart rate slows, they become more relaxed. Perhaps you enjoy Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because it reminds you of your childhood, but the song also stimulates physical relaxation, and we enjoy feeling that way.’

Uplifting Christmas music, on the other hand, raises your heart rate and energises your body. ‘Whether you sing along to All I Want for Christmas Is You could be related to your need for energy at that moment’, Lidya adds.

The purpose of Christmas music

Your music choice isn’t just about physical reactions but also about the situation. Online streaming platform Spotify discovered that during the pandemic, people globally started listening to calmer music as a response to stressful circumstances. This phenomenon resembles the Christmas season, with its cold, darkness, and feelings of loneliness. For many, Christmas music provides solace. Martina's current stay in Australia confirms that Christmas tunes are only listened to in the appropriate context: ‘It's 34 degrees here. We celebrate Christmas with a barbecue, while many Christmas songs are about cold and snow. In this situation, you won't be listening to Let it Snow.’

martina de witte die een mevrouw een ritme probeert aan te leren
Left: Dr. Martina de Witte (Photo by Gema Pérez).

Social and cultural factors also play a significant role. According to Martina, music helps with bonding. Experiencing, singing, and making music together enhances interpersonal connections. This effect is particularly strong with Christmas music, as we collectively experience it at the same time each year.

For Christian people, Christmas songs hold religious significance and contribute to their sense of purpose. Even for those who don’t attend church, it can be a moment for reflection and gratitude. It might not be a silent night, but it’s a holy one.

So, what about the haters?

‘That's always harder to investigate’, says Martina. ‘Christmas songs are very specific: jingle bells, cheerful melodies, a touch of melancholy. It's a particular style that doesn't make everyone cheerful. 'You love it or you hate it' actually applies to all music genres. People who enjoy pop music often aren’t fans of metal, and vice versa.’

What sets Christmas music apart from other genres though, is its abundant exposure during a specific time of year. Some Christmas songs have been playing for 30 years! Every year, the genre brings both love and dislike, with the ever occurring question: which side are you on? This doesn't happen with hard rock or classical music.

The 'mere exposure effect' might also play a role, first described by William Wundt in 1874: the more we hear something, the more we tend to like it. But that doesn't last forever. According to Berlyne's psychobiological theory, our brains reach saturation at a certain point, and the effect reverses. If you keep hearing the same Christmas songs, the dislike grows. And that might be the problem with Christmas music.

Due to its strong association with a specific period, it can also act as a trigger for some people, Martina suggests. If you experience a lot of stress during this season, Christmas songs might be linked to negative feelings. All you want for Christmas is... silence.