When I was growing up, my parents owned a four-LP collection of Christmas music put out by Reader’s Digest. The collection separated the kind of Christmas music we might call “sacred” from the kind of Christmas music we might call “secular.” That is, all the songs about Santa Claus and snow were on two of the records, while all the songs about Jesus were on the other two. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” wouldn’t be followed by “For unto Us a Child Is Born” unless you changed records: the two categories had been segregated.
Contrast that to the Karen Carpenter Christmas album my husband purchased on CD a few years back. (I’m making my husband take the rap for this purchase because I don’t wish to be thought of as that kind of gay.) The collection opens with a medley that freely combines the kinds of music that my parents’ Reader’s Digest collection had segregated. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” segues into “Happy Holidays”; “Silent Night” is followed by “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”–I may not be remembering the examples accurately, but they accurately convey the kind of thing we’re talking about.
I’m intrigued by this as a lens for thinking about the construction of the categories “religious” and “secular” (or “sacred” and “profane”). The people at Reader’s Digest were clearly operating with a consciousness of those categories, as evidenced by their evident desire to keep the categories separated. I don’t know how the creators of the Karen Carpenter medley stood in relation to the categories. Did they understand themselves as mixing “sacred” and “secular” Christmas music? Or were they not even thinking in terms of those categories to begin with? In other words, did they not distinguish, in their minds, between “sacred” and “secular” Christmas music? Was it all just one category for them–“Christmas music”? And if it was all just one category, would it make more sense to understand that category as “sacred” or “secular”? Does pairing “Silent Night” with “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” secularize the former or sacralize the latter? Or do those categories simply become unhelpful at this point for neutral analytical purposes, serving only to imply a value judgment for or against the pairing?