Christmas Music War Games

This is not a scientific survey. But here are the facts: Yesterday (Black Friday) I was in six stores which played music–three big box stores, two grocery stores, and a drug store. They were dotted along a 150 mile route home from our family Thanksgiving celebration. So this included both a big city and small towns. I happened to notice that the first store wasn’t playing any Christmas music. It was just standard Muzak.

So I began to listen for Christmas music. Only one of the six stores played Christmas music–and it was religious, not just secular. Just one out of six stores on the biggest holiday shopping day of the year; a big box store in a big city. The rest played the typical blah stuff. Nor did I see any Salvation Army bell ringers at any of the locations when we visited. There was no competition for the Muzak outside the stores.

I wonder, could this be another cultural shift? Here’s a hypothesis:

Old Rule: Christmas music puts shoppers in the mood to buy. Therefore play as much Christmas music as possible. 

New Rule: Christmas music puts Christians and atheists in the mood to fight each other. The store gets caught in the middle, which is a no win situation. Therefore play as little Christmas music as possible, preferably none. 

The celebration of Christmas in recent years has been bogged down by controversy. At first the question was whether merchants in the marketplace should greet customers with “Merry Christmas” or stick with a safer “Happy Holidays.” After all, there is a Jewish holiday about the same time as Christmas. Besides, not everyone shopping is a Christian. Then about a decade ago, the pendulum swung back and merchants were under pressure to promote “Christmas” rather than the generic “holidays.” The season may be profitable for stores, but it’s not comfortable right now in the enterprise. It seems impossible for business to stay out of trouble. This year Starbucks is under fire because of the color of their coffee cups. Corporate offices are walking an impossible tightrope.

Thirty-some years ago a cheesy movie called War Games pitted a teen techie against a renegade computer which was trying to launch nuclear missiles. I don’t remember most of the plot, but toward the end it involved a game of tic-tac-toe, which always ends in a draw unless a player makes a mistake. At the climax, the computer seemed to realize it can’t win–either in tic-tac-toe or in thermonuclear war. The computer then ended the stand-off with a memorable line: “The only winning move is not to play.” In the movie this conclusion made everyone happy, even the computer.

Is that the the next round of the “Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays” war games? Is it possible that the only winning move is not to play? Is that why stores didn’t play Christmas music for their shoppers? Is this the logical dead end of political correctness, a complete musical muzzle?

Again, this is a very small sample and not at all scientific. But I think it raises some good questions. It seems like the vacillating pendulum of public free speech may be stuck. Since there’s no way to win, businesses may be declining to play the Christmas Music War Games. How far removed is this from the original Christmas message!

“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:9-12)