Maybe it’s time to rethink Christmas music

My favorite Christmas carol is not a Christmas carol. You won’t hear him on the radio after “Jingle Bells.” You won’t sing it at Mass along with “O Holy Night.” But if you rummage around in the back of your closet, dig out that wrinkled cardboard box with your first crush’s name on it, and load up the Microsoft Zune you can’t bring yourself to throw away, you just might find it.

This is “Better Days” by Goo Goo Dolls, first released in 2006.

“Better Days” may not technically be a Christmas song, but it’s about Christmas. After a grand piano intro that washes over you like nearby church bells, the opening lines read, “And you asked me what I want this year / And I try to say it so kindly and clearly / Just the chance that maybe we’ll find a better days.” I’m 33 years old, but when I hear those words, I’m 15 again. It’s overcast and cool, and I’m just pacing back and forth in my high school parking lot with my headphones on, mesmerized.

My favorite Christmas memory is not a Christmas memory. It’s a flashback to being a teenager and discovering a band 18 painfully long months before their next album was released. It’s about buying, renting, and downloading every record they’ve made in the last 20 years, then listening to the 10-second teaser of their new single for months until the entire song is finally gone. It’s about finding songs that make me feel whole.

This is what it means to be a teenager: to search for meaning. In music. In ourselves. In our relationships. In our faith.

This is exactly what Advent should be: a search for meaning. In the coming of the Christ child. In the faith of a young woman and her husband. Adored by shepherds and magicians alike. But as an adult with a wife, two kids, multiple jobs, and an ever-growing list of people to buy presents for, I mostly spend the weeks leading up to Christmas looking for a way to survive.

My favorite Christmas scripture is not a Christmas scripture. This is the verse in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus says, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Teenagers are kids too. They may not carry the same aura of innocence and purity as “little children”, but I think there is something about our teenage selves that is worth resurrecting this Christmas.

When you’re 15, you don’t just listen to a song once and move on. You listen to it over and over until you learn every word. And you don’t stop there. You can find the acoustic version and the remix. Find the music video. You will find the live version. You find the demo song. You discover the bad cell phone recording of the concert where they play the bridge a little differently than before. And you enjoy every new discovery.

Listening to music as a teenager is a crazy, desperate, passionate search for new meaning, new experiences, and new ways to share it all with the people in your life. I wouldn’t describe my typical Christmas experience like that. But what if it was?

This Advent, I wonder what it would look like for me to engage with this season as a teenager, searching for new meaning in stories, poems, and songs I’ve heard hundreds of times. When I was a teenager, I didn’t care that I’d heard “Better Days,” “Iris” or “Flat Top” a hundred times. When a new version arrived, I listened to it a hundred times over, finding glory in every nuance of this particular record.

I want to seek out novelty with the obsessive ferocity of a teenager who has just discovered the music that resonates with his soul. Honestly, I really don’t know what that means for my 33-year-old self this Christmas, but I know it won’t happen with “Frosty the Snowman” or “Silent Night.” I need “Better Days”. I need Iris. I need a “Flat Top.”

The second verse of “Better Days” reads: “And the one poor kid that saved this world / And there’s ten million more that probably could / If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them.” When I was 15, it seemed like a beautiful idea, if a bit sacrilegious. At 33, it sounds like an instruction: Stop and pray not only for the children in my life—my children, my nieces and nephews, my students, my neighbors—but also for the child inside me. The teenager. The one still searching.

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