Opinions, Op-Ed

The Importance of Anti-War Messaging in Christmas Music

Peace, joy, and love are three of the most common words that you’ll hear when you listen to popular Christmas music. Maybe listeners will even hear those words in Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” or John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Both of these explicitly anti-war Christmas songs graced radio stations in years past, and continue to populate Spotify playlists around the world today. 

Yet, none of the abstract ideas of peace, joy, and love that these songs offer can exist during times of war, especially today, when global war in areas from the Donbas to the Gaza Strip seems perpetual and infinite. But why has anti-war messaging become a part of Christmas music and why is it important today?

Peace and Christmas have long been inextricably linked. One of the most famous examples of this is the Christmas truce during World War I, in which British and German troops began a ceasefire on Christmas Eve. Putting down their weapons, they joined together to sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” as they broke from the bloody battle of the trenches and rejoiced in a short moment of peace, tranquility, and music. The song provided a space for peace to exist in the lives of those engaged in the brutality of World War.

Flashing forward to the 1960s, the worldwide anti-war movement began to skyrocket in popularity on campuses across the United States, including Boston College. In my published article about the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter of BC, I referenced a letter from SDS to then University President Michael Walsh, S.J., published in The Heights as a satirical letter to Santa, advocating for an end to the war effort in Vietnam. The throughline here is that Christmas is, again, associated with calling for an end to war.  

(Heights Archives, 1966)

Not even 10 years later, a Heights published review of the album Shaved Fish, by Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, characterized the hit “Happy Xmas,” as a song filled with a “peaceful nature,” like many of Lennon’s other musical pieces. Once again, peace is tied to anti-war messaging of a song with the lyrics “so this is Christmas,” and a chorus echoing “war is over.” Christmas music serves as a tool to serve anti-war rhetoric because Christmas itself represents peace and harmony, both of which go hand-in-hand with calling for an end to wars.

Whether it was through a “Silent Night” ceasefire or lyrical calls for benevolence in Lennon’s discography, Christmas music is inextricably tied to peace. But despite Stevie Wonder’s hopes that “someday at Christmas, there’ll be no wars,” we have yet to reach that day, as conflicts rage across the globe, costing the lives of thousands and impacting the lives of millions. In times that feel helpless and hopeless, music can at the very least raise issues with violence and fear across the globe to show solidarity with those in struggle.

At the annual Christmas Tree Lighting on Gasson Quad, for example, playing these songs on the speakers or encouraging the a cappella groups to sing these songs raises awareness. Some of these songs even mix faith and anti-war messaging. After all, peace is—or at the very least should be—a key tenet of Catholic dogma at a school like BC. So, following in the footsteps of the BC students before us, it is crucial that we continue to sing these anti-war Christmas songs with a consciousness of their history and relevance to the present day.

December 16, 2023