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Why You Love (or Love to Hate) Christmas Music

It’s been a little over one year since the Backstreet Boys released their Christmas album, “A Very Backstreet Christmas,” and Francine Biondo has had it on repeat ever since.

To be fair, Ms. Biondo, 39, a child care provider in Ontario, Canada, is a fan of Nick Carter and maybe even a bigger fan of Christmas music. The Christmas season was in full swing for her by mid-November, with plans to decorate a tree. Although she typically begins listening to holiday music after Halloween, she is known to sprinkle in a little Christmas cheer during the summer.

“It just puts me in a happy, feel-good mood,” she said by phone of songs like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” adding that they invoked happy memories of her childhood.

For Ms. Biondo, the songs do more than get her into the holiday spirit, they also boost her productivity. “To be honest, I need music to just get me through the day,” she said. “I need music when I’m cleaning the house and just doing the daily things, it kind of helps motivate me. Christmas music, especially around that time of year, it just’s more fun.”

She might be on to something.

Daniel Levitin, an author and musician in Los Angeles and a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, said research has shown that most people in Western countries use music to self-soothe. “They know that there are certain kinds of music that will put them in a good mood,” he said. “Christmas music is a reliable one for a lot of people.”

The healing effects of music have long been studied. Mr. Levitin participated in a 2013 study that concluded that music boosts the body’s immune system and reduces stress.

Mr. Levitin said that listening to a song that has not been heard in a long time can transport a person back in time. “That’s the power of music to evoke a memory,” he said. “With those memories come emotions and possibly nostalgia, or anger, or frustration, depending on your childhood.”

For the people who find joy in Christmas music, the brain may increase serotonin levels and may release prolactin a soothing and tranquilizing hormone that is released between mothers and infants during nursing, Mr. Levitin said.

Conversely, if negative memories and feelings are associated with Christmas, the same songs could cause the brain to release cortisol, the stress hormone that increases the heart rate, and trigger the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. “There are a lot of people who, when Christmas time comes around, they just want to run home and put their head under the covers and wait it all out,” Mr. Levitin said.

Christmas music, like all forms of music, is powerful. But this genre is perhaps more potent than other forms of music because the holiday season itself is emotionally charged. It represents the ideals that most humans strive for like equality, tolerance, love and tranquillity. “For some of us, that’s an inspiring message,” Mr. Levitin said. “For others of us, it just draws in stark relief how far we are from achieving that.”

Yuletide music sung to celebrate the winter solstice has been around for thousands of years, some even predating Christianity, according to Alisa Clapp-Itnyre, an English professor at Indiana University East. These songs were sung in communal, secular settings and as early as the third century, Christianity adapted Yuletide festivals for celebrations of Jesus’ birth. Then, stories of Jesus were woven into carols, which were still sung in communal settings, even across class divides.

“During the dark months of winter, it brought people together for celebration and generosity,” Professor Clapp-Itnyre said, adding that she thinks this still happens today in various forms, like the Salvation Army holding donation drives and carols being sung in nursing homes.

By the 20th century, secular Christmas songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “White Christmas” began reflecting the grief people were facing and brought solace, particularly to World War II soldiers who could not be home for Christmas. “These songs are becoming popular during the war because people are seeking something traditional, something that they used to know of family and peace and those good traditions, even as their whole world is being blown to smithereens,” Professor Clapp-Itnyre said.

The positive feelings associated with Christmas music are something Vanessa Parvin, the owner of Manhattan Holiday Carolers, a holiday entertainment company, knows well. Ms. Parvin, 45, has been singing Christmas music professionally since 1999.

Part of the joy, she said, is “adding to other people’s holiday magic experience and nostalgia,” which can mean honoring song requests that remind guests of their childhoods or relatives who have died.

While she has a memorized repertoire of about 90 Christmas songs, there is one that invokes memories of her own family. “‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ was my grandmother’s favorite, so that doesn’t make me think of caroling,” she said. “It makes me think of my grandmother and my mother.”

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