The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 202012

Wonderful generational clip from the NBC show, “Community.”  Every role is nicely done: The Millennials kids, who know how to suck up to Boomers by flattering their mythic role in American cultural history; the Boomer (Chevy Chase), who enjoys being sucked up to; and the Xer (Joel McHale) who is disgusted by the whole thing.  The medley itself is pretty good, going from Be-Bop in the late ‘40s to New Wave in the ‘80s.

My thanks to Matt Duran, astute Millennial culture maven, for contributing this one:


“That Baby Boomer Santa” raises an interesting question: How much does the popular post-war music of Christmas actually revolve around Boomers?  You may have seen this funny chart, from the xkcd webcomic site, which was passed around last December.  Provocative tag line: “Every year, American Culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ Childhoods.”



This chart is accurate, so far as it goes.  The vast majority of the pop Christmas “songs” we hear on the radio did indeed become hits during the years when Boomers were being born and growing up as little children.  And nearly all of them were written and first recorded and sung (in their “classic” versions) by G.I. composers, band leaders, and vocalists (e.g., Bing Crosby, Bop Hope, Nat King Cole, Gene Autrey, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, writer Robert May, et al.).  We sometimes forget that one or two them (“I’ll be Home for Christmas”) exude the haunting melancholy of a nation that had sent 12 million men abroad to fight a brutal war.  OK, a few late-wave Lost were involved (like Irving Berlin); and a few Silent and even Boomers, especially on the “rock” songs (“Jingle Bell Rock” by Silent Bobby Helms in 1957 and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by 14-year-old Boomer Brenda Lee in 1958).

But my main point is that–though Boomers participated in this “White Christmas” explosion as child listeners—the inspiration for these songs was totally G.I.  They were celebrations of hearth and home.  They expressed the poignant longing for domestic tranquility by a history-tossed generation that just wanted (in the words of a returning soldier in Best Years of Our Lives) “A good job, a mild future, and a little house big enough for me and my wife.”  Yes, other generations participated in this mood while it lasted.  So maybe it’s fair to say that these songs were really more an expression of the (First Turning) era more than any one generation.

Boomers, truth to say, participated less in the spirit of this mood than any of the older generations they recall in their childhood—Lost, G.I., or Silent.  And by the time they came of age in the Second Turning, they began to move the culture in a direction that frontally attacked the treacly domesticity and bourgeois conventionality of those sweet violins and those basso profundo (G.I.) male voices.  And that took us straight to Jimmy Hendrix and Neil Young—and all the other artists who are gently lampooned by the “Glee” Millennials in the “Community” clip.  The only genuine “turning” outlier in the above list of twenty most popular Christmas songs is Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.”  Not only was this song written and sung by a Boomer, it was surely a Second Turning song—intended to celebrate America’s emerging multicultural reality rather than our passing “melting-pot” aspirations.  This, at last, was the voice of that new generation, not the old.

One last note.  Throughout history, First Turnings have almost always been the eras in which society’s celebration of the conventional and the domestic reaches its paradigmatic apogee.  When did Christmas first become a widely celebrated family holiday in the United States, with all of its Victorian and Dickensian trappings—the fat Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas card, the huge family gatherings, the commercialization of gift giving, etc.?  During roughly the two decades from the late 1850s to the late 1870s.  That is to say, during a (short) Fourth Turning, the Civil War, and then during the subsequent First-Turning era of Reconstruction and Victorian nation building.  This is when Dickens’ Christmas Carol became hugely popular, Prince Albert’s Christmas trees (a favorite with the queen) started appearing throughout America, piano sheet music of carols sold briskly, states at last made Christmas a public holiday (even in New England, where Puritans had earlier always denounced Christmas celebrations), and the whole commercial angle (cards, gifts, photos, meals) got underway.

The young children of that era: The Missionary Generation, like Boomers a moralizing generation that would later became famous both for destroying an older cultural paradigm (the Victorian) and for giving birth to new one (the Modern).

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  • JPT

    That video is hilarious. This may be a slight tangent, but I remember from my own childhood the big shift that happened when Boomers “took over societal leadership” from the Silents and GIs around 1992. I think Xers derive their world view from a combination of Boomer influence and that of the preceding generations. Since we are approaching the time when Xers will take over from Boomers, I wonder what kind of impact that will have on Millenials, and the way they’re viewed by the rest of society. By comparison, what impact did the Lost generation have on GIs? Their leadership during GI young adulthood in the 1940s and 50s (notwithstanding a fading FDR in the White House, the Lost generals ran WWII) must have had a significant impact on the way GIs turned out. I suspect the current Boomer-controlled Millenial persona will shift a bit in coming years due to Xer leadership.

  • Chas

    Honestly, the video, while hilarious is eerily accurate, and it was one thing that usually disgusted me about my peers was all the rather undeserved brown nosing. Toss this Millennial in amongst the Xers.

  • Chas

    Another thing, lately I’ve found a lot of 1980s era Christmas songs are played on the radio at Christmas just as much, if not more than the 1950s era. But then you could argue that that was just the Boomers (and Silents to a lesser extent) reflecting on their childhood and wanting to recapture those good old days of home and hearth, thus creating an “echo White Christmas”. One thing is for certain, most Millennials have nostalgia for a late 1980s/early 1990s themed Christmas, a la Home Alone or The Santa Clause.

    These are just a few songs that come to the forefront of my mind:

    Last Christmas – Wham! –
    Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Band Aid –
    Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer – Elmo & Patsy –
    Mannheim Steamroller –

    Continuing the 1980s style of Christmas for long past the end of that decade. Most Millennials I know grew up and are gaga for Mannheim Steamroller Christmas for themselves.