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Top 40 Philosophy: Burl Ives, “Holly Jolly Christmas”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

It’s Christmas week, which makes me want to do more Christmas songs. So, let’s philosophize about some songs from the great “Christmas Specials” that have become part of Christmas for Americans since the 1960s.

TIME released a list of the “10 Greatest” specials last year, so we’ll start there. First on their list (though the list has no numbers) is Rankin-Bass’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I don’t really like the song on which the special is based, though, so I’m going to do “Holly Jolly Christmas,” which — like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — is also by Johnny Marks.

“Season’s Greetings” is a fascinating practice. It is what Wittgenstein would call a “language game.” We all know the rules of the game, and how to play it. One person tells the other person what kind of experience to have during a particular time period. “Have a good day,” or “Have a Merry Christmas” — or, elliptically — “Merry Christmas!” It sounds like a command. However, instead of saying, “Yes sir!” or “You can’t tell me what to do!” the other person is supposed to respond, “Thank you.”

So, the game is played by one person apparently commanding the other person, and the other person responding as if she or he were grateful. The second person is supposed to pretend that in commanding her or him to have a good time, the first person was actually promising or giving the good time in question.

For fun, of course, we occasionally respond not with, “Thank you!,” but with, “I will.” We, with tongue in cheek, are treating the well-wishing as the command it apparently is. But we find this response “cheeky” or amusing because we all know the well-wishing is not actually a command. It’s a different sort of speech act altogether, even though it uses the sentence form that would embody a command if it were used in a different language game (e.g., the game of organizing an FBI search party).

No wonder, then, that some of us have such a hard time navigating normal conversations. (See, e.g., Jim Parsons’s Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.) You have to be able to tell what language game is being played in order to know what speech acts are being performed, since the same sentence in two different games can embody completely different acts.


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