I like to think that I go through my daily life wielding an analytical sword, sharp with logic and scepticism, cleaving nonsense from sense, magic from science and imaginary from demonstrable. But then Christmas happens. Every year. And faced with the intellectual equivalent of the jumble of fairy lights, tangled tinsel and interknotted decorations I find in my attic, I am loathe to cut my way through the problem.

Take Christmas music, for example. For many, this is the most irritating feature of the season, as they are bombarded with either kitschy bell-jingling tackiness on a loop or toe-curling piety forced upon them. Sword in hand, I want to separate secular from religious. But then I look closer. I see traditional carols that are entirely unreligious. I see pop tunes full of the divine. I look closer again. I see hymns full of pagan references to holly and ivy, to mistletoe and evergreen trees. I have read theories that make my head hurt. That "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" is a Jacobite song about loyalty to Bonnie Prince Charlie (including a pun on "Regem Angelorum" and "Regem Angolorum" – he being born the "King of England" rather than "King of Angels"). Or that the seemingly secular "12 Days of Christmas" might possibly have been an encoded catechism for Catholics when their religion was banned. And of course, it is clear that secular doesn't mean rational: talking reindeer, dancing snowmen and magical elves, to name but a few examples.

Christmas music defies the simplicity of my sword, interwoven and grown together as it is of disparate strands – pagan and Christian, folk and elite, Medieval, Victorian and modern. So I am going to adopt some lenses through which to view it instead.

The first of these is tinted with a little anthropology. The human need for a festival of light in the darkness, a coming-together and a huge party to raise our flagging spirits in the bleak midwinter. Who ever heard of a party without music? It seems that the word carol probably comes from the Latin "carula" meaning a circle dance. These dances and their corresponding songs were central to celebrations all year round. In the modern era, we seem to have lost the dancing and limited them to Christmas, but the impact is still powerful. Communal singing about joy and light. Sharing hope and rejoicing as a group. "Joyful, all ye nations rise! Join the triumph of the skies!" In this sense, Christmas carols work for me.

Which leads to me to my next lens. The history of Christmas music is a tale of attempts by the Church to limit and control the fun. For most of their history, carols have been blowing a big fat raspberry in the face of church authorities. The sheer number of Church edicts condemning carolling endears it to me. They were associated with the older practice of wassailing – going house to house singing for food and drink. It was loud, raucous and a whole lot of fun. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is a wassailing song – hence the "Bring us some figgy pudding" and the rather cheeky "We won’t go until we get some". By 1647, the carols, and the whole of Christmas, was simply way too much like fun and was banned entirely by the Puritans. Witchcraft trials of the time quoted evidence of women singing carols as proof of depravity. On a spectrum with Puritans on the one end, and a good time on the other, I know where I would like to be.

Then there is the artistic lens. To dispense with carols due to their religiosity is to miss out on some very very beautiful poetry and music. "In the Bleak Midwinter", written by Christina Rossetti and set to music by Gustav Holst, is exquisite to the point of goosebumps. Another favourite of mine is Sabine Baring-Gould’s "The Angel Gabrielle", who comes "with wings as drifted snow, with eyes as flame". Listen to the harmonious voices in "Gaudete" and feel the balm of human artistic achievement. To dismiss such riches is like writing off the wonders of Renaissance art because of its emphasis on religious imagery.

It occurs to me that carols are packed full of stuff that religious people don’t really believe anymore either – all those hosts of angels don’t really feature much in contemporary Christianity outside of Christmas songs. Never mind the entirely illogical ("I Saw Three Ships" – "O they sailed into Bethlehem". How exactly?) But truly, the songs that most grate on me aren't the religious ones. I get rattled every year at the creepy, spying, judgemental Santa in "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". I wince at the sexually predatory "Baby It’s Cold Outside" and groan at the weirdness for children of "I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus".

In all of the tinselly tangle, I think my view is best summed up by Nathan Heller, who wrote that drawing clear battle lines between secular and religious Christmas music was like "insisting on a basic difference between hot cross buns and Danishes". At the end of the day, they both make a good snack with a cup of tea.