Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Musical Christmas stockings

Music is as integral to the Christmas holiday as a tree, or lights, or elbowing the poor sap next to you in order to grab the last carton of eggnog.  It’s a vast subcategory of popular music, one that continues to grow with each passing year.  It seems like every recording artist since the invention of the victrola feels compelled to offer us their unique interpretation of “Jingle Bells.”   Seriously, how many varieties of “Frosty the Snowman” does one nation under God really need?  But these are smart people; they realize that if they can somehow wedge their version of even one song into the popular memory, their fame will be eternal, or at least last long enough to give them a convenient way to introduce themselves in the afterlife.  Take Bobby Helms and Brenda Lee, for instance.  If it weren’t for “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” respectively, we wouldn’t know that these people ever existed.  Even singers like Perry Como and Andy Williams, who were great stars of their day, are identifiable to today’s  generations only for their unsurpassed renditions of “Home for the Holidays” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (again respectively).   

We’ve now had 70-some Christmases since records and radio entered the cultural mainstream, and that means many thousands of Christmas songs and Christmas albums have been recorded.  A great number of these have survived right down to the present day, thanks to the natural human proclivity to hold on to every piece of circular black vinyl ever printed.  I myself have a box of LP’s sitting in my closet, even though I haven’t had a working turntable since 1992.  That means there’s an awful lot of Christmas music floating around, which makes it all the more difficult to understand why I have to listen to Wham! singing “Last Christmas” at least once an hour whenever I have the Christmas music station on. 

No matter what your musical tastes are, when it comes to Christmas music, there’s an absolute surfeit of choices.  Even if you have no taste at all, you can still enjoy songs like “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” a barking dog version of “Jingle Bells,” or that absurd “Christmas Shoes” song, which I understand now comes with its own EpiPen for people who are allergic to treacle, which is most of us.

With the overabundance of tunes out there, it’s difficult to rely on the radio to fill your Christmas music stocking with the kind of songs you love.  You know before you even turn it on the odds are good you’re going to hear a song you can’t stand before the next commercial break.  For me, those songs are like oranges in my Christmas stocking.  Every Christmas as I was growing up, in addition to the candy and the toys, I would always receive a honkin’ huge-ass orange in my stocking that would take up a solid third of the available volume inside my sock, and I’m talking about the maximum stretched-out volume, not the limp, empty volume.  My filled Christmas sock looked like a garter snake had swallowed Donald Trump’s head (why do I keep having that dream?).  These oranges were so enormous that it served as the surest possible evidence that St. Nick had to be real; who else could get their hands on oranges the size of a small European country?  The point is, even as I was impressed by their girth, I hated those oranges.  They took up way too much space; space that, to my greedy little mind, should have been filled with more candy, cool toys and small electronic gadgets.  Oranges might have been a real Christmas treat two centuries ago, but these days you can walk into any grocery store on any day of the year and carry off a wheelbarrow full of them without anyone noticing.  Oh, how I despised those mutant Christmas oranges.   

The point is, listening to Christmas music radio virtually guarantees a certain number of Christmas oranges.  It’s all purely subjective, of course; and for everyone it’s something different.  I already mentioned “Last Christmas;” another song I recently learned I’m really sick of is that Trans-Siberian Orchestra version of “Carol of the Bells.” I used to think it was cool; now, it just seems like an unholy, raging mess, the kind of thing Yngwie Malmsteen might perform for his family on Christmas Eve, but wisely keeps private. 

Fortunately, the same immense variety of music allows us the option to create our own Christmas music stocking, and fill it only with the things we love to hear.  This gives us the flexibility to use the Christmas music station when it’s convenient, or for times when we’re busy and want some generic background cheer, or for those special holiday moments such as when we have just given some jerk the finger for cutting us off in ridiculously grotesque traffic while Nat King Cole’s mellifluous voice mocks us with tidings of, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

When we want to get serious about the Christmas spirit, most of us have the option to turn to our tailored, hand-picked collection of holiday music.   This is the kind of Christmas music we choose to listen to, the music that we play when we’re at home, and don’t want to be disturbed by all the oranges.  It’s the music that allows us to still feel good about Christmas even after you find out that your sister just bought Dad the same killer gift you did, and now not only do you have to take yours back, but you have to come up with a new idea and then deal with the desperate shoppers and dwindling inventories at the store all over again.  It’s the music that lifts us out of the frustrations of the moment, and delivers us to the warm embrace of the Christmas ideal.  It helps us recalibrate our perspective, and remember intuitively that this Christmas, however hectic or hassled, will eventually blend in with, and become part of, the perfect Christmas within our minds and hearts.  Temporal aggravations don’t survive in that place; what persists is the distilled essence of the season:  joy, love, anticipation raw and fulfilled, time with family and friends, the quiet of the night, sitting near a tree lit by memories and hopes, your Christmas music playing softly in the background.     

Admittedly, our Christmas music stocking isn’t much to look at.  It consists of only five disparate holiday CD’s that have somehow managed to bond into a cohesive, cherished whole.  The trendy and the lackluster were ejected long ago, leaving only the music that truly stirs the essence of the season in us.  There were some necessary casualties along the way, some less deserved than others.  For instance, we had to respectfully remove Elvis’ Christmas after Elizabeth’s mother passed away, because every time the song “Mama Liked the Roses” came on she would break out in an incapacitating bout of sobbing.  Likewise, we had several Mannheim Steamroller CD’s in our annual rotation for awhile, until it began causing me incapacitating bouts of sobbing, but that was just out of sheer annoyance.

Although the playlist hasn’t changed much over the last fifteen years or so, it doesn’t mean we have closed ourselves off to new additions.  Every now and then, one or the other of us will hear a new artist, or a new interpretation, and pick up the CD to throw into the mix.  This year, for instance, it’s A Very She and Him Christmas’ chance. Some of these interlopers will stick around for a year of two, and some won’t make it through the season.  Ultimately, very few recordings demonstrate the requisite staying power to inspire us year in and year out; sooner or later, the vast majority end up getting the ol’ bum’s rush.  That’s what the Christmas music station is for, remember? 

With all that as background, I will now unveil our definitive Christmas music stocking: the five CD’s that we’ve stitched together over the course of twenty-plus years, and which unerringly bring us back to Christmas every single year.  The music will reveal something of us and our style, which I hope is perceived as being somewhere between classic and eclectic.  You may have your own opinions about it, and about us; but for us, this is what Christmas sounds like…

A Charlie Brown Christmas – Vince Guaraldi Trio. 
Before it was popular to play songs from the enduring TV special on Christmas radio, we were listening to this CD.  In fact, when we first discovered it was possible to buy as a CD, you couldn’t get it at Target or Best Buy or Musicland (God rest ye, merry Musicland).  We had to go to Tower Records to find the recording, and even then it had to be special ordered because they didn’t stock it, not even during Christmastime.  These days, everyone is familiar with Vince Guaraldi’s gentle, jazzy take on several Christmas standards, as well as adding a few new ones to the canon.  How can you not feel the better about the holidays when hearing “Linus and Lucy,” or when the Peanuts gang serenades you with “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing?”

In the immortal words of Linus Van Pelt, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown…”

When My Heart Finds Christmas – Harry Connick, Jr. 
This was Harry’s first Christmas album, and although we posses several of them, this is the one that steadfastly encamps in our essentials collection.  Elizabeth has always been a big fan of Connick’s music, and she strongarmed this one into our Christmas music stocking over my initial protests.  But I have to admit that Harry’s rowdy, New Orleans big band sound on songs like “(It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” has grown on me over the years, and his silky, soulful crooning on songs like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and “Ave Maria” have made this CD indispensible to our family’s Christmas soundtrack.  Even his version of “Little Drummer Boy” somehow comes off as tolerable, and not teeth-grindingly annoying, as I am used to.

Acoustic Christmas/Spirited Holiday Instrumentals – John Darnall. 
Of all the Christmas music CD’s we’ve purchased over the years, this one best represents the miracle of the season better than any other.  We found this obscure collection of purely instrumental carols totally by accident.  It was early on in our marriage, and we were looking for inexpensive ways to add some variety to our Christmas music stockpile.  We bought it primarily because it was cheap (five bucks or so on the discount rack at Walmart; that’s right, the discount rack at Walmart), and because we didn’t have much in the way of instrumental music.  How kindly good fortune sometimes smiles on the ignorant!  This album instantly entrenched itself into our seasonal playlist and hasn’t budged an inch since.  It’s a vivacious, twinkling blend of acoustic instruments (guitar, violin, mandolin, harpsichord, harmonica, etc.), played with beautifully melodic precision and a playful, optimistic personality that takes familiar holiday songs and tweaks them musically in what I can only describe as an adorably quirky way.  To me, it recalls the music of the 90’s TV show “Northern Exposure” because of its offbeat expressiveness and rich, organic sound.  That is so us.
If you were the luckiest person in the world, out traveling in the remotest winter wilderness of Northern Europe, you would stumble across an isolated village where it just so happened that a small group of amiable, laid-back, talented but mute musicians lived and did nothing but play lively and creative Christmas songs on instruments as old as the hills.  They would wordlessly invite you in, hand you a hot toddy, and then play you songs like these.  I love this CD. 

The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas – Various. 
This is our go-to album for the old standards, sung by familiar voices, the timeless versions that everybody knows.  It’s actually a three-CD set; but we condensed it down to a single disc containing the best of the best, and that’s what we usually play.  Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas,” Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Perry Como, Andy Williams, the list goes on and on.   These are the songs that we’ve been hearing since we were kids, and it seems that no one’s sung them better since. 

A Christmas Together – John Denver and the Muppets.
Fans of the blog now know how much I love the Muppets.  Honestly, though, the reason this CD is part of our Christmas music stocking is not because it’s the Muppets; it’s because of the wonderful original songs on it.  This CD does have its share of classic standards, including “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” to which the Muppets add their characteristic comic flourishes.  But the real magic is to be found in the original and non-traditional Christmas songs, some of which are exquisitely beautiful.  John Denver’s honest, pure voice is a gift in itself, sparkling like a star on new songs like “The Peace Carol,” and “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913.” The songs “It’s In Everyone of Us” and “When the River Meets the Sea” aren’t really even Christmas songs in the traditional sense, but they are deeply spiritual, and speak to the truth of Christmas in a way most Christmas songs just miss.  “When the River Meets the Sea” is one of my all-time favorite songs, one that is gently profound and peaceful in a way that defies description.  For me, listening to that song is like getting a soul massage.  “The Christmas Wish” is another great original song.  It may be sung by Kermit, but I hear Jim Henson’s voice in each wonderful word. 

So, now you know what Christmas sounds like at our house.  This is what friends and family will hear when they stop by to visit, what we’ll sing in the kitchen when we’re making dinner or horsing around, what we’ll listen to as we wrap our gifts, and what we’ll relax to one final time as the mad rush of Christmas finally slows down to a few weightless moments. 

That’s what you’ll find in our Christmas music stocking.  I wonder what’s in yours?


  1. Thanks the magic of Itunes, we have been able to pick and choose our favorites as well. Most of ours are the old classics (Bing Crosby's white Christmas, etc.) but we do have a few newer ones as well (Boney M's - Mary's Boy Child, Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven" "Put a Little Holiday in your Heart" by Leanne Rhymes (sp?)). My parents had all of the Firestone Christmas collection albums where multiple artists like Dean Martin, Ray Coniff, Barbara Streisand, etc. would sing everything from "We need a little christmas," to "Ave Maria." Mix these with the songs we performed to at our annual family Christmas program - (Santa Claus for president, Roly Poly the polar bear, Morris the moose, etc) and you can see we had an eclectic mixture of music at christmas time in our house.
    One last thing, It is so good to know that you hate that sond by Wham as much as I do! Whew!

  2. Hutton: It seems to be true for your family and ours, and it makes me wonder if most families' Christmas music is a blend of the classic and the idiosyncratic. I'd like to think so.

    As far as "Last Christmas" and Wham! goes, I consider it a cheap shot and a carpetbagger of a Christmas song. The only reason it's gets played during Christmas is because the guy in the song broke up with his (let's assume) girlfriend last year at Christmastime. How lucky for us that it just happened to be the holiday season, when any song with the word 'Christmas' in it gets thrown into the rotation. Blech!

  3. Thinking furhter (and perhaps to much), the song doesn't make sense. The lyric "Last Christmas, I gave you my heart and the very next day, you gave it away;" what does that mean? Must we assume he confessed his love to him/her and the next day she said, "you know, Betty/Bob need this more than me, right now so I'll send it on to them?"
    Again, I'm bored and thinking this out way too much!

  4. Hutton - And doesn't that same lyric reveal that the singer has some real issues when it comes to selecting potential partners to give his heart to? I mean, really, within 24 hours of receipt, the other person has broken it? This is just a song about bad relationship choices and/or a self-destructive personality. Why do we want to hear this at Christmas?

  5. And doesn't the next line "This year, to save me from tears, I'll give it to someone special," suggest that the original person wasn't special but he confessed his love anyway? This suggests a masochistic approach to love - he's not deserving of love with a special person and even though he claims to be changing his ways, his new "special" person will ultimately be just like the first person - someone he also thought was "special" enough to receive his heart. A insecure soul doomed to repeat his bad choices.