Like most of you, I get sick of Christmas music pretty rapidly around this time of year. Radios everywhere are blasting a weird mix of Mariah Carey, the Beach Boys, Burl Ives and David Bowie/Bing Crosby nonstop 24/7 until I think I’ll go postal if I hear one more version of “Last Christmas”. To distract me, I think about all the things that intrigue me about Christmas songs. They’re truly unique in many different ways.
The first thing to point out is that Christmas music is a time machine. At no other time do you hear songs from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and onward played on the radio. 1The Kinks’ “Father Christmas” gets nestled up next to Perry Como’s “Home For The Holidays” which gets followed by “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano and Michael Buble singing “Rudolph”. It’s bizarre. It intrigues me how song arrangements and lyrics have changed over the years. Most of the songs have one thing in common, however: schmaltz.
Speaking of schmaltz, another fascinating fact is that quite a few Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” is probably the most famous example. Others include classics like “Winter Wonderland”, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Sleigh Ride”. That’s quite a list, and it’s interesting to think of the effect that Jews have had upon Christian culture.
Another intriguing detail is that many Christmas songs…aren’t really Christmas songs! They’re songs about wintertime. Aside from the ones in the above paragraph, others include “Jingle Bells”, “Jingle Bell Rock” (so Fifties, that one), “Frosty The Snowman”, and “Listen, The Snow Is Falling”, by Yoko Ono. (I just threw in that last one to see if you were paying attention.)
Which leads me to another observation: A lot of my favorite Christmas tunes are the ones which don’t get played on the radio. Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas In Hollis” is not one I hear very often, for instance, even though it’s phenomenal (as opposed to the comparatively pathetic “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses, which is not rap and is basically a Hallmark Christmas movie in song. But I still enjoy it.) Stephen Colbert’s “Another Christmas Song” is fantastic, but will never get played on mainstream radio because it’s so subversive. The same goes for Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper”, beautifully covered by Roy Orbison, because no one wants to be reminded of homeless people at Christmas. Timbuk 3’s “All I Want For Christmas (Is World Peace)” takes aim at war toys, and Lady Gaga’s “Christmas Tree” puts her solidly on the naughty list. I own a bluegrass banjo version of “Auld Lang Syne” and a Mexican mariachi band’s version of “Twelve Days Of Christmas”; love ‘em both. Last but hardly least, Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus” is another holiday song which radio won’t touch due to his inconvenient mention of poor people getting slighted and Jesus condemning the commercialization of religion. It’s a beautiful ballad.
Finally, it’s strange to me that some Christmas tunes which were once quite popular seem to have been forgotten. “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and “Up On The Housetop” were fairly well-known in my day, but seem to have gone by the wayside, along with “Silver Bells” and “Marshmellow World”. Someone should record an album of forgotten Christmas songs just to bring these tunes back into the mainstream.
All of these things are what fascinate me about Christmas music. Not to mention the fact people have gotten hits with songs about murder (“Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”), personal injury (“All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”), adultery (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”), avarice (“Santa Baby”), a catalog of famous Jewish people (“The Chanukkah Song”, possibly popular just because it’s the only song for the holiday), and with a weird Eighties synthesizer delay (you know the one).2
Happy holidays, everyone, and enjoy the music—if you can!