As we move into the end of November, we approach one of the most complex, over-determined, and potentially disappointing times of the year. The holiday season. What other period packs three major holidays, constant excuses for indulgences of all kinds, and some of the most memorable and execrable music of the year into 45 days?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not a total curmudgeon or a Grinch. (Well, I may be a little bit of a Grinch. But I am not a Scrooge.) There are things I completely adore about the holiday season. Reuniting with family and friends is nice (even if at times stressful). Eating and drinking too much is not hard for me. But there are a few things about this time of year that drive me crazy.
The first, and less serious thing, is Christmas music. (And this will make me sound like a Grinch.) Christmas music has the powerful and (dis)enchanting effect of collapsing past and present into one dreamy holiday fugue state. When you hear the familiar tunes (both religious and secular) you are drawn into memories (idealized and bowdlerized) of holidays past, yuletides spent by the fire, and childhood Christmas mornings.
In fact, this is part of the design of traditional music. Holidays are festive occasions to break from the normal activity of life and, in fact, to set apart a portion of time as sacred (hence the etymology holy-day). The religious and secular rituals of music function at a visceral and mnemonic level to transport us from our normal selves and establish that separate space in time.
I almost forgot about this song. I love this song.
And I have two problems with this. First, too much Christmas music is just saccharine and intolerable. Second, as much of it is weaponized by a brutal commercial confluence that encourages us to evaluate and to express our affection for others based on our purchasing power. Christmas music is used to help to turn us into supercharged consumers who never really stop to think about the massive and insane expenditures that dominate this time of year.
This may be the only time I post a Dave Matthews’ band song. Enjoy it.
Here’s where I turn into a bit of a Scrooge, then. I am disenchanted with Christmas because it has become one long heavily-advertised and impossible-to-live-up-to consumerist orgy. In being encouraged or even required to spend nearly all of our discretionary income in one festive frenzy, we find ourselves compelled to buy disposable goods, to waste at perilous rates, and to reduce ineffable emotions of love and affection to exchanges of gift cards and forgettable kitsch.
(Scrooge and Grinch, there)
If I had a contract with the universe, this would be a contractual obligation. My brother doesn’t love the first Beatle to die. But I have always loved this chord progression
I must insist, however, that I am not an anti-holiday person. I could try to claim some sort of light trauma from the expectations connected to Christmas from my youth. (And my brother and sister have some great anecdotes that they might share if we ask nicely.) But my objection to Christmas will stand for the time being on its overwhelming and soul-perverting commercialization and the aural torture I undergo every year because of its music.
Axl Rose had something right with this one
I am a holiday person, because there are days I really appreciate. New Year’s Eve can be fun; Halloween can be entertaining. But this week we come to my favorite holiday of the year. I love Thanksgiving. I love the food. (I make Thanksgiving dinner three or four times a year.) I love the rituals of spending time with family and friends without the pressure of gift-giving or the soul-searching of church attendance. I love the experience of cooking and even cleaning for loved ones.
And I love the excessive eating and drinking. Things work best, in fact, when you combine both.
I have long insisted that Thanksgiving, the traditional harvest festival for the modern world, is clearly the best holiday. The problem is that it hasn’t been given the support of major religions nor the endorsement of the multi-billion dollar holiday industry. People just don’t spend enough money on it. Well, at least not directly.
This year, to bring my son to his ancestral home for the first time and to spend my Thanksgiving with my brother and sister for the first time in three years, we have spent far more than I think we ever would for Christmas. But this money is worth it. My children will meet their cousin, spend time with their great-grandmother, get to know their aunt, uncle and grandmother better and fall asleep with full bellies while their elders dip into whisky and beer.
The only problem is that Thanksgiving doesn’t have a sufficient soundtrack. So, here are some songs I like that I might make my brother play and force the children to endure.
“Eat It”, Weird Al
Not that we need to be reminded what to do on this day of all days, but it doesn’ t hurt to start with some levity. Michael Jackson’s beats with Weird Al’s words? This might represent the zenith of Weird Al’s career (at least as far as inspiration goes), except for all of the success that follows.
Anyway, start off the day with some humor—for you never know what kind of oddness and hostility time with the family might dredge up. (Especially when it is time for dishes…)
“Eat the Menu”, The Sugarcubes
Ok, so this is a bit of a repetition of the sentiment of the first song, but it is defensible on two counts. First, the name of the band is a consumable. Second, this is a cynical yet still more serious anthem to put you in the eating mood. Maybe.
“Gin and Juice,” Snoop Dog
I am not quite sure that it is ever too early to start drinking on Thanksgiving, especially if you are cooking. In fact, I am quite certain that being the Turkey-day chef allows you to circumvent all rules and basic propriety for drinking before noon. Hanging out in the kitchen also functions as a good way to cloak your drinking.
And who doesn’t need a little Snoop Dog after some Sugarcubes?
“Dinner Bell”, They Might Be Giants
Could I create a song list without They Might Be Giants? Let’s make sure we all arrange for a Pavlovian salivation by the beginning of dinner. Whether you start your feast at noon or after dark, work up a good hunger (but don’t starve yourself) and pace out a long, gluttonous meal.
“Onions”, John Lee Hooker
Anyone who cooks knows that it is the little things that make the meal work. The flavor in stuffing, for example, comes from the meat and the bread, but without onions, celery or garlic what would you have? A great feast needs its condiments. I don’ t know anyone who really loves cranberry sauce. But everyone I know would pitch a fit if the dinner table didn’t have it.
The Main Course
“Vegetables,” Beach Boys
If you’re health or weight conscious, pig out on the vegetables first and drink plenty of water. If you want to similarly pad out a song list, add the Beach Boys. No one hates the Beach Boys. If you pick a lesser known track from a well-known band, then you get street cred too. Really.
“All that Meat and No Potatoes”, Fats Waller
I love this song. I love this artist. I love his voice. I will be eating more potatoes than meat, but still.
“Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” Iron and Wine
I used to really love this band. I found that the sound did not grow on me. Like turkey, some things are only really good when they are fresh. I couldn’t end this section without considering the absurdity of eating a selectively bred and abused bird as part of a communal ritual. Even as an avowed carnivore, I still cannot deny that there is something seriously messed up with our holiday-industrial food industry.
Just some advice: try to keep the conversation light. I have personally ruined dinners before with political statements. I almost ruined a holiday office party recently because someone suggested a prayer before dinner. It wasn’t the suggestion, but the executed prayer that was religious-sect specific and exclusionary that set me off.
Safe topics: local sports teams; how fast children are growing; how good the food is; holiday plans; entertainment (say, a new blog you love…)
Unsafe topics: Recent elections; the military-industrial complex; doubts about resurrections and the like; death; healthcare; The Middle East; and basically anything else.
“Get Your Filthy Hand off My Dessert”, Pink Floyd
This song is here because the title amuses me. And, it is also appropriate to start introducing the more psychedelic and annoying music once everyone is too tired and full to do anything about it.
“Coffee Song”, Soul Coughing
This b-side by one of my favorite bands is odd. But I have always found it charming as well. Believe it or not but this actually makes the cut for my running playlist as well.
There is nothing better about Thanksgiving than staying up and having the same dinner again 4-5 hours later. Coffee will help you stay awake and in the process of consuming. Some people also choose to use performance enhancing drugs to prepare to eat again.
To avoid heartburn, put some cream in your coffee. When all is said and done, Thanksgiving can also be a time to gather and have an impromptu party. If you want to start out the dancing or introduce a groove, bring back some songs from your youth and see what happens.
I miss Prince, by the way. Apart from being a memorable song, this track also has some nice double entendre.
Brother, any songs you’d like to add?
I hope everyone who is celebrating it has a safe and filling Thanksgiving.