So, my brother gave a list of holiday party jams the other day. While I heartily approve of not playing Christmas songs, I can’t let this blog stand without some nod to tradition. So, here it goes.
In an earlier post, I seemed to have almost totally denigrated Christmas as a holiday and, in the same gesture, to have dismissed all Christmas music along with it. In the spirit of the season—even if it isn’t a season that I love as much as others do—I need to clarify and be honest about my relationship with Christmas music.
True Story: We grew up in a place called Hollis, Maine. For a time, we used to change the words from this song, predictably, to “It’s Christmas time in Hollis Maine”. Another true story: I actually lived in Queens and the wife worked in Hollis.
Part of the attraction and danger of Christmas music is that it creates bit of a time warp (which is at least part of the intention). Every year we hear the same music from the same artists in contexts which, if they are not identical, they are at least similar enough to give an inebriated man (or woman) what David Foster Wallace would call the fantods. Now, this is part of the attraction and the charm. The atmosphere uses all of our senses—the smells of food and trees, the feel of full stomachs and anticipation, and the sound of music—to collapse present and past into one eerie yet familiar moment.
Yes, I had this NKOTB Album. And their Christmas album
This feeling of current satisfaction plus nostalgia isn’t what I hate about Christmas. I hate the ruthless hoards of corporate operatives who try to capitalize upon our weakness. I hate the equation of affection with spending power; I hate holiday payday loans at 5.99% APR; I hate the outsized expectations that set almost everyone up for disappointment. See, holidays will never be the iconoclastic moment that we remember from some sliver of our youths (and they weren’t that great then either). And they will never match up to the airbrushed ideals of Macy’s advertisements.
Contrary to my earlier claims, though, I do not hate Christmas music. I hate contemporary attempts to cash in on the intersection of temporary fame and Christmas mania—every asshole with a Billboard hit seems compelled to release a Christmas album. But I do not hate the classics.
One of my favorite Christmas tunes (you can have the lyrics, or whatever) goes by the current name “What Child is This?” but has as its oldest name “Greensleeves”, a haunting memory, perhaps about a prostitute, which is one of the oldest tunes in the English tradition. I probably love this song because it is one of the first tunes I learned to play when I was taking classical guitar lessons.
I have a real weakness in general for the older arrangements of the more popular religious Christmas songs. Songs like “Joy to the World” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” have traditional four part harmonies in older hymnals that can be both festive and challenging to sing. Too often, rather than trying to sing the older tunes, people either pen new ones or jazz them up. In “Angels we have heard on High” I especially like the vocal alternations in the famous “Gloria” chorus.
My real weakness, though, is for Christmas music in other languages. I love Latin carols. I absolutely love the Latin version of “O Come All ye Faithful” (“Adeste FIdeles”). It has a seriousness and raised register that too many contemporary carols (ok, all of them) lack. Truly, try singing “Natum videte” instead of the English lyrics and deny the attraction.
Speaking of foreign languages: for a time, the family J attended a Lutheran church during my youth. One of the odd things about this experience, for me, is that it seemed like almost as much Sunday School time was spent learning about Martin Luther as Jesus. (And, like some others I have talked to, led to the embarrassing juvenile confusion between Martin Luther and MLK that only a very white child from Maine could make…) One of our pastors, told us about “Silent Night’s” original shape as “Stille Nacht” and the night it was first performed. Later in life, I would sing the German version exclusively.
Seriously, German is not always the prettiest language. But the German of this song is so much better than the English. By comparison, our consonants seem harsh and abrupt.
Now why do I have all these songs in my head? For another period of time in my life, I often sang on Christmas eve either alone or with groups. I never had the strongest or most remarkable voice, but I had a little training and was the only one around my age who could pull it off. The hardest song I ever tried to sing was “O Holy Night”—which is like Christmas’ “Star-Spangled Banner”.
She has the voice to pull this off. I never did.
The year I pulled this song off I had my wisdom teeth removed a few days before. My wounds were infected and smelled terribly. I was on vicodan and was probably sneaking bourbon on the side. I remember the red and white of Christmas vestments; the gleam of candle on the gold of the altar and the hush of nothing else but my voice.
And the fear of the death smell coming out of my mouth.
As an adult, I carry these songs around with me and the memories they evoke are almost always a blend of the embarrassing, the chilling, and the lost charm of youth. I don’t regret the passage of time as a loss most days of the year, but I can’t escape Christmas without a little bit of remorse and a few moments spent contemplating my own mortality. It only gets harder as we get older and sense the empty chairs around us.
Yeah, Merry Christmas. Seriously, let’s lighten it up with some Toots:
And you, my brother? Merry Christmas. I am sorry that there are so many miles between us.