Christmas music: A holly jolly mystery
December 21, 2012By Bill Wedo
For most of my life I have been fascinated by Christmas music — a fascination which many friends have suggested is more of an unhealthy fixation. The word "perversion" also has been duly noted.
Perhaps, it's the mystery of it all. It's a mystery why so many listen to the same songs year after year. Don't they tire of yet another version of "Chestnuts roasting ..."?
It's also a mystery why so many people simply hate it. How could you not love a shout-out to peace and love that aims to bring out the often-hidden best qualities in each of us?
Check out the third verse to "O, Holy Night:"
Truly He taught us
to love one another;
His law is love and
His gospel is peace.
You might have a problem with organized religion, but who could argue with those sentiments? Nice melody, too.
Yet, these songs can also stand for the worst in us. Of course "Santa Baby" is a spoof, but it's well grounded in our eternal lust for things. Lots and lots of things.
Santa, cutie, there's one thing I really do need,
To a platinum mine
This song runs through my mind every time I see a "Lexus for Christmas" ad.
A large part of this fascination with Christmas music is how it runs the gamut.
It's nostalgia. Even the hardest-hearted Scrooges get a bit misty listening to tales about those dreamy white Christmases and one-horse open sleighs that few of us ever knew. Admit it: Most of us long to revisit that feeling of believing in something as fantastic as a jolly old man giving toys to all the kids in the world — in one night. For a few years, I believed in the Phillies, then ...
It's somber. Wasn't it the perky-voiced Everly Brothers who sang:
The sound of one man walking through the snow can break your heart ...
And Christmas Eve can kill you
When you're trying to hitch a ride to anywhere.
And, believe me, you don't want to know anything about "Johnny and Jon's Christmas in Vietnam."
It's tawdry. I hope you never have to explain "Back Door Santa" or "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to the kids. And you may have missed De La Soul's holiday classic "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa."
It's silly. From Alvin and the Chimpmunks to grandma getting run over by reindeer to shrill-voiced kids wanting a hippopotamus — or two front teeth — for Christmas, there is an endless supply of seasonal novelty nonsense.
It's spiritual. Even an avowed atheist can't argue the messages of "Joy to The World" or John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." Yoko Ono's vocals, though, may spark a prayer for aural mercy.
You would think there is a finite supply of seasonal offerings. Truly, most of the stuff you hear on the radio and in the mall is pretty predictable, but each year one or two odd entries deepen this mystery of Christmas music. Last year, Bob Dylan growled and grumbled his way through "Christmas in the Heart" and left everyone wondering if he really was overcome with holiday emotion or just satisfying an urge to stage a big goof.
This year, CeeLo Green, who not long ago charmed everyone with the anthem, "F**k You," appears with a delightful collection of gospel and soul-tinged holiday music with nary an expletive in sight. Who knew?
When you get down to it, perhaps it's actually the mystery of it all that makes this annual genre splash so interesting in spite of itself. After all, from the Dickens-era "Good King Wenceslas" to the post-World War II stylings of "White Christmas" to an Auto-Tuned (or, as he claims, Melodyned) Justin Bieber, Christmas music has always been a most-welcoming host.
Anyone who wants to take shot is encouraged to come onstage. From Brian Wilson to Sufjan Stevens, Buck Owens to Maria Carey, Mahalia Jackson to Michael Jackson, non-believers and the faithful stand side by side.
Interesting fact: About half of the 25 best-selling Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers. Oy.
Every genre ,from rap to alt-country is represented. It's like the office Christmas party where you hang with the drunks and wallflowers and usually discover new stuff about each.
There is truly something for everyone. Maybe that's why I can appreciate the Boys Choir of Harlem singing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" as much as The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York":
It was Christmas Eve, babe,
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me,
'Won't see another one'
Greg Lake,of ancient prog-rockers Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame, I think, nailed it in his "I Believe in Father Christmas." In 3:31, he and co-writer Peter Sinfeld, take us from being dazzled by the tinsel and toys to being disillusioned by the crass commercialism. Ultimately, they offer the realization that Christmas — music included — in all its giving and taking and joys and sorrows, sits plainly there for each one of us to figure out for ourselves:
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell,
The Christmas you get you deserve.
So, I'm starting to get it. It's all on me whether I listen to the Jingle Dogs or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Or maybe — and only because it's Christmas — even the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Mystery solved. Merry Christmas!
If you are tired of the same old, same old Christmas tunes,check out these sites for some fresh – often quirky – approaches:
Bill Wedo is a recovering journalist, adjunct instructor at Temple Uni versity and Communications Manager at Studio Incamminati, a school for contemporary realist art in Center City Philadelphia.