Every year, the Christmas season teases me with its contradictions. I can see why non-participants in the cultural tradition feel put upon by this formidable phenomenon. I still enjoy the season but have altered my view of it greatly.
Like I’ve said, the contradictions cause bafflement. How does the birth of a Messiah blend with a comic book character who delivers presents to children blend with a massive economic dynamo? Yikes!
I’ll focus my ruminations on the music of the season. I’ve spent the last six weeks force fed largely commercial Christmas music at work. At home I listen to better fare. I’m ready to throw a few punches.
Bruce Springsteen sings “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Okay, we know Santa is a jolly old elf, but the song comes across as badgering if not threatening. Creepy even: “He knows when you are sleeping, he know when you’re awake / he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” Right there, we see the use of duality in its most restrictive and legislative. Eff that, frankly.
Bruce is being ironic, of course: he’s allowing himself silly time in concert. There’s the cheesy repartee with his band at the beginning, the Boss as boss chiding his band. Then Bruce and the crisply functional band start in one the song per se. It’s like those radio ads wherein a singer with chops attempts to put some soul into the used car emporium’s jingle. Bruce cannot help turning on the Sincerity Machine, singing in his usual loud overdrive to succour a sense of serious meaning. It’s a crap song, however, and doesn’t deserve the effort.
That’s sort of the point of commercial Christmas songs. Take some drippy old song or hatch a new one, in both cases being sure to throw patented style over it. Elvis sings the egregious “Blue Christmas” as a satire of himself . The Beachboys do “Little St. Nick” as just another hot rod song, a genre they pretty much invented and wore out. The song has the objectively silly line: “Christmas comes this time each year.” They do not pretend to mean anything. Why should they?
For some reason, I’m okay with “Jingle Bell Rock”. It twines with personal memory. I remember it from Christmases when I was young. I don’t so much like it as respect its position in my memory.
Gene Autry gave us “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, a fun song for children to sing. It adds a confusing twist to the legend of eight reindeer that I believe Clement Moore invented. Sometimes Rudolph’s there, sometimes not. Rudolph is ostracized and bullied, an odd darkenss brought to a spritely song. Rudolph’s abnormality redeems him, but why does Santa allow a bunch of assholes to pick on Rudolph? Only if Rudolph can deliver is he deemed worthy. Eff that, too.
Autry also gave us “Here Comes Santa Claus”. The idea of Santa Claus Lane, down which Santa comes, is too precious for me. It sounds downright stupid when Elvis sings it. The idea of good children and bad is disturbing. Children explore their world, make mistakes. The things they do wrong are feelers into the world. With their disobedience and mistakes, they learn boundaries. This and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” side with lockstep. Is that what Christmas is about?
A bunch of songs aren’t Christmas songs at all, but fill the Christmas landscape. “Jingle Bells” is bouncy fun to sing, especially for children. It provides a Currier & Ives picture of what one might do on Christmas, just as Bing Crosby dreams about a white Christmas. Northwest of Boston, I’ve seen white Christmases, brown ones, warm ones, torrential ones. Must be half the country would be surprised by a white Christmas, and portions have tropical ones. That charity song, “Feed the World” laments that there won’t be snow in Africa this year. As if Currier & Ives patented Christmas.
“Winter Wonderland” and “Sleighride” both continue with the snowy picture. Many fatuously clever versions exist of both tunes. That sort of enforced innovation mostly comes across as smarmy. Leave the songs alone.
The “true” Christmas songs, the carols one might sing in church, most often seem best when sung straight. No need to add a lot of style to “Hark the Herald” or “Silent Night”. These songs have their mojo. “Deck the Halls” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” seem perfect, strange, fun to sing.
The movie “Meet me in St. Louis” gave us “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. In the movie, Margaret O’Brien as the little child in the family has a histrionic tantrum when confronted with the idea of the family moving. She lops the heads off of the snowmen in the backyard. To comfort her, Judy Garland sings this song. It is full of the sadness of separation, made more piquant at holiday time. It bares a fear many have, of loneliness and isolation when everyone else is happy in family embrace.
Andy Williams sings “Happy Holidays", a jaunty description of Santa’s visit. It has a jazz-like swing to it. By jazz-like I mean barely like jazz at all unless you’re an old fart. and I suppose the lyrics owe something to bebop. I mean, “whoop-de-doo and dickory dock / and don’t forget to hang up your sock.” With Andy’s mellow voice, it comes across as strained, however. It means to mean but cannot possibly mean what it means, if you know what I mean.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is another fun song for groups to sing. The imagery beguiles even if you don’t know what lords a-leaping might entail. I read where each verse relates symbolically to the Christ story. I don’t recall the explanations nor know if there is some scholarship behind the assertion. Obviously something exists in that vivid gallimaufry.
The song has often been played with. In one version, the gifts are transformed into composers, so that the verse with Beethoven is followed by the familiar notes of his 5th symphony. And so on. An atrocious version transforms the song into “What I Hate About Christmas”. Each verse carries a complaint acted out in a variety of voices: The bills!!! The lights don’t work!!! Somehow, a number of the complainers sound like stock Jewish characters merely sans “oy vey.”
And that gets me to wonder at the pronounced agitation of the season. For two months and more, the commercial program churns to deliver Christmas to the consumer. And we are, apparently, lifeless to resist.
Beth and I make it a point to get to the mall during the Christmas season, tho we go with no intention to buy. We just walk thru and look at things, see the machine in action. Oh boy, Sweatshop Apple will take 10% off some of their less popular items!
Christmas becomes a set piece with everyone carrying a list of musts to observe: must make cookies, must buy gift for Uncle Tim, must attend office party, must see the Nutcracker or The Messiah. The urge is to live in “Silver Bells” or “The Happiest Season of them All”. Paul McCartney wrote the characteristic but lame “Simply Having A Wonderful Day”. It is all inculcation, albeit mindlessly performed.
Christmas churns up deep-seated results. Like I said, “Jingle Bell Rock” still affects me. I react not to its musicality, which is kinda blech, but to how it instigates some competitive memories in shivering child time. At the core is a child’s wonder at the world. This wonder is ecumenical and should not be lent to any one side. The bullying thrust of Christmas Incorporated paves over the keener dynamic that we should be sharing. That dynamic shines forth in much of the music, tho not in most of the crap that I have mentioned here. The lesson, finally, I suppose, belongs in discovering what Merry means. It sounds so very nice.