The Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time

20. Christmastime is Here

December 1, 2016

Welcome to Day One of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Meaning of Christmas through music.

Naturally you’re thinking, “Are there even 25 GOOD Christmas songs, let alone ones that could be called The Best?” Probably not, and it might get weird in the middle, but it’ll be funny to try.

We’ll start with perhaps the most obvious of inaugural choices: Christmas Time Is Here. It’s title is a simple declarative, but its message of anticipation is emphasized by the first phrase, like a snowflake falling to the ground, so simple yet suggesting something more, then repeated like a question you didn’t quite understand the implication of the first time.

Christmas Time Is Here – does that make you more or less anxious? Arriving at an answer is, I think, the most vital journey of the holiday season.

This song was given new context in Arrested Development when used as a theme for deep, acute disappointment or failure. It’s meant to invoke less a feeling of Christmas than of Charlie Brown himself, a boy who fails perpetually not just in the pursuit of goals but in his endeavors to be seen as worthy as a human being on the most basic levels.

These fears are naturally exacerbated to an oppressing degree during a time when gestures of kindness, however performative, are idealized, scrutinized, and conflated with your value as a person. Getting the wrong gift, picking the wrong tree, means failure – beyond spoiling one event, demonstrating that you may not even understand the people closest to you.

I mean, that’s one way of looking at it. The lyrics are as pleasant as most Christmas songs, about comforting sights and togetherness, but they end with, I think, the main point.

Oh, that we could always see,
Such spirit through the year…

Keeping the “spirit” throughout the year is a common theme in Christmas stories. But what does that mean? And is it even possible? Let us find out together.

19. The Christmas Song

December 2, 2016

Welcome to Day Two of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Meaning of Christmas through music.

Often during this season, we’ll have to deal with the constant nuisance of melodic Christmas Lists – songs that are basically just about Nice Things that are associated with the winter holidays. Snowflakes falling, bells jingling, fire roaring in hearths, a constant barrage of context-free pleasantries that are expected to stand on their own as a testament to Holiday Cheer that often comes across as desperate in its presentation. “It is as I have foretold! The chestnuts… The wreaths… Once all is in place, Christmas will be upon us!”

The majority of decent Christmas songs, and all bad Christmas songs, adopt this format. However, what is important to most people, in regard to not just Christmas songs but any facet of the holiday, is context, and personal memories in particular. Nostalgia is a natural bed for the growth of sentimentality, both vacuous and poignant.

Which brings me to a piece of music that has the balls to actually be called The Christmas Song, the biblical David of the modern Christmas List song. This is one of several well-known holiday tunes that was actually conceived during a hot summer. The opening verse alludes to this dream of relief from the heat vividly – “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” gets the point across especially well.

Two things in particular make this song work for me. It’s actually pretty constrained, in terms of time and space, in its description of a scene of Christmas Eve. Verse one addresses the coziness that can combat the bitter cold, the second reference to a holiday meal, itself a pleasant thing but a mere formality for the third verse, which lingers on the anticipation (not frenzied, but hushed) of Christmas Day itself, which is only hours away. The final verse acts as a farewell – or more like a crane shot, slowly lifting up and away from the happy home.

Second, the phrase “to kids from one to ninety-two.” You can argue that “92” in particular is either a clever or stupidly cheap way to make the rhyme work, but the intent behind the rhyme elevates the song itself. The one distinct image that’s focused on for the longest is of Santa’s arrival, and how joyful it will be for the kiddies. In a way, the Santa myth is a morally righteous thing to uphold here, providing happiness and hope to children. But by taking part in it, adults also reinforce the importance of a warm, safe home where you have the stability that lets you rely on certain things happening at certain times, like Santa coming on Christmas. When it is not stodgy or rigid, this is the real value in tradition.

You’ve had the Nat King Cole version, but to carry on this thread of memories and parents providing for children, I’ll be using the 30 Rock version, mostly because (although Jane Krakowski is fine) of the part where Elaine Stritch and Alec Baldwin come in. This sequence occurs after Jack realizes that all the times his mother “ruined” Christmas by inviting over a boyfriend were actually attempts to get toys for the kids by putting out to the man who turned out to be the owner of FAO Schwarz. Rather than talk about it, the song gets across what they wanted to say anyway.

By the way, 30 Rock’s Christmas episodes always have fantastic music from Jeff Richmond. Great medleys that should be available, because I would buy them.

18. Carol of the Bells

December 4, 2016

WHOOPS, its late! But still, welcome to Day Three of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Meaning of Christmas through music.

Let’s cut to the chase: it’s Carol of the Bells, a song which, despite its severe tone, is about Christmas cheer. It’s fascinating how portentous this song is considering the subject matter!

Apparently there’s a reason for that strange juxtaposition between the words and the sound. The original Ukrainian song, “Shchedryk,” (“the bountiful one”) is based on traditional folk chants meant to be associated with the New Year – the ORIGINAL, pre-Julian calendar new year, when spring came in April! But when Christianity came, the New Year changed, and the song just moved with it.

It got popular in the West, and was rearranged and given lyrics by the NBC Symphony Orchestra during the Depression. And they made it about bells, because it sounds like bells. Yeah! That’s it.

Riding the fine line between exchange and appropriation is, too, a Christmas tradition. From the Romans switching from Saturnalia to a more Christian observance, from English taking Christmas trees from Germany and roast turkeys from North America, from the rest of the western world borrowing the concept of the Christmas card from the United Kingdom, to everyone taking Santa from everywhere, Christmas is a star around which so many culture touchstones revolve, and shines on us all. Looked at one way, it is a game of Telephone. In function, it acts as a delicious melange, a love letter from humanity to itself to light our darkest hours.

I present the Trans Siberian Orchestra version, which really delivers on the promise of the song’s intense tone. I’ve talked already a lot of Christmas songs being about anticipation for the day itself. This take that feeling to the next level. Here, “Christmas” is the name of the advanced unit of an invading army. (They cheat a bit with the God Rest You Merry Gentleman motif, but it works well as a fakeout).

17. Jingle Bells

December 4, 2016

Welcome to Day Four of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Meaning of Christmas through music.

Continuing our bell theme, it’s the granddaddy of them all. Originally “One Horse Open Sleigh,” JINGLE BELLS was written here in Massachusetts and performed in Medford regarding the town’s popular sleigh races. It’s so ubiquitous, so, simple, so easy to remember, other, different Christmas songs refer to it either directly or through motif. Although, do consider that this is the first of our songs that does not actually mention Christmas!

Two interesting things: the “jingle” in “jingle bells” was apparently meant to be a verb! The phrase is a request, or I guess a demand. “Jingle bells” aren’t even a kind of bell. Those are sleigh bells, stupid.

Also, and more importantly, we don’t know who came up with “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells.” Though popularized for a new generation by Bart Simpson, reports go back to the 60s. For our version, we’ve got Mark Hamill doing what is, apparently, his debut performance as The Joker. Honestly, this is what is basically what I started this list for.

16. Christmas in Hollis

December 5, 2016

Welcome to Day Five of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Meaning of Christmas through music.

The story I’m interested goes beyond the song itself, but let’s start with the main course, RUN-DMC’s Christmas In Hollis. In this song, Run – along with, presumably, DMC and Jam Master Jay – find a million dollars in Santa’s dropped wallet. What do they do with it? Well, although they could spend it on themselves, they decide to send it back to Santa, dropping it all into a mailbox, if the stellar music video is to be believed. But when they check under the Christmas tree, there’s a million dollars!! See, being kind is its own reward, except on Christmas, where you can also get a real reward for being nice. Even with the money, they go on to celebrate the holiday in a traditional, familial, wholesome manner.

I was reminded recently that Darryl McDaniels (DMC) fought depression and suicidal thoughts for a long time, especially into the later 90s. This was exacerbated by his very late discovery that he was adopted out of a foster program.

The things he cites as saving him from the brink of self-destruction? Sarah McLachlan’s song, “Angel”. In 2005, they collaborated for his song Just Like Me, a song about his origins that was partly made-up with another song both artists loved, Chapin’s Cats in the Cradle.

DMC discovered that Sarah McLachlan was also adopted.

This sort of story, rooted in tragedy and culminating in a new understanding of one’s place in the world, is a Christmas story in spirit, if not in actuality.

RUN-DMC’s style makes the otherwise innocuous holiday observances resolute, almost defiant, a tone that rather fits a particular facet of the Christmas spirit that goes back to humanity’s earliest days of feast-like celebration despite winter’s killing advance, and the invitation to despair that we abate through that same defiance. We eat! We drink! We spit in the face of death for another day! We will see another spring yet!

(Though it should be noted as well that the song’s strong backbone is a sample from Clarence Carter’s Back Door Santa. It really gets the job done.)

15. Sleigh Ride

December 6, 2016

Welcome to Day Six of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Meaning of Christmas through music.

This may feel like a safe, or even redundant, choice, but next is another Massachusetts original, Sleigh Ride! It was written as an instrumental and popularized by the Boston Pops, and shortly afterward by the Andrew Sisters, but by then it had words.

Yes, this song is another Christmas List of pleasant sensations, but what saves it from being formless and meandering is a strong sense of place, time, and purpose. The singer clearly wants to get with the listener, offers some activity, and I THINK it’s pretty convincing! It’s exciting and comforting at once, you get to experience the sights of the season, and then you go inside somewhere warm for a party where someone else makes the food. Sounds pretty good!

Now, the original, with its peppy tempo, sounds just like a sleigh ride. But the Ronettes have blown past Arthur Fiedler and the Andrew Sisters with their popular rendition, which is both fun and luxurious. But it was ruined for me by a kid on one of my tours who kept singing, without invitation from anyone, the “ring-a-ling-a-ling ding dong ding” backup part. It was actually pretty funny in retrospect.

A staple in our house around this time of year was The Roches’ Christmas album. I’m a big fan of their Sleigh Ride, which I feel like best gets the sleigh ride-ness of the original in a way a lot of covers have not, even though it’s actually quite stripped down. I’m an especially big fan of the friend that calls “Yoohoo” they throw in there.

14. Hard Candy Christmas

December 7, 2016

Welcome to Day Seven of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

I believe the Christmas Spirit, in essence, is an insistence on believing in a better future despite what may be a bleak present. This in turn can manifest in so many different ways – giving gifts to friends, giving to charity, observing traditions (the proof that those who came before you, after all, survived THEIR calamities).

But the truth is, sometimes it isn’t enough. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. You can’t fix every problem with cheer, and it’s not easy to change every circumstance, or even to change how someone feels. Sometimes Christmas just makes people sad, because they’re reminded of what they don’t have. This is why I believe it is so important to view Christmas not as a time just for cheer, but for hope. Hope isn’t necessarily about succeeding or failing, but trying.

Failure (or the misfortune that one internalizes as failure) does come, though, and while dwelling on it is not always helpful, to blow past it would mean wasting those good, good things called “emotions” that you’ve been blessed with, and which your brain makes you endure and process for a reason. In times of despair, I think often of Macduff’s discovery of his family’s fate, and his response to Malcolm’s suggestion that he “dispute it like a man” and get a hold of himself: “I shall do so, but I must also *feel* it as a man.”

Let’s both Dispute It and Feel It, not like men, but like Dolly Parton, with Hard Candy Christmas, the song from the end The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I guess I don’t feel too bad spoiling it, but by the end of that show, the whorehouse has to close! All the girls have to pack up and leave and figure out what they’ll do with their lives. They insist that they have plenty of options, even if none of them sound especially good, and none of them can commit.

I think “hard candy Christmas” in this case is more a metaphor for taking what you can get than it is an actual Christmas sentiment, but country stations started playing it around Christmas, so it’s like a real Christmas song now, and I think we’re better for it.

Some songs do really well when freed from the context of their musical; having listeners bring their own context provides a kind of depth that might not have been there otherwise. By itself, all the opening words of the song sounds like someone gearing up for a new beginning, but it’s soon obvious that what it’s really about is dealing with something that has come to an end. Isn’t that how every December goes, to some extent?

13. Santa Baby

December 8, 2016

Welcome to Day Eight of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

I’ve talked a lot about the Christmas spirit without dwelling too long on the person whom the holiday is all about: Santa.

To believe in Santa is to believe in a just meritocracy. If you’re good, you get material rewards. If you’re bad, you get nothing, or at worst, fossil fuels.

In reality, the arbitration of the Naughty and Nice lists was usually left up to Santa’s earthly ambassadors, Mom and/or Dad. I’d be curious to know, though, who actually failed to receive a gift they wanted due to their naughtiness, as opposed to, say, scarcity or forgetfulness.

I feel the negative reinforcement of going without gifts has been supplanted by this CRAZY notion that all children deserve gifts on Christmas. Parents may have concocted a method for getting obedient behavior from their children that was only effective in the short term. In the end, it turns out a lot of parents probably don’t want to be hated by their children for not getting them anything for Christmas, and so, the shoe ended up on the other foot.

Which is silly, because what on earth could a child do that makes them more worthy of a present compared to, say, an adult? Who’s looking out for them??

Earth Kitt knows. What makes Santa Baby work, aside from being a flagship in the desolate sea that is the “sexy Christmas song” genre, is the realization that grown ups are WAY BETTER at knowing what they want, and better at wanting the best stuff!

In a way, this is another Christmas List, but the cliche is subverted by actually being appropriate for the season, as a series of requests for Santa can take no other form but a list. Moreover, it’s never rushed. Each item on the list is framed as being, possibly, the last, but it usually isn’t. The pacing works to wrest control from the gift giver to the receiver.

Now, is she talking to Santa, or a lover? If it’s Santa, it makes her requests more doable in the end and makes the seductive tone more deceptive, which is way funnier.

Another angle from which this works is imaging it’s just Catwoman singing.

12. Waltz of the Flowers

December 9, 2016

Welcome to Day Nine of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

There was a time when the Disney Channel didn’t have original programming. It was just previously produced Disney movies and shorts. Those things didn’t always fill half-hour increments neatly, so they sometimes cut together five-minute clips from the Disney pantheon. Y’know how many times I saw just the part where Prince Phillip escapes, gets that sword, and slays Maleficent? That was just space filled on the Disney Channel.

A few years in a row there, I know they all had a lot of Christmas or wintry programming that we had on VHS. Wrapped up in there was this sequence from Fantasia. Y’know: The Nutcracker.

In fact, I think they even diced this sequence up to fill out commercial breaks. I’ve synced the timecode to my favorite part: The Waltz of the Flowers.

Here, winter is not destructive, but creative, organized, not killing nature, but altering it. It’s orderly, it’s beautiful, and good perspective to keep winter from driving you mad.

I’ve learned since that here’s a lot of good shit in The Nutcracker, but this is my definitive experience with it even now. The rest of the sequence isn’t bad, either.

11. Good King Wenceslas

December 10, 2016

Sorry for the late one! Welcome to Day Ten of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

Apparently, spring-like celebrations getting bumped up early to become part of winter observances isn’t that rare. I guess if I were in charge of spreading holidays around, I’d look at the winter months and say, “We’re gonna need a LOT of cheer over here.”

Tempus Adest Floridum (or “It is time for flowering”) was a Finnish carol from the 1200s that appeared in a collection of songs in 1582, that eventually spread through Europe. As late at 1853, a guy named John Mason Neale took a tune and changed the words to be a Christmas carol. Critics in the following years referred to the song as “doggerel,” “commonplace,” and hoped that it would “gradually pass into misuse.”

These people can go fuck themselves, because I love Good King Wenceslas. First of all, I love any songs that presents otherwise lesser known history in a simple and straightforward way, like the defining behavior and reputation the 10th-century Catholic duke of Bohemia who is the song’s namesake. It could’ve been a song about “some nice dude in a position of power,” but the fact that he’s named and titled automatically puts you in a place and a time.

Second, it’s a tidy, efficient little morality tale. It supposes that the British Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day tradition of giving excess gifts to your subordinates or those otherwise less fortunate is taken for granted a great distance across time and space. The presence of the page works very well, so that he may lose his nerve in the cold and have the King encourage him, emphasizing that being charitable may not always be easy, but is always worthwhile. The King as a result isn’t merely a good example, but something of a benevolent god-like figure. In this case, the listener is the page, and the King is someone whom we both seek to please and aspire to be more like.

Another old criticism of the song is how its “ponderous” moralism does not fit the “light-hearted dance measure” of the original tune. I think I understand… but I also think its lightness is what makes it work as a Christmas song?! Downhere gets the tone that I think works best with the story, framing the tale less as something that should be accompanied with a “ponderous” gaze and more with a raised glass and a mutual acknowledgment of a universal truth.

10. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

December 11, 2016

Welcome to Day Eleven of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

Oh, boy, we’re getting into the weeds now, folks, as I get through our introductory numbers and preserve the aces up my sleeve for the finale. I’ll take this moment to meditate on a moment in the life of my coworker Jeremy Murphy, which may or may not have happened, when he dealt with another actual adult insisting on “keeping the Christ in Christmas,” and talking about how Happy Holidays is a weapon in the War on Christmas. To paraphrase Jeremy, perhaps if we were to keep the Christ in Christmas, we should keep the Saturn in Saturnalia as well?

Christmas in the modern era really isn’t Christmas without someone getting upset at dumb shit that doesn’t really matter, and fussing over what is or is not appropriate behavior, putting us more in common with our Puritan ancestors who declared the holiday illegal to begin with.

Speaking of scrutinizing others’ behaviors, what the heck is happening in I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus? Apparently many people (including, apocryphally, the Boston Catholic church??) were confused as to what mommy was up to? Cheating? And on Christmas??

No, idiots! Santa is Daddy. Dad is dressed as Santa, and that is who is being kissed. I’ll be honest, I made the same mistake, but I was a dumb kid. The misunderstanding may also be generational – I think dads dressing up as Santa to give out gifts and stuff was more popular when this song was written. For example, my dad never dressed as Santa that I remember. He did dress as Darth Vader for another kid’s birthday party, though.

What I like about this song is that it’s not from the perspective of an adult knowingly and solemnly divining the symbols that indicate the holiday’s approach, but from a kid actively in the throes of Christmas-mania, and their deep conviction in it. Consider that seeing his Mommy kiss Santa Claus could have given away that Santa was Daddy all along. Instead, the kid doubles down. That particular passion is what makes this a cuter kid-centric Christmas song than, say… Well, I won’t disparage any, in case I’m forced to add them to the list on further reflection.

The song is novel as well because it’s the rare Christmas song that actually makes you spend a few fired synapses considering the trick of the story is what’s inferred and not merely stated.

And, man, there’s no better version than the Jackson 5. Consider: a young Michael Jackson ACTUALLY singing the perspective of a child!

9. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

December 12, 2016

Welcome to Day Twelve of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

I don’t have much of an analysis for this one. It’s perfectly written (BY Dr. Seuss himself) and sung. Every other phrase is a delicious burn. It’s so good that, despite its sheer negativity, it’s the standout song from a special about the meaning of Christmas.

What I can give you is trivia! Hopefully you know already it’s sung by the voice of Tony the Tiger. Even better is his damn name: Thurl Ravenscroft. The thing is, he isn’t credited in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, so everyone assumed it was the narrator, Boris Karloff, singing. Dr. Seuss was embarrassed by the mix up to the point of writing to columnists nationwide to correct the mistake.

It works well from the perspective of the singer, in all his righteousness, but consider being in the place of the Grinch. Yeah, you’re bad… but do you even care?

Removed from its context, is it really a Christmas song? Well, fight me if you disagree.

8. Blue Christmas

December 13, 2016

Welcome to Day Thirteen of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

I hope you guys know that although these songs are presented in an order, they aren’t IN AN ORDER, you know? It’s not a competition. At least not until we get to the Final Five.

I’m sure everyone changes their minds about certain songs over time, and I bet thats’s doubly true with Christmas songs. I’m not sure I always appreciated Blue Christmas. I mean, at face value, there’s not much to it. It’s not long, the imagery’s straightforward. What makes it work, of course, is everything underneath.

Like most of Elvis’ good work, it’s just aurally rich for what might otherwise be a simple song. I mean, the way he revs up at the onset, getting you right into the depth of his heartache, is impressive enough, but the backup vocals do a killer job supporting him every step of the way. Covers of this song are cute, but simply can’t get the same effect.

Of course, it’s just a viscerally sad concept, not being near the person you want to be with on what is potentially the most important day to be with them. But although the distance is felt, the reason isn’t made explicit. What keeps them apart? Unforeseen circumstances? Duty? A mistake? Consider that Elvis thinks this other person will be having a relatively fine Christmas, unlike his own. Did this person even consider how Elvis would feel until now? That’s even sadder!

And, boy, it gets the job done in record time. That’s something I’ll give to most decent songs from this era. They knew when to get in and out without wasting a tune or a feeling.

7. Last Christmas

December 14, 2016

Welcome to Day Fourteen of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

Let’s get back into the quality of holiday cheer and melancholy with Wham!’s Last Christmas.

Last Christmas
I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away.
This year
To save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special.

The song could end after the first three lines and get the point across. There’s more imagery after this, but it doesn’t really deviate, musically or story-wise, from this tone.

In a way, Christmas could seem incidental to this song, but it’s what ties it all together. The singer clearly uses Christmas as a unit of time, marking heartache and aspirations with it.

The question then is: WILL you give your heart to someone special? Can you find someone special, let alone trust them? The chorus is repeated twice every time, making it seem like a cycle that is perhaps unavoidable.

The cyclical nature translates to the music, the apex of “meditative 80s synth”, perfectly willing to just play around with one idea for, basically, the whole time. In fact, it’s honestly pretty pleasant and contrasts greatly to the sentiment in the lyrics. The instrumentation represents a hoped-for Christmas cheer that meets one’s expectation for the holiday, while the vocals on top of that – or more appropriately, under that – are the thoughts you really can’t stop from rising in tense social situations.

The chorus, then, acts as a mantra that helps the singer organize their interior self, despite the confusion in the rest of their life, as described in each other verse. Together with the synth, the meditation and repetition actually work to make the melancholy productive, building up to those more cathartic howls at the end – maybe a resolution to get thing sorted out before next Christmas after all?

6. What’s This?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPblZa10_Pk (this won’t embed I’m sorry)

December 15, 2016

Welcome to Day Fifteen of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

This was a tough one. After this one, we’ll move onto the next stage of this journey, in which I will begin to venture into tricky territory by turns lionizing and demonizing the members of the classic Christmas canon. To make this transition, it might be worthwhile to define, or defy, the range of that canon.

Soundtracks of larger Christmas specials have not been off the table, nor should they be. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and the Grinch are a part of the pantheon, and I wouldn’t seek to divorce them, in any of their forms, from the season. I have an expansionist view of the season – never purge, always add. More Christmas for the Christmas Spirit!

It only recently dawned on me to add Danny Elfman to this cast of characters, or more specifically, the Danny Elfman responsible for the soul of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Though not his first foray into creating an audio atmosphere for Christmas – he already cut his teeth on Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, after all – Nightmare actually gave him a chance to write a MUSICAL about Christmas. His music really does a good job of exploring the answers to the question: What if an unfocused, tortured artist discovered, all at once, an inspiration unlike anything they could have imagined?

The entire story goes further down this rabbit hole – how does the artist realize their vision? how do they know when to compromise? what does it mean to share a vision with the world? – and it’s all super good, but there’s nothing quite like that first moment when Danny captures Jack Skellington discovering Christmas for the first time in What’s This?

This song is certainly rooted in the context of its story, taking for granted that there are, indeed, different “towns” that are created around different holidays, but I think it can be briefly wrested from that frame to be enjoyed on its own. It keeps the jingling bells and sleigh-ride like pace of the traditional canon, but Danny’s touch adds an unhinged manicness that’s by turns joyous and unsettling, really capturing the feeling of not quite knowing what to do with yourself.

And this is an INCREDIBLY effective subversion of the Christmas List song. Yes, it is a series of observations, but unlike other songs of the season, they’re not merely affirmations, but DISCOVERIES. The story, and the visuals, certainly indicate this moment is meant to parody the saccharine and now banal imagery of other seasonal tales like The Night Before Christmas or any commercial depiction of the North Pole, but even that doesn’t dull Jack’s constant vacillations between deep mirth and performative joy. Even when he doesn’t understand them, he knows each tradition means something deeper, something that invites participation, something that excites the part of someone that wants to be part of something bigger. Christmas is for everyone!!

Every song from this soundtrack is phenomenal, but this is the right one for this list.

Sidebar: The Worst Christmas Songs

The Worst #1. Jingle Bell Rock

December 16, 2016

Welcome to Day Sixteen of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

And welcome to our countdown to the final five! To whet your appetite, a change of pace… Welcome to Day One of the Five WORST Christmas Songs ever!

As has been the case until now, these will not be in a particular order. Indeed, their poor qualities, distinct in themselves – either having fallen hard out of style or having never been great to begin with – will together outline the Christmas nadir. Some of these are apparently obvious, while someone require examination.

I have never liked Jingle Bell Rock, and I’m not convinced anyone ever did. I believe it persists purely out of a mass sense of irony.

Consider the core concept, that making a song in a particular genre is novel enough that attention needs to be drawn to it in the naming. Consider, as well, that this is simply is not a sterling representation rock and roll. I know that not all rock is meant to match the activity and frenzy of AC/DC, but why is this so dull? “Giddy up, jingle horse”?? Not to this beat!!

Would this song not be exactly as tacky if it were Jingle Bell Rap? If it were written, “I’m MC X an I’m hear to say, I love jingling bells in a major way?”

All that aside, what is happening in this song? I’ve complained a lot about the Christmas List of Christmas stuff, but, like… this is too vacuous to even count as a list. There are mostly just allusions to dance – either suggestions to or descriptions of. When would dancing ever happen near this song?

For this stretch, I’ll only submit you to the least-bad version of any of these songs, or in the context of something better of funnier. Here’s Mean Girls.

The Worst #2. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

December 17, 2016

Welcome to Day Seventeen of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

And welcome to Day Two of the Worst Christmas Songs Ever. Yes, you’ll need to keep track of two different, parallel continuities with their own sets of numbers to make sense of this. It’s like Kingdom Hearts.

With so many Christmas songs all more or less attempting to tell you what Christmas is “about,” you have to assume that some of them are either flat-out wrong, or not even trying, or trying TOO hard.

So is It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year pulling my fucking leg? It comes on pretty strong and fast with its hyperbole, not even having the nerve to put out some evidence before touting It (that is, this time of the year) as the Most Wonderful.

When the evidence comes, it sounds like descriptions of Christmas from an overconfident shut-in, or someone from the future who has read mistranslated histories, or some rich dweeb with zero real friends.

Here’s what you can expect this time of year: kids “jingle belling”; people yelling at you to be cheerful; other humans saying hello to each other. Already, this is a rough start – you can look forward to the abundance of Uninvited Noises on Christmas, something most people look forward to.

The following Christmas List doesn’t even bother to come together to build a cohesive image, so each presented on its own appears not just shallow, but weird.

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago

Yes, the only time of the year where it is customary to Host Parties or Toast Marshmallows. The concept of caroling is almost able to ground us once again in Christmas, but it’s all lost come “scary ghost stories” – a Christmas tradition SO POPULAR, it gets three lines.

This song is so obnoxious, vacuous, and insincere, I hope in time that it won’t be remembered outside of this Staples commercial.

The Worst #3. Little Drummer Boy

December 18, 2016

Welcome to Day Eighteen of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music. AAAAAND welcome to Day Three of the Worst Christmas Songs Ever.

This song is about the Nativity, yes, but I guess it didn’t think the existing cast of characters was especially good, so it decided to add its own Original Character (do not steal!!) who was also there to get the approval of the holiest family ever: The Little Drummer Boy.

Wow, really cool, little drummer boy. It’s really cool that you came to play a song for the king of the last millennium on… a single percussive instrument.

I praised the meditative quality of Last Christmas, but the repetition of Little Drummer Boy is somehow the opposite. It’s not soothing, but more like nodding off and waking up over and over in a social situation, like school… or church.

And the worst part is that it’s a classic anyway. We finally get Bing Crosby and David Bowie in a room, and they said, “Well, this is on the list of Christmas songs,” so they went for it, WASTING an otherwise glorious opportunity. On this plodding, repetitive nonsense.

This song only works if you fundamentally change it. Only Charlie Brown and Vince Guaraldi could figure it out.

The Worst #4. Wonderful Christmastime

December 19, 2016

Welcome to Day Nineteen of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music. AND! Welcome to Day Four of the Worst Christmas Songs Ever.

It could be that “Worst” is probably strong, but the truth is, I don’t know what to do with this song. I don’t know what to do with Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, and that is frustrating.

Like with It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, I assume it’s stuck around due to a communal sense of irony. The edge I suppose it might have over that song is, I guess, a concision in its imagery and poetry? (“We’re here tonight / And that’s enough” is the closest to a distinct human sentiment I can appreciate) Most lines of each verse are made up of four words a piece. It’s not overwritten, at least.

But I guess the problem is that it’s underwritten. It feels like a sub-two-minute song produced as an almost four minute song. It’s almost like it was written hastily and absent-mindedly to fill some sort of quota and became a hit by accident.

What do I do with this song?? I doesn’t make me happy OR thoughtful, and I need at least one of those in my Christmas song! And there’s something about the polite blandness of it that embodies the social disaffectedness that I perceive to be a foundation of mainstream British culture. That’s probably reading into it, BUT IT FEELS REAL TO ME.

I bet people have a lot of strong feeling about Paul McCartney’s Wings/solo career, and I haven’t had any complaints myself. This song is the exception. It makes me thing of him as a lazy son of a bitch. It strikes me that any positive qualities in this song are entirely from McCartney’s talent, but none of his skill.

Only way to make it work properly is to double down on the goofy, warbly instrumental and mix the shit out of it. I can count on that from Kylie Minogue (and friends).

The Worst #5. Do They Know It’s Christmas

December 20, 2016

Welcome to Day Twenty of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music. AND! Welcome to Day Five, the last day, of the Worst Christmas Songs Ever.

So there was a little while in the 80s when the West suddenly notice that other cultures exist. That’s why ninjas and Australians suddenly become cool.

But before then, African culture was kind of popular! By which I mean English-speaking musicians put more African drum beats in their songs. We, of course, have Toto to thank (blame??) for this. Paul Simon would bring this to its natural conclusion with You Can Call Me Al, to most people’s benefit.

Unfortunately, in the middle there, we had Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?

When Toto wrote Africa, even they admitted they were doing it from the perspective of someone who did not know much about Africa. Band Aid learned nothing from the trail blazed by Toto.

This song was written to raise awareness of and raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia in 1984. The sentiment meant to encapsulate this idea? The question, “Do they know it’s Christmas?”

I dunno, man. Do you think? Do you think they know it’s Christmas in the oldest Christian nation in the world? Honestly, I guess that could be a good question. Ethiopian Orthodoxy certainly predates Christmas’s formal induction into Christianity.

I would rather listen to a song written by Ethiopian musicians to raise awareness about British smugness. “Do They Know Christmas Didn’t Originate in England?”

I mean, I feel like I’m cheating by putting this song here, because this isn’t a Christmas song. I mean, NOT REALLY. I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to write about Ethiopian struggles, but I get the feeling the only reason Christmas was wrapped up into it was to impart some other sense of purpose for the song’s existence. It doesn’t work.

The song attempts to contrast the comfort of Christmas time in the first world to the Ethiopian famine, but none of the language is specific, so the contrast is flimsy and meaningless. “You know, over here / It’s pretty good / And, ohh, over there / It is not so good…”

This lack of distinct imagery is exacerbated by the complete absence of any cohesive structure, musically. Yesterday’s “Wonderful Christmastime” was all hook, but this song has nothing resembling a hook. I already forget what it sounds like.

They start by immediately using the word Christmas. Then they allude to Ethiopia. Then they get to a “call to action” – feed the world. Like, yeah, great, but… Way to pave the road to normalizing feeble pop activism, dudes. We couldn’t even get a good song out of this.

To writer Bob Geldof’s credit, he recognizes his hand in writing “two of the worst songs in history”: this and We Are the World.

End Sidebar

5. Silent Night

December 21, 2016

Welcome to Day Twenty-One of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music. Welcome to the Final Five.

Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Let’s put aside for now that other stuff – that it probably happened in the spring, that it was bumped over to December to coincide with winter solstice traditions like Saturnalia to convert pagans to Catholicism, that Coca Cola defined the Santa Claus as we know him now and shit like that.

The nativity, the story of the birth of Christ, is the original Christmas story, and – folks, let’s be honest here – the best. A young couple is saddled with the greatest responsibility in the world, and only they know it. They need a safe place to birth the Messiah, and they can’t find or even afford one. Ultimately, they are forced to resort to stay in a barn, and the first witnesses to the event are livestock and shepherds.

The most important thing to ever happen occurs in the humblest place imaginable.

Silent Night captures the absolute serenity that follows what could have been a catastrophe. The birth of Christ, surely, is the greatest success that could ever be seen, but here mankind’s saving grace is distilled to this one moment: a mother, a child, and sweet relief.

The phrase “Sleep in heavenly peace,” sung twice, concludes narrative of the entire song, and ideally the narrative of humanity’s travails until this point. The ascension from one note to the other on the first “peace” is achingly, anxious, almost like the fitful stretching of a fussy baby. When the phrase is repeated, it floats gently downward. The deserved rest finally arrives.

The song’s tranquility carries through history up to it association with the famous Christmas Truce of World War I. There are stories that the truce began on some part of the western front with German voices echoing a carol over the battlefield. It was a song that was much more popular at that time in its native Austria than its English translation: Silent Night.

Ideally, this song would be sung with great care and control by a small church choir, or, hell, some talented children. Most importantly, a light tough is best. A perfect version is hard to come by. Because the song is so simple, any minor tweaks can impart varying levels of awe, peace, and humility. Sarah McLachlin gets close.

4. I’ll Be Home For Christmas

December 22, 2016

Welcome to Day Twenty-Two of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

Christmas is a time of great expectations. The events of one’s life are meant to proceed on a certain path this time of year, in accordance with tradition, promises, and schedules.

These expectations, put upon by ourselves, our peers, our histories, and, yes, commercial interests, cannot possibly be met every single time. Changes in one’s life tend to compound and conflict with the things we wish to maintain.

The song There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays narrowly missed being on the Worst Songs list for its vacuousness and focus on fucking LONG DISTANCE TRAVEL, the most obviously hideous feature of the holidays. Its evasion of this misfortune is thanks in large part to what was surely an honest and widespread sentiment in postwar America – that being able to get around freely to see your loved ones and conquer the tyranny of distance is the greatest blessing of the modern era.

Unfortunately, before the postwar era, there was the war era, when today’s song was written.

There’s a popular myth that Ernest Hemingway bet John Robert Colombo and Arthur C. Clark. that he could craft a novel in six words. The result: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” He apparently won the bet.

The last two lines of I’ll Be Home for Christmas is the baby shoes of Christmas songs.

The song begins with assurance, that all the expectations of the holiday will be fulfilled, that, with the signer’s arrival, order will be restored and the idyllic scene we had hoped to enjoy will be preserved by their presence, the last piece of the puzzle after the presents, the snow, the mistletoe.

The last two lines flip this script. The recounting of all these comforting images isn’t for the reassurance for the listener, but for the singer.

It is completely up to the listener if “If only in my dreams” is a phrase of hope or defeat. Or both.

Alternate Performance: The Killers

there’s a new cover of this song this year, where brandon flowers has the music teacher that got him into music singing the first part of it acapella, and it’s got a really pretty, haunting quality to it (starts at 3:30)

Brian Bates, December 21, 2016

3. O Holy Night

December 15, 2020

I regret my original choice for this slot, so I’m rewriting history.

I don’t have a lot of personal memories of this song. It never made it into my own playlists. But I know I’ve heard it.

It’s not really a Christmas song a kid appreciates. It’s a bit ponderous, slow, and somehow broad tonally. But what I like about it now is not the way it captures joy or glory, but catharsis and relief. “A weary world rejoices.” Boy, I hope so.

Johnny Mathis has a distinct voice, so I hope you like it.

2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

December 24, 2016

Welcome to Day Twenty-Four of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

Frank Sinatra’s greatest contribution to the Christmas season was his decision to include a song in his album A Jolly Christmas that was popular 13 years prior, cementing it in the Christmas canon for years to come.

The problem was, though, that the song needed tweaking. Its old contextual trappings didn’t fit the feel of the album. “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas,” Sinatra told the original songwriter, referring to a particular part of the song. “Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” The line in question, along with a few other words, were tweaked prior to recording. The result was a perfectly good Christmas song about togetherness.

I believed this to be the definitive version of the song for most of my life, as I’m sure most people born after its recording did. Learning that there was an “original” version in my adulthood was a more shattering revelation than learning that there was no Santa Claus in my youth.

In fact, the moment I even decided to do this list came when I went to Market Basket shortly after Thanksgiving, when they were already piping in Christmas music. They started playing this song, and as I listened I discovered, astoundingly, it had the original lyrics.

It hit me like reading a letter from someone I loved that was postmarked from before they had died. I was going to cry in the Market Basket because someone was singing to me the exact thoughts I had all along about the past year.

You see, the song was written to be sung by Judy Garland in a movie. She and her entire family are about to go through a tumultuous change, and nothing will be the same again. In this song, she bears the responsibility of easing the fears of her little sister even while grappling with the situation herself. In a shifting world they can’t control, they have to decide how to define their course going forward, and most importantly, what they need to be doing at that exact moment.

The title of the song is not a vacuous platitude. It is advice. It is permission. It is a mission!

This song was written, of course, during World War II, and its popularity outlasted the movie in which it appeared, becoming quite popular, of course, with the troops. Considered this way, the message of the song could be seen as patriotic. Keeping the Christmas spirit is something you do for those around you. In this way, it is your duty. You need to hold the line, keep the spirit alive, and maintain normalcy in whatever way you can. This is how many people survived the worst things to ever happen in history.

Christmas, and every other winter solstice observance, occurs at a time when light fades, the killing cold encroaches, and the weakness of human flesh is made apparent, and as the actions of our bodies are restricted, our wills are hollowed and grow stale.

Or they might, if not for our attempts to stave of this despair with these holidays. These days are meant to remind us that winter – at most other points in history, a time as synonymous with death as spring is to birth – is only temporary. And yet, this is more than just a biding of our time. You don’t just survive the Darkness because you waited it out. You have to do something. You can make someone a little happier than they might have been otherwise through a gift, a shoulder to lean on, or just being available. You can remind someone that they’re not alone.

At the bare minimum, you can be kind to yourself. You can believe that, though the world crumbles and dies around you, things can be better. You must not let that last good in the world, Hope, be lost as well.

This not to say it is easy, and that “it’s all going to work out.” This isn’t to miss the suffering of many, and those who did not survive history’s great tribulations. This is to recognize that these things have happened before, and they will happen again.

But that’s true of Christmas, too. Many, many people have celebrated many, many Christmases in many, many different situations. This song, better than any other, reminds us of that. Christmas, in acting as a collection for these many traditions and pieces of art, is a time capsule, a love letter from humanity to itself.

No, it’s not always easy. But we have to start somewhere. A better future is possible. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

1. All I Want For Christmas Is You

December 25, 2016

Welcome to Day Twenty-Five of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever, where I’ll attempt to define the breadth and depth of the Christmas Spirit through music.

We’ve discussed the many facets of Christmas. There’s the things that Christmas INCLUDES, like familial togetherness, Santa Claus, presents, sleigh rides, revelry, certain kinds of songs, and the anticipation that comes with waiting for those things to be appropriate. Then there’s the things that Christmas is ABOUT, like hope in darkness, peace, and a recognition of our common humanity.

What is the best and simplest way to combine these things? What sentiment best encapsulates both the need to undergo a particular experience at a particular time and the need to demonstrate and affirm your values to the world?

One song correctly embodies this journey we’ve taken together, our attempt to cut through all the bullshit and get to the heart of the matter, to, like a drill, boldly and resolutely focus our efforts and hopes for the season down to a single point:

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU

This song fits the bill for a great Christmas song in every fucking way. First of all, like a good Christmas song, you can pick up the words and sing along pretty easily. It’s actually a pretty simple idea with a very simple structure. Anyone can have fun with it, but a GREAT TALENT can unfurl it, making the merely simple into a universal truth.

For another thing, not only does it feature a subversion of the Christmas List, the whole song is devoted to decimating it! Santa, sleigh bells, reindeer? For Mariah Carey, NONE OF THESE WILL DO! Now, cleverly, she still gets to include the list, and she doesn’t count these idolistic features of Christmas as some how worth less – just that what SHE wants is worth MORE. She gets to have the list, and then go beyond it. This is an INCREDIBLY clever thing to do for a modern Christmas song, aligning itself with the classics while at once defying them.

Finally, it tells a good Christmas story in which tragedy could strike, but is averted. Consider how the first verse, our minute-long prologue, starts, passionate but sort of solemn, the church-like tone amplified by the chiming bells. At this point, we only know what she wants, not if she’s getting it. Are these wedding bells? Funeral bells??

That’s for us to find out in the rest of the song, measured but peppy, like a treasure hunt. Will he be here tonight? Holding on to her so tight?? Maybe!! The bridge emphasizes the tenuousness, when she is forced to actually implore Santa for aid.

But how do I know it’s a happy ending? It’s not from the words, but the voice. The last heaven-piercing “you” is the only resolution I need, and the height and totality of that “you” is the reason I cannot accept this from anyone but Mariah Carey.

That god damn “you” is how I know it’s Christmas. I didn’t used to think so, but now it’s obvious.

When you boil it all down, the good will, the cheer, the gift-giving, Christmas, like most important things, is all about love.

I THINK I’m right about this. But if I’m not, another way to look at this song is that Christmas is whatever you need it to be. Christmas has been flexible for nearly 2000 years, it can bend a little bit more for your sake.

Have a good one!

Bonus: St. Stephen’s Day Murders

December 26, 2016

Welcome to the Epilogue of Terry’s 25 Days of the Best Christmas Songs Ever.

The day after Christmas is known, depending on where you’re from, as Boxing Day, St. Stephen’s Day, or December 26th.

This song is about resisting the urge to kill all of your relatives on the day after Christmas because you’re sick of them being around them.

Apparently, St. Stephen was one the first martyrs ever, stoned to death spreading the gospel. In Ireland, they have a tradition where you send out the children for hours to chase/hunt/capture a wren. Apparently they thought a warbling wren gave away Stephen’s hiding place. So modern day wrens must suffer. These hunts, too, apparently, may be the St. Stephen’s Day murders.

The tensions among the drunken adults seem to be resolved, at least, when they finally get rid of the fucking kids.

Thanks for listening, guys!

{ Also consider: The New Torres Christmas Canon }

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