Let’s say I went on Christmas strike for a while.
Now, with a few years between me and that experience, I still have a strong distaste for runaway consumerism, but I’m “that person” with decorations up before the turkey leftovers have been formed unholy alliances with whatever else is in the fridge.
What changed? Well, a couple of things. First, my job. Honestly, if I was still in retail I might still feel awfully grinchy right now. Second, the ability to put lights on my house. It may sound odd, but there is something about putting up lights that feels like building community: it’s like this tacit agreement with your neighbors to silently celebrate together, and to make your street look a little more beautiful.
Third, Christmas music. I love good Christmas music. I grew up with the classics: Bing Crosby, Ed Ames, Frank Sinatra… and that was about it. I’ve got great memories of this music, but it wasn’t until I was an adult and someone gave me a mix CD of ‘grown-up’ Christmas music that I realized there was much more out there.
Going further, the most well-known and well-loved songs have been covered by many different musicians, so each of the covers hopefully adds a new layer. I say “hopefully” because there are a lot of turkeys out there, treading ground that others have done better. There are also, of course, truly terrible original songs. “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” I’m looking at you. The enduring popularity of this song makes me weep for humanity.
So you have to sift. Building playlists on sites like Rhapsody or Spotify can be a great way to go through what is out there- it’s a lot.
If you’re still reading this, you may have realized at some point that I think way too much about Christmas music. Luckily for you, you don’t have to: Below are two sample lists.
Music to deck the halls by:
These songs are great for the beginning of the season, before you get sick of the BC Clark jingle. This is music for getting IN the holiday spirit.
Dolly Parton “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” This woman can still out sing anyone.
Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan “We Three Kings/ God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen”
Reverend Horton Heat “Run Rudolph Run”
Bing Crosby “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” You thought I was going to go with White Christmas, didn’t you?
Darlene Love “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” One of my very favorites.
Indigo Girls “Angels We Have Heard on High” Amy and Emily’s trademark harmonies shine through.
Elvis Presley “Blue Christmas” Accept no substitutes- covers of this song tend toward the sappy. Only Elvis makes holiday loneliness sound like fun.
Wham “Last Christmas” Is it cheesy fun or cheesy awful? You decide.
Heart “Ave Maria”
Kay Starr (from the Christmas Remixed 2003 album): “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” Definitely look for the remixed version.
Ed Ames “Do You Hear What I Hear?” This song is a story, and Ed Ames delivers it as such.
Josh Groban “Silent Night” Seriously, it’s ridiculous that he sings this well. A bring-you-to-tears beautiful voice.
Sufjan Stevens “I Saw Three Ships” Sufjan has a three-disk holiday set, full of standards and originals.
Bah Humbug mix.
This isn’t really ‘I hate the holidays’ music. This is music that you listen to when you’re maybe sick of the usual stuff, are still trying hard to maintain a positive attitude while finishing your Christmas shopping, and then just got flipped off by a terrible driver in a Santa suit.
The Pogues “Fairytale of New York” includes a lovely, soaring chorus, a distinctly Irish aspect, and the lyrics: “Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.”
The Kinks “Father Christmas” I want this one to become a classic.
The Superions “Fruitcake” The Superions includes the voice talents of Fred Schneider (formerly of the B-52s). silly, trippy, disco fun.
Aimee Mann “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” That’s right. Aimee Mann has a Christmas album.
Melissa Etheridge “Merry Christmas Baby”
Cyndi Lauper and The Hives “A Christmas Duel” This could be a prequel to The Pogues’ song at the beginning- a lively, danceable melody against bitter, raunchy lyrics
Twisted Sister “O Come All Ye Faithful” It’s kind of eerie how their delivery of this song mirrors their hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It”
My Chemical Romance “All I Want For Christmas” Yes, this is a cover of Mariah Carey’s song, and yes it rocks.
The Waitresses “Christmas Wrapping” This song just sounds like the 1980s. It’s almost a modern classic.
Vienna Teng “The Atheist Christmas Carol”
Dar Williams “The Christians and the Pagans” A sweet song about bridging family differences.
Judy Garland “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”** Depressing as hell. In a good way.
Those are my lists. They may serve as great jumping off points for you to build your own holiday list, or you may choose only to listen to Mannheim Steamroller for the next month. Whatever jingles your bells.
**I’d like to end this essay with a public service announcement for anyone recording Christmas music, ever:
PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL HOLLY AND JOLLY, YOU DO NOT EVER, EVER, EVER NEED TO COVER “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” IT’S BEEN DONE. YOU ARE IN THE CLEAR AND MAY PROCEED DIRECTLY TO ANY OTHER SONG.
A quick search reveals over 200 recorded versions of this song in the past 60 or so years, by such artists as: John Denver, Babyface, Christina Aguilera, John Tesh, Twisted Sister, Toby Keith, Melissa Etheridge, Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, She & Him, Sister Hazel, Luther Vandross, Chicago, Frank Sinatra, Mr. Hankey, and The Chipmunks. To name a very few. You could assemble an entire box set of CDs, consisting of nothing but different recording artists singing or performing (or butchering) this almost ludicrously maudlin song. Some are good, but many are not.
Actually, speaking of its depressing tone, I wouldn’t mind more covers if artists returned to the original, cheery wartime lyrics:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
But do any of us need Toby Keith reassuring us that “from now on, our troubles will be out sight”? (presumably because he put a boot in the troubles’ ass, it’s the American way.)
No. No, we don’t. Just let Judy sing it, please.