The Thinking Man's Take On: Christmas Songs

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What is it about Christmas music?75% of us love it, 23% of us adamantly hate it, and 2% of us listen to “8 Crazy Nights” on repeat this time of year.Christmas songs are a December fixture, and they're some of my favorite things in the world.

Note, a passionate love of Christmas music doesn’t mean you have to love Christmas.You don’t even have to be Christian.You just have to have a soft spot in your heart for hearing the same songs year after year after year (after year after year) – in shopping malls, on the radio, in youtube spoofs, and in your roommate’s terrible singing voice.

My love of Christmas songs has been tested this year.I’m a few commercial jingles to the tune of “Deck The Halls” away from throwing electronic appliances out of windows.If I hear another Punk Rock Christmas Carol, I might have a violent reaction.Two weeks ago, I was subjected to a full half hour of Theremin Christmas Songs by a guy named Spaceman Dan.For reals.

But every time I get frustrated with Christmas tunes, I crank up Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”, curl up by my “Amish Style” Electric Fireplace, and relax as Bing’s sweet pipes lull me into a happy bliss.There are few things more comforting in the world.

There remain a number of questions in my mind about Christmas songs.Some of them are answerable by a voyage to the great Wikipedia, others are more rhetorical in nature, and some revolve around constantly shifting opinions. These 10 questions, in my opinion, define the crux of the riddle of the Christmas song. I pose them to you below, along with my musings for substance.

1.Is the term “Christmas Song” in fact a misnomer?

Well, certainly not in terms of songs like “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, and not for tunes like “O Come O Come Emmanuel” or whatnot.But what about Jingle Bells?Or Winter Wonderland?Cannot the non-Christian’s among us dash through the snow and enjoy a jaunty tune dedicated to jingling bells?Aren’t we all entitled to face unafraid the plans that we made?The answer there is yes.So I hereby propose a new category of song:The “Christmas By Association” category, for songs mill around with Christmas-y characters without ever really committing.I like these songs very much, and believe they should be sung around every Christmas Tree, Hanukkah Menorah, Kwanzaa Kinara, Festivus Pole, or other religious/non-religious artifact of choice.Lovely tunes, and it sounds better than changing the word Christmas to Hanukkah in all the songs.Which brings me to number 2:

2.Why is there exactly one popular Hanukkah song?And why is it written by Adam Sandler?

Are we seriously saying that with all the popular and successful singers out there, no one can write a better tune ditty than Adam Sandler?A survey of the top 10 results of a Google Search for “Christmas Song” comes up with promises of “Over 50 carols with midis and lyrics” as well as a plethora of different songs by various artists.An identical look at the top 10 for “Hanukkah Song” comes up with 9 Adam Sandler references and ‘Ma’oz Tzur’, a traditionalHanukkah songthat was composed by a man named Mordecia in Europe in the twelfth century.” Come on Beastie Boys.Come on Beck.Even you, Paula Abdul.Somebody has to have it in them.

3.Who wrote the original Christmas Carols?

Was it the same guys who wrote the Gospels?I hope so.That would be awesome.I like to picture Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John singing “Christmas in Kilarney” barbershop quartet style.

4.Why do people like the song “Feliz Navidad”?

Myself included, people can’t seem to get enough of Feliz Navidad.Which totally makes sense until you, um, listen to the song.It’s horrible.It sounds like Jose Feliciano is singing through his nose with a chorus of ukuleles and trumpets backing him up.The lyrics are as follows (translated):“Happy Christmas.Happy Christmas.Happy Christmas, Prosperous New Year, and Happiness.Happy Christmas.Happy Christmas.Happy Christmas, Prosperous New Year, and Happiness.I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas, I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas, I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.”Repeat ad nauseam.Those are the only lyrics in the entire song.Completely non-redeeming, non-creative, non-anything good.The more I think about it and the more I listen to this song, the more angry I get that it’s an accepted and popular track.

5.Why don’t indie groups do Christmas Songs?

I know, I know.Sufjan wrote like 147 Christmas songs and covered even more, and there’s a whole box set out there.But Mr. 2 State Project notwithstanding, I can think of very few indie Christmas songs, either originals or covers, worth mentioning.From what I can gather, Stereogum tried to put together an indie Christmas mix in 2004 and 2005, but the lists were boringly similar, and I can find no evidence of an ’06, ’07, or ’08 attempt.Commenter Billy K sums it up well – “Oh no – I ain’t falling for another indie Christmas mix.I already have half of those songs, and frankly, they all suck. There's just something about "indie" music and Christmas which does not mix well. I think it's because faux-irony/detachment is not compatible with X-Mas. But that's just a guess.” I think that’s a good guess, but it doesn’t necessarily take everything into account. What we love about Christmas songs is that we can sing along, bop with familiar rhythms, and generally feel like we’re in familiar territory.Don’t try to completely re-imagine the song, just play it with your instruments and sing it with your voice, and we’ll be happy.Maybe slow it down and put some banjo in – it worked for Sufjan.I think over-extension is responsible for the failure of 80% of indie Christmas cuts.The other 20% are no talent clowns and people who write songs called “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out”.Seriously, though, if you know good indie Christmas songs that you can a) sing along to and b) listen to more than two times without shooting yourself, please tell me so I can check them out.

6.Is it physically possible to sing “Meli Keliki Maka” without doing a little dance?

No.

7.How is Bing Crosby so good?

I would venture a guess that 99% of people who own Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” do not own another Bing Crosby record.It’s the icon of icons, the pinnacle of Yuletide Song Achievement, and Bing should get some sort of lifetime achievement award for being the best part of Christmas music.But how?His instrumentation is sappy and cheesy, his voice is saccharine sweet, and I’ve heard all of the songs so many times I know the personalities of the individual background singers.Nevermind, now I know why I love him so much.I could listen to this album in July and I would feel the need to throw on a Christmas sweater.

8.Are Christmas albums a pure marketing ploy for established artists to sell records?

Maybe this is why more indie artists don’t release Christmas albums – when country stars, James Taylor, and Josh Groban release sure-to-be-bought-as-presents-for-your-weird-aunt-who-you-don’t-really-know albums, it’s tough to see the artistic integrity of a Christmas record.The top selling Christmas album on Amazon is “Now That’s What I Call Christmas!” ferchristmassakes.So yes, the answer is yes.Christmas albums are purely a marketing ploy to sell records in the later months of the year.But they also make damn good Christmas gifts for estranged relatives, and the songs are usually quick covers that don’t allow for much artistic embellishment – just the way they should be.So despite their superficial nature, I back them.

9.Do you feel a little naughty when you listen to Christmas songs in January?Or June?

No?Just me?Ok.

10.Do you want to go listen to Christmas songs now?

Because I sure do.

So go turn up the volume and listen to all 7 of Sufjan’s Christmas albums.Watch Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation or Bing H. Crosby in White Christmas.Drink some hot chocolate, flip the switch on the fire, and boogie to the elf dance. Whatever you do, don’t delay, because Christmas Song Season is only here for a short time.Oh, and if you order in the next 11 hours, you can have Now That’s What I Call Christmas in your hands by the 18th.Act now!

Chris Barth is a guest-blogger here at Pretty Much Amazing, you can read his daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.

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