tris mccall
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
  Tris McCall Christmas Abstract

The Tris McCall Report

Christmas Abstract

Angels We Have Heard On High

Middle-of-the-pack Christmas carol; short, uncomplicated, not particularly poetic, acceptable to the secular crowd because it's about angels, and angels for some reason are considered ecumenical. Me, I know backsliding into polytheism when I hear it. The Hebrews didn't wander forty years in the desert so we could worship a bunch of angels. I also object to the Latin chorus. Yes, of course I know what it means, but that's really not the point. Maybe it's the Wycliffe in me, but if I'm going to belt out something devotional, it sure as hell better be in English so I know exactly what I'm saying.

Away In A Manger

Brapholatry: that's a good word, one you should learn and add to your own personal lexicon. It means the worship of babies. Infantilizing Jesus is an old Christian tradition going all the way back to Luke's Gospel; as a matter of fact, you could argue that the establishment of Christmas as the holiest day on the calendar was a victory for the infantilizers. "Away In A Manger" is a pretty dope song, and if you get a good piano player with a gospel sensibility and courage to find unusual chords, musically speaking, you've got something cooking. Lyrically speaking, it's the very soundtrack for Christian brapholatry. "The little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head?!?!" Is this the Ancient of Days, or the subject of a diaper commercial?

Blue Christmas

Before we go any further, I want to draw the distinction between Christmas carols and Christmas music. Christmas carols are very old, and are by and large about Jesus. Christmas music is mostly from the latter half of the Twentieth Century, and generally replaces Jesus with Santa Claus. Much Christmas music is, in fact, quite irreverent about Santa; he kisses mommy under the mistletoe, he is capable of being mugged by the enemies of Ray Davies, Grandma is run over by his reindeer. He is represented as having a coarse and earthy materiality -- he is corpulent, he carries items, his laugh is his most distinctive utterance. The Jesus of the Christmas carols is, by contrast, insubstantial: he is either a baby, and hence powerless, or a passive symbol of divine power. So to what degree is the Santa of the Christmas music a displacement or effacement of the Christ of the Christmas carols? I think many would argue that it's a straight swap with very little residue -- that the modern Christmas is simply the ultimate capitalist festival and celebration of goods-exchange, and its theological significance has been eclipsed by Santa's big fat shadow. Me, I don't think it's that simple. Christianity, as any student of the Puritans can tell you, is the theological and philosophical system that underpinned and justified mercantile expansion; beyond that, it is, at base, the most material-minded of all major religions. What it promises is resurrection in the flesh -- not anything wispy like a seat on a cloud, not disembodied souls, no, you, like Lazarus and Jesus himself, get your sinews back, your material condition is restored. This Jesus, Christ of the Gospels, was no ascetic. He eats, drinks, swears, breaks dietary restrictions; hell, most of the Gnostics and half of medieval France were unanimous in their belief that he got it on with Mary Magdalene. The Christmas carols tend to emphasize the brapholatry of the first few pages of Luke rather than the dynamic, contradictory Christ of the rest of the Gospels. Instinctively, we know this: we realize that "Silent Night" is just a part of the story, and a small part of it at that, and that maybe the surveillance-creepiness of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" or the bizarre sacrifice narrative in Frosty might get at the nefarious issue just as well. That's not to argue that there's a one-to-one correspondence between Jesus and Santa -- I don't mean to overstate here. I do think that when we sing about Santa Claus in the allegedly secular holiday music, we are, on some important level, always discussing Jesus; when we take shots at Santa, or fear the consequences of displeasing him, or imply that belief in him is the province of children and other naifs, we're making what work as Christological statements in a late capitalist era. This isn't a metaphysic, and it doesn't hold true across the board -- there's a long-running strain of Christmas music that plays on the nostalgia of the holidays, and is more or less bereft of theological implications. "Blue Christmas" works this way; it's a relationship song set during the holidays and the lyric has nothing to do with the meaning of the season. It's heartbreaking, and certainly a good song (especially when rendered by the King) but in some ways it almost feels like an outlier. Songs about heartbreak and loneliness are on the radio all year. We get one month, max, to hear songs that address, tangentially or directly, spiritual concerns. Stuff like "Blue Christmas" sounds nice, but really just stands in the way.

Carol Of The Bells

God, I hate this one. That same asinine four-note sequence over and over, and brain-dead lyrics to boot ("ding dong ding dong/that is their song," indeed). In my experience, songs that try to recreate the experience of bells are as annoying as, well, bells. And yes, this includes silver bells, tubular bells, hell's bells, the sad bells of rhymney, Archie Bell and the Drells, and the tintinnabulation that so musically wells in Edgar Allen Poe's eardrums. The whole point of bells is to irritate the fuck out of you so you either wake up on time or show up on time. That's not the Christmas spirit, as I understand it.

The Christmas Song

Generally rendered as the ultimate secular piece of Christmas music, "The Christmas Song" calls for a knowing, warm-but-jaded Sinatra approach. The key to the song is the bridge: "we know that Santa's on his way…", sung with a smile and a wink, and an eye on the children spying to see if reindeer fly. Certainly you're not supposed to think the urbane vocalist believes in Santa -- he's wistfully recalling the moments before his own lost innocence from the armchair comforts of an upper-middle class existence. He'd like to be able to believe in Santa (Jesus) again, sure, but he's educated, sophisticated, and of course would never sacrifice his too-smart-for-God social position by moving an inch in that direction. Elsewhere, in case you don't get the point, the song scrupulously avoids anything even vaguely Christian and instead loads you down with dopey quasi-Celtic images: chestnuts, Jack Frost, mistletoe, and that pagan what-is-it, the "Yule." The song you're most likely to find on holiday-season compilations offered by upmarket retailers such as Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn.

Deck The Halls

They stick this one on, too; it's by far the most pagan Christmas carol, and hence is considered okay to market to atheists. As a matter of fact, there's nothing at all in this song that particularly suggests Christmas -- we hear the word "jolly," and that's a Kris Kringle word, sort of. But there's no Santa in these clauses -- "Deck The Halls" is straight pre-Christian Celtic narrative, complete with harps and holly boughs. The "season" referred to here is the solstice, and the festivities are linked to the turn of the calendar and the return of longer days. I recognize that Christmas was established on Saturnalia and that there's good ball-dropping fun in arbitrarily hailing the new year, but we ought to be beyond nature worship by now.

Do They Know It's Christmas?

If you remember, Bob Geldof wrote some pretty decent songs for the Boomtown Rats in the late Seventies. His political agenda was never what you'd call sophisticated, but then nothing in it could have prepared us for this: the most fucked-up and condescending piece of patrician propaganda in the history of limousine liberal art. Merit there was in the original Live Aid project, to be sure. But now it's twenty years later, Geldof and Midge Ure are M.I.A., Eritrea has officially broken away from Ethiopia, and we're still hearing this compendium of ridiculous generalizations about Africa in heavy rotation every Christmas season. Let's recap: Africa is a "world of dread and fear," there's no water flowing, bells ringing there are the "clanging chimes of doom," nothing ever grows in Africa (what?!?), there's no rain or rivers or, um, water flowing, and above all and most importantly, NO SNOW. Biologically laughable and factually preposterous, these misrepresentations still reinforce the nagging popular conception of Africa as a huge continental garbage can, populated by stone-age morons who have yet to grasp the rudiments of agriculture. Geldof sums up his patronizing schpiel with the staggeringly irrelevant title question: those starving Ethiopian victims of politically-induced famine, do they know it's Christmas? Bob, is this really the issue? Much has changed since '83; these days it's hard to imagine Phil Collins getting on MTV with a phony accent and a sombrero and singing "it's no fun-a/ being an illegal alie-yun." Yet during the holiday season, we're so busy screening for Christian content that our ability to discern massive cultural slander goes on the blink. I would have thought the Kwanzaa Patrol would have taken this one out years ago.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Luke is the marketing czar of the New Testament; the visionary ideologist who gave us most of the indelible imagery and brapholatry that shows up in the carols. The Gospels according to Mark and Matthew are considered synoptic with Luke -- i.e., drawn from similar sources and following the same basic storyline -- but they differ substantially about the origins and early life of Jesus. Mark doesn't even bother with it; single-minded and with bigger fish to fry, he starts right in with John the Baptist and roars on like a freight train from there. Matthew contributes yonder star and the Three Wise Men (Mt. 2.1-12, if you're following along at home), but only after clearing his throat with a taxing genealogy meant to show his Jewish audience that the birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. It's important to note, though, that at no point does Matthew show us the baby: he calls Jesus the king of the Jews, and emphasizes and exclusively details the treasures he is offered by the Magi. Luke, a shrewder judge of popular sentiment, or perhaps just a more adept handler of human heartstrings, recognized that a wealthy Jesus wouldn't do. Thus the Gospeller replaces Herod and the Wise Men and their gifts with the shepherds keeping watch in the fields, the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, and the familiar and pathetic story of Mary and Joseph finding no room at the inn (Lk. 2.1-15, if you are following along at home). The democratizing impulse that would carry Christianity forward for two thousand years is already at work here: the heralds of the savior are not Matthew's ruling class characters, but instead night farmhands and stable-workers. It has been the tendency of latter-day Christmas storytellers and manufacturers of nativity sets to conflate the Matthew and Luke accounts so that we now have the Magi leaving their presents at the foot of the manger. That this counterintuitive image causes us no cognitive dissonance is unsurprising; ours is a literature of palimpsests, and if we can't reconcile two stories, we'll just toss them together in the blender and worry later about the consistency of the pureé. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" dispenses with the Magi but keeps Matthew's star, the royal proclamation, and the gifts, which have here been upgraded to silver and gold. Luke contributes his shepherds and his proto-democratic sentimentality -- the child is "shivering in the cold," and is contrasted to the king in his "palace warm." Thereby, these two seemingly contradictory stories are harmonized and smoothed over by three verses of clumsy rhyme and a relatively ingenious melody.

The Dreidel Song

I won't bother complaining about how ridiculous it is that this stupid piece of crap stands as the indisputably best-known Hannukah song -- South Park has already proved the point much more effectively than I can manage here. There do exist other pieces of explicitly Jewish holiday music; "Hanerot Halalu" and "Ma'oz Zur" were staples of my upbringing in suburban New Jersey, but they are not exactly radio faves. It's hard not to be sympathetic to Adam Sandler for trying, in his clumsy way, to redress the imbalance, but penning a song that essentially "outs" celebrities for their Jewishness was probably not the way to go. Nevertheless, no matter how inane he has been (and will be) over the years, he is forever redeemed by this couplet: "Some people think that Ebenezer Scrooge is/Well, he's not, but guess who is -- all three Stooges." See, sometimes even the village idiot can have a flash of brilliance, or at least worthwhile pith.

Feliz Navidad

José Feliciano's holiday rave-up, it's one of the more simpleminded and innocuous pieces of Christmas music. Since it's in Spanish and it doesn't mention Jesus, it'll be on high-minded multicultural holiday compilations from here 'til eternity, so if you don't like it, get used to it.

The First Noel

The shepherds hog the glory verse, but this is Matthew's story, straight down to the frankincense and myrrh. "The First Noel" gives us Luke's impoverished shepherds looking up at Matthew's star, but then dispenses with them through some third verse sleight-of-hand: "And by the light of that same star/Three wise men came from country far." Like "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and several other carols, great concern is given to the bitterly cold temperature -- something recorded in neither Matthew nor Luke, but was presumably the invention of the European authors of these songs, shivering in London garrets as they penned them. Beyond that, it's a great pop tune -- terrific verse melody, good rhymes in a string cadence and a big, indelible chorus that builds and tumbles like the best of the Beatles. The unknown author even manages to tuck some legit Christian theology into the never-sung final verse: "Sing praises to our heavenly Lord/That hath made heaven and earth of naught/ And with his blood mankind hath bought." Hold onto your hats, we've got some actual substance on our hands.

Frosty The Snowman

Is Frosty a figure for Jesus? Spurning the traffic cop as Christ did the rule-governed rubrics of the Pharisees and Sadducees, promising a handful of believers he'll be "back again someday"? The agonies of crucifixion don't make for a very pleasant children's song; better, you might think, to focus on Jesus's resignation to his fate and the devotion of his followers. Mark's Gospel portrays a fatalistic but resolute Christ foretelling the Passion to his disciples on several occasions (Mk. 9.30-32, Mk. 10:32-35, if you're following along at home) much as Frosty, blithe but certain, warns the children to "have some fun before I melt away." Jesus recognizes that his trip to Jerusalem will be decisive; likewise, Frosty takes his final trip "down to the village." Jesus flaunts authority by smashing the money-changers in the temple, prophesizing, and eluding authorities until his betrayal (Mk. 11.15-13.32); Frosty runs "here and there, all around the square, saying catch me if you can." Going a little further, even at the risk of losing you in the byzantine Christological thicket, Frosty is animated by the old silk hat; he is a body inhabited by a spirit, "alive as you and me," capable of human activity, but still marked apart by "some magic." Jesus -- and this has always been a major sticking point for the faith -- is simultaneously both human and divine, two natures cohabiting in one corporeal physicality. There's other stuff in the song, too -- some animism, old-time farmer's faith in the eternal renewal of John Barleycorn -- but without a doubt this is a Christian narrative, rendered soft and non-threatening for the theologically timid and other such children. Early Christians were forced to encode their message to escape prosecution. As we continue to expunge all traces of overt Christianity from our popular culture in the name of some secular ideal, we're driving the religion back into symbols and figures, parable and doublespeak. Yet I am reminded again of the words of Yemelian Yaroslavsky, chairman of Stalin's League of the Militant Godless. "Christianity," he said, "is like a nail. The harder you strike it, the deeper it goes." The Soviet Union and its ill-conceived exercise in spiritual negation are long gone. That thumping over the hills of snow will surely persist.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

The least of the five great Christmas carols, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is nonetheless an eternal powerhouse: a mead-swinging Old English melody and accompaniment to put "Greensleeves" to shame. This is straight Luke narrative: the angel, the shepherds, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, the whole tear-jerking yarn. The lustiness of the diapason, however, knocks the starch out of the pathos; you don't come away from the story feeling particularly sentimental. Rather, it's an entreaty to have faith in a God who actually does function as a mighty fortress -- in this Christmas carol, unlike so many others, you're not asked to pity-worship an infantilized object of devotion. "God Rest Ye" does lay on the snow and storm a little thick, but I give it a flier because it's so evidently British, and I am sure the author simply wanted to show off his hardiness and stiff upper lip.

Happy Christmas (War Is Over)

If Paul McCartney is supposed to be the treacly Beatle, how do you explain this? "Happy Christmas/for black and for white/for yellow and red ones/let's stop all the fight"? For God's sake, McCartney never wrote anything half so corny in his life, and that includes his Michael Jackson collaborations. Rockers in general have whiffed when trying to write Christmas music -- fifty years of rebellious tradition prevents them from being able to approach devotional literature with the requisite gravity. Joey Ramone may have floated us a winsome tragedy with "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)" and Patty Donahue's hilarious read on "Christmas Wrapping" obviates the need for any further holiday irreverence, but both songs are really about coping with seasonal expectations rather than grappling with any spiritual questions. Greg Lake does his best with the marvelously portentious "I Believe In Father Christmas," but it, too, ends up being a heavy-handed atheist anthem that could have been penned by a precocious Sunday School dropout. Where's Amy Grant when you need her?

Happy Holidays

Something about the holiday season brings out the redundancy in songwriters. At least a third of the Christmas music on this list consists of songs that repeat the same lines over and over again. Besides insulting our intelligence, this can create feelings of great dislocation and frustration when you're standing in an interminable line at Macy's. The monotony may help you zone out and forget that the cashier is taking five months to process a gift certificate; as for me, it's more likely to compel me to eat a coat hanger.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Sometimes the Great Man theory does hold. Here, big guns Felix Mendelssohn (music) and Charles Wesley (words) put their heads together -- albeit at different times and for different reasons -- to crank out the model carol. Wesley skips most of the nativity discourse to cut straight to the consequences of the birth of Jesus: "God and sinners reconciled" is the summation, and besides being a really nice rhyme for "mercy mild," it offers a distillation of the Christian message that is both succinct and hopeful. But then the Methodism of the Wesleys was nothing if not forward-looking and thorough, and the writer only gives himself three verses to get all the good news on record. This religion is world-affirming and material-minded, as the savior is corporeal ("Veiled in flesh the godhead see/hail the incarnate deity"), and mankind is given the promise of resurrection and eternal life ("Born that man no more may die/born to raise the sons of earth"). The lyric bears the stamp of the thoroughly researched and Bible-obsessed Protestant, and if it feels a trifle pat and mechanical in places, it also has a tightness and eyes-on-the-prize theological coherence that is absent in so many of the other carols. As an entreaty for universal worship ("joyful all ye nations rise… with heavenly host proclaim!") and salvation, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the finest verses in the hymnal. And then there is the music: a cascade of perfectly-calibrated notes and chords, mounting to a sublime chorus that shines like, well, like the star atop the tree. There's a reason Charles Schulz put this song in the mouths of the Peanuts gang at the moment of their theophany. It's three minutes of singalong heaven, and reason enough to go caroling.

Have A Holly Jolly Christmas

God, what a retarded song. What the hell is a "cup of cheer"? It must have taken the composers all of three minutes to put together this lyric. Here are the rhymes, or what passes for them: year/cheer, street/meet, see/me, hear/year. It is a damning critique of our culture that it makes songs like this inescapable for a full twelfth of our lives. Anybody who thinks there's any ground for substituting "Holly Jolly Christmas" for "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" -- on progressive grounds or otherwise -- deserves to have to listen to records like this. "Have a holly jolly Christmas/ and in case you didn't hear," it wraps up, before it repeats the title as if there are only five words in the whole world. I heard.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

In case you can't tell by now, Christmas music annoys me. It is my opinion that there exists a great body of interesting, intelligent, and occasionally theologically sophisticated Christmas carols that are increasingly obscured by the ever-swelling mass of Christmas music. And considering that most retailers, including supermarkets, start pumping in the holiday favorites around mid-November, that's an awfully long time to put up with songs like this one. Now, although it's usually awash in strings and extraneous orchestration, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" has a vaguely jazzy melody, avoids end-of year bombast and can be given a bluesy treatment that brings out the soundness of its composition and its versatility. But even so, the lyric is so godawfully cheesy that it's hard to prevent it from being a total loss. Moreover, there's no justification for wishing me a merry little anything; no reason is given for the use of the diminutive, and if you've got any reverence at all for the holiday, attempting to cute it up like this is kinda revolting. But obviously the authors don't -- look, in the third verse, they actually refer to The Fates, i.e. "from now on, we'll all be together/if the Fates allow." The Fates?!? The goddamned Fates?!? What, were these people Norse? Jeez, guys, just change it to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Gotterdammerung" and drop the Christian pretense altogether.

Here Comes Santa Claus

Above-average piece of spazz-out Christmas music with a peppy melody, a perky affect, and a downright silly sentiment. Your Christmas on uppers.

The Holly And The Ivy

An interesting one. Many carols conflate Bible stories, but very few offer such an alloy of pagan tropes and Christian devotion. Holly is most associated with Saturnalia and the festival of the new year, while ivy is the plant of Samhain, the November 1st festival when the barriers to the land of the dead were lowered. Neither have any Christian significance. While the choruses feel like straight nature-worship (rising sun, running deer), the verses consistently associate Jesus with the holly plant. Unsurprisingly, "Holly and the Ivy" comes from rural Britain, where Christian missionaries never fully dislodged the indigenous Celtic religious system. The tension between native animism and the Christianity is inscribed in the song: over a lilting melody best described as ethereal, Jesus and Mary take their place among the menagerie of horticulture. If they feel a bit shoehorned in, well, they probably were -- songs about holly and ivy predate the arrival of Christianity by centuries, and surely what we now know as the carol is a retrofitting of a much older piece to accommodate some new spiritual concepts. It's tempting to see Christianity as little more than a superimposition; conquering only by borrowing the festival-days and religious symbols of an older order, much as the Roman Empire subsumed local beliefs into its protean dimensions. Maybe that's accurate, as a direction. But if it was, you wouldn't expect songs like "The Holly And The Ivy" to communicate anything other than superficial trappings of the new faith. Instead, it goes straight to the heart of the Christian message -- Jesus, we are told, is born "to redeem us all," and "to do poor sinners good." These are the punchlines to the verses; they aren't marginalized. The ancient authors may have been making alterations in an attempt to harmonize this strange new theological system with that of their Celtic ancestors, but you simply cannot argue that they didn't get the point.

Home For The Holidays

On judgment day, when the dead are resurrected, Jesus is going to have a little talk with the guy who puts together those Pottery Barn Christmas CD collections. I don't usually speak for the Lord of Hosts, but I'm guessing it's going to go something like this:

JESUS

Hey, buddy.

JOE POTTERY

You rang?

JESUS

Don't pull that Addams Family crap with me, I just resurrected you in the flesh.

JOE POTTERY

Okay, okay, I'm listening….

JESUS

(Indicates CD.)

I just picked this up. And I'm wondering what's the deal with your so-called song selection. Where's "O Come All Ye Faithful"? Where's "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear"? You made room for "Santa Baby," but not "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen"?

JOE POTTERY

Look, I'm not… guessing this will mean much to you, but believe it or not, we have a lot of non-Christian customers. We had to pick songs that wouldn't offend anybody.

JESUS

How is it less offensive to pick songs that are ass?

JOE POTTERY

Excuse me, please?

JESUS

I want to remind you that this is judgement day. J-U-D-G-E-M-E-N-T day. You honestly want to argue that your customers are such dimwits that they'd rather hear bad and boring music than great music that might express religious opinions contrary to their own.

JOE POTTERY

We tried to choose music that had no religious signification or charge. Holiday music --

JESUS

(Brandishing the CD.)

Like hell this has no religious signification! You're giving me ten pounds of mistletoe and ten pounds of holly, all this stuff is pagan. How many pagans are there in America? Fifteen?

JOE POTTERY

I don't really….

JESUS

Yule log after yule log, and I don't even merit a mention in any of these songs. The holiday is named after me! It's supposed to be my fucking birthday! What is "yule," anyway?

JOE POTTERY

Um… didn't he replace John Cale on Loaded?

JESUS

That's Doug Yule, wiseass. "Yule" is the name the pre-Christian Nordics gave to the winter solstice. If you're celebrating Yuletide, you're not celebrating Christmas. It's one or the other.

JOE POTTERY

I don't think you're being very tolerant here.

JESUS

I'm trying to redeem your sins, but you're not making it very easy on me. You should just be happy that Luther was right about how there's no such thing as Purgatory, otherwise you'd be spending the next two hundred years listening to "Everybody Wang Chung Tonight" on infinite repeat. Listen, I'm not a megalomaniac. I don't have to be. This isn't about me wanting publicity. It's about giving good, thought-provoking and sophisticated music run ahead of innocuous and empty-headed music.

JOE POTTERY

A lot of us think Christianity and, um, Christianizers are responsible for two thousand years of repression. A lot of us would rather not have that shoved in our faces.

JESUS

Yeah, yeah. I know your type. You're up in your bedroom alone, forcing your way through Ani DiFranco records on principle while everybody else is down in the street partying to Dr. Dre. Jeez, I hate it when people deny themselves earthly pleasures because they're being all holier-than-thou. Don't you know it's not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out of a man that defiles him?

(Aside.)

That's Matthew 15.10-12, if you're following along at home.

(Back to JOE.)

Endorse spineless, value-neutral nothing music, and the next thing you know, you're listening to "Home For The Holidays."

JOE POTTERY

But I like "Home For The Holidays"!

JESUS

You do?!?

JOE POTTERY

"From Atlantic to Pacific/Gee, the traffic is terrific"! That's exactly the kind of lightweight witticism that helps Pottery Barn shoppers feel urbane and sophisticated, and therefore inclined toward making impulse purchases.

JESUS

You're a company man.

JOE POTTERY

The customer comes first.

JESUS

Huh. Well. There's no accounting for taste, I guess. Look, I have to go over and talk to Martin Scorsese about a few things. But I have my eye on you, buddy. Don't you go fucking up the Kingdom of Heaven with your crappy music.

(Blackout.)

I'll Be Home For Christmas

For seasonal heartrending balladry, "Blue Christmas" has nothing on this one. Elvis Presley moaning about lost love really cannot compare to Bing Crosby channeling the quiet and desperate longing of thousands of American G.I.s in European trenches and foxholes. Lonely as the narrator of "Blue Christmas" is, he's not about to spend the holiday season getting strafed by the Luftwaffe. The trajectory from "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and the superficially-similar "Home For The Holidays" sums up the American transformation between the forties and the fifties, and the souring of what Roger Waters called the postwar dream. The soldier-narrator of the former isn't sure if he'll ever make it home; he's offering his legitimate and unresentful best wishes to his friends and family. Suffering through a context where saying prayers is a natural reflex, he's unafraid to say "Christmas." By contrast, the glib, ham-handed narrator of "Holidays" reeks of postwar material comfort, and thus has no need for divine intervention -- his major concerns are the menu and his driving conditions. The greatest and most moving non-theological piece of seasonal music, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" has special significance in 2010, when Christmas will come and go with more young Americans risking death and dismemberment in foreign countries for reasons that haven't exactly been clarified. When you hear this number, think of them -- and let's get them the hell home.

I'm Getting Nothing For Christmas

I think it was Lord Shaftesbury who argued that the doctrine of future rewards and punishments is absolutely necessary to keep people in line -- without a notion of heaven and hell, the moral code would unravel, and with it the social order. You can see Santa Claus as a modern materialist's extension of the logic: children receive their future rewards and punishments on Christmas based on an objective assessment of their conduct by an outside arbitrator. The trick, as Foucault might point out, is to get the child to internalize the threat, and therefore habitually police himself. Once he is conditioned to manage his own behavior, the need for Santa drops away; he can be safely told that the meticulous judge is a fiction. I don't know about you, but where I'm from, this is called a dirty trick. It's a bait-and-switch pulled on our wards, little kids who look up to us for guidance and a certain reliability. We're supposed to believe that children just accept this as a necessary fib told for their own sake, and that once the mask is lifted, they adapt with a new sense of responsibility to and understanding of their new reality. Somehow I doubt it runs so smoothly. There's no underestimating the human desire to be suddenly on the side of the powerful, and to therefore have the power to turn around and perpetrate the same fraud on younger children, but still, nobody likes being lied to. It's impossible to quantify the damage that the Santa myth -- the relentless overhyping and quick dismemberment of the dream -- has done to us, but I think it's probably safe to say it softens us up for future propaganda campaigns, and tempers our anger when we do discover that we've been misled by authorities. It stokes cynicism and creates a thick callus; it gets us comfortable with the idea that if we're being bullshitted by those with power over us, it's for our own good. It turns us into little conciliators.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

What a demented scenario. A little girl spies on her mother making out with a stranger, and her reaction is that it would be a "laugh" if her father could watch, too? Hey, I'm all for deviant sexual get-downs, but there's something downright sinister about this one. Okay, fine, the stranger here isn't exactly strange; he's Santa Claus, and therefore a familiar face. Moreover, the implication (I guess) is that the listener is supposed to know that "Santa" here is Daddy dressed up in a costume, and that this is actually a wholesome scene of laughable family hijinx and winsome misunderstanding. Plot-level, though, the eavesdropping child certainly does not recognize Santa as her father -- even after watching long enough to be able to communicate some specs about the make-out session. Her glee at the scene can either be attributed to a desire to hurt her dad or to replace him with a figure of greater masculine potency (note the mention of the beard, you Freudian types). Like a fifties New Yorker cartoon, it's ugly and voyeuristic if you look at it closely, and only funny if you're skimming.

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

Because of the tricky chord changes over the release, this one isn't favored much by choirs, and its profile is fading a little. It's a shame, because it's top-drawer balladry; the only major Christmas carol set with both feet in the present, and the only one that addresses eschatological concerns at any length. There's no fire or brimstone predicted for the end-times; it's just the coming Age of Gold distinguished by peace on earth and "the world giving back the song which now the angels sing." The rest of the verse is an appeal for quietism -- the unseen narrator argues that the din of fighting and sinning drowns out the heavenly voice that floats "o'er the weary world," and advises us to shut the hell up and listen. Since the language is so archaic, it's not exactly a smack across the face, but it's the holiday season, and author Edmund Sears was probably just an old proto-hippie with raw nerves. Following his advice couldn't hurt.

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

One of several militant shopping anthems, "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas" bombards the listener with idyllic retail come-ons. The five-and-dime is described as "glistening" (no, I've never seen one I'd describe that way, either), and you're assured you'll find toys in every store. Wish-lists break down according to predictable gender lines: the boys want guns, the girls want dolls, and the suggestion is that the downtown consumer district will satisfy everybody's needs. Other inducements are offered -- you're encouraged to look at the big tree in the hotel, the lure of the park, and you are reminded that your kids are annoying the fuck out of you and only major purchases will calm them. I'm not throwing stones here: plenty of downtown businesses rely on holiday sales to keep them solvent, and advertising circulars can't do everything. As a local commerce booster, I think that if the consumerism of the season can be turned to general economic advantage for our cities, I'm not going to condemn its propaganda. Sure, there's something deeply pathetic about all the Christmas crap cluttering store windows, but each separate piece represents somebody's enterprise. Go out and buy a lousy teacup or something; your town is counting on you.

Jingle Bell Rock

Dumb but spirited. The Bill Haley version has a great rhythm section sound, and the big man turns in a huge, generous vocal performance. I'm still not sure I want to chill at his jingle hop or in Jingle Bell Square (wherever that is) but I'm at least reassured that they're not up to anything there other than mindless holiday revelry of the too-much-eggnog variety.

Jingle Bells

There is something to the argument that cadence -- melodic, lyrical, rhythmic -- is the very soul of music, and that which makes one piece memorable and another forgettable. Year round in my old neighborhood on Palisade Avenue, people would beep their horns in the familiar "Jingle Bells" double-triplet-and-release sequence. It doesn't stop there -- unprovoked by holiday stimulus, I've seen people knock doors, dial pushbutton phones, hell, some people probably whack off in the eleven-beat "Jingle Bells" pattern. This insidious piece of aural doggerel has been lodged so deep in the collective consciousness that it seeps out of us when we least expect it to; it becomes a frame that structures and systematizes our experiences. The funny thing is that nobody is really very familiar with the lyrics of the song; children learn it phonetically, and I doubt you could find one adult out of a hundred who could tell you what bob-tails are, or describe for you the dimensions of a one-horse open sleigh. Discursively, "Jingle Bells" is an argument for acquiring a particular form of transportation This announcement uses the traditional sex-sell familiar to anybody who's sat through a General Motors spot -- the narrator has one date ruined by his poor choice of carriage, is mocked by another young man who drives the proper vehicle, and later promises his audience that the girls will be thrilled if only you take them out in the one-horse open sleigh. So there you have it: the most persistent and best-loved piece of seasonal music is a damned car commercial. Hey, it's not like this is the first or last time that popular imagination was captured by a holiday message more Madison Avenue than messianic. And if one-horse open sleighs had caught on a fraction as well as the tune did, well, let's just say we'd be a lot less dependent on foreign oil.

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas

Nondescript piece of Christmas music, unremarkable until the last two lines: "as for me, my little brain isn't very bright/choose for me, oh Santa Claus, what you think is right." This after our narrator has dutifully reported the Christmas wishes of her brothers and sisters. Somebody get me a handkerchief.

Joy To The World

Fucking awesome. "Joy To The World" crashes in with a full eight-note major scale (go over to the piano and try it out yourself) and builds from there; it's almost punk in its simplicity, harmonic sure-footedness, and willingness to bash out chords with the gleeful ferocity of a fourteen-year-old guitar student. The lyric matches the muscularity of the music: no mamby-pamby deity here, but rather a massive, magnetic presence, potent enough to compel exultation from heaven and earth alike. Temporality and causality both get blurred by the fervency of the glorification, but that's okay; the first priority of devotional literature ought to be to give us an object worthy of some wild worship. "Joy To The World" delivers: it's an emotional appeal ("let every heart prepare Him room") to induce an inward acceptance of the force that sweeps -- even animates -- the outer world. You get enough people in a cathedral singing "Joy To The World" at the top of their lungs, and no later than verse three you're going to catch some religion.

Let It Snow

By now you probably think I'm a Christian. As much as I'd love to announce that I've stumbled into a comforting and uplifting faith, trust me, I'm not within a thousand miles of it. I believe the Christianity you can find on the pages of the Gospels and their exegesis in the Pauline epistles comprises a beautiful, internally consistent, and sophisticated theological system. I can admire it from a distance the way I would an argument on behalf of, say, the Tariff of 1828 -- I see how real and vibrant it feels to those who were directly affected, but I can't make it touch my own life. It feels encased in glass, available for study but not for approximation or adoption. To me, Jesus Christ is a storybook character -- a vibrant, mysterious, and attractive one, to be sure, but still a literary construct. If you really pushed me, you could probably get me to admit that deep down, my hunch is that there once existed a historical referent for the Gospel stories. But I can no more believe that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead than I can that a real-life Holden Caulfield achieved satori on a merry-go-round in Central Park. You might think that this would be no object to my conversion; that I could forget the narrative trappings and symbology and go straight for the ethical system. But, that's not how religion works -- an ethical system does not a faith make. Besides, I'm not really interested in Christian ethics -- that's not what makes the Gospels compelling to me. I'm drawn to Christianity for the same reason that, transhistorically, people from various cultures and stations have dropped what they were doing to follow the cross. Christianity has been and remains such a powerful religious idea because it answers this question: what the fuck is wrong with me? And not satisfied with merely answering the question, it seeks to render it moot; what's wrong with me, and you, and everybody, is our intrinsic sinfulness and predilection toward evil, and Christ, the redeemer, has come to absorb and absolve that sin. If you look around the world and everybody seems debauched and generally sucky, well, that's because all have turned aside; none is righteous, no, not one. (Ps. 14.1-2, but quoted by Paul in the book of Romans at 3.10-11, if you're following along at home.) God knows this, and sent the heavenly law for this purpose -- we can't live up to the Mosaic code, and by this sign we realize that we are unworthy and in need of salvation. (Rom. 3.9-26, the most crucial passages in the New Testament.) All that is asked of us is faith; faith that the miracle has happened and that we can, in fact, be saved from ourselves through Christ's intervention. Sounds simple, sure, but you may as well ask me for the moon in a paper bag. Sick as I am with twenty-first century skepticism, I can't have faith in the existence of anything I cannot empirically verify, and yes, that does include things like dinosaurs, molecules, and the entire state of Wisconsin. I am a pesky and cynical little gadfly, and will go to the grave sooner or later with no belief in anything other than the New Jersey neighborhoods I walk around every day. But by consequence, I recognize that those who do have Christian faith are in some way blessed; that they recognize their inability to live righteously, but are set at ease by an unshakeable knowledge that their redeemer liveth. Damn me for good were I ever complicit in taking that away from anybody. I look around at this urban culture of mine and I see perpetual status inducements -- social and otherwise -- to abandon, condemn, and mock those who exercise religious faith. Far from being a dominant ideological force, devout Christianity is more frequently received as the mark of the rube, and churchgoing is hardly the preoccupation of the urbane privileged class. Think about it: if you told your friends and associates tomorrow that you'd undergone a serious religious rebirthing, would that be cause for general celebration? Or would you instead be courting irritation and disdain? Look at representations of Christians in our media, our filmed entertainment, and popular television programs. Every minister is shielding criminals from prosecution because of ill-placed idealism. Every true believer is either a humourless zealot, a right-wing maniac, or a murderer. Every priest is a child molester. The faith is consistently portrayed as the refuge of hicks, hypocrites, bigots, and wife-beaters. In 2010 NYC, inundated as we are with anti-Christian propaganda and the secular-scientific drive to expunge anything vaguely liturgical from our public culture, the boldest thing a nonconformist can do is proclaim his faith. I can't do that, because I have none. But my purpose behind this crazy fifty part holiday screed (besides my earnest attempts to crack you up with my usual pithy putdowns) is to illustrate in no uncertain terms how comprehensive the shutdown of Christian voices has been -- how even at Christmas, ostensibly the highest holiday, you're about fifty times as likely to hear "Let It Snow" as you are "O Holy Night" on the airwaves or on the mall's closed-circuit radio. There are a variety of reasons for this: the cool-handed demands of the consumer experience, the (generally) commendable march of multiculturalism, the childish thrill of iconoclasm, scientific distaste for the intangible, the creeping animism, nature worship and vague polytheism of new age faiths, and, undoubtedly, the intolerant and reprehensible mistakes of certain high-profile Christians. And yet if you, like me, believe there is great virtue in the depth and sophistication of Christian thought -- a body of thought that has been our intellectual fundament for the past two thousand years -- you will surely recognize that the pendulum has swung too sharply in the direction of the secularists, and we are now facing a theological blackout that is, to say the least, censorious. Linus van Pelt takes the spotlight for thirty seconds every December. His shoulders are deceptively broad, but let's not ask him to hold up the entire edifice by himself.

Linus And Lucy

Speaking of Peanuts, I consider A Charlie Brown Christmas the high point of Western civilization. Okay, I'm kidding. A little. No, really, since Christian theology has been the font for monumental artistic expression from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to Of The Heart, Of The Soul, and Of The Cross, it's possible to see the Peanuts special as a sort of crown -- a succinct and poetic articulation of ancient principles. If you can understand why Charlie Brown chooses the tiniest and most unhealthy-looking tree in the lot, you're at least halfway to the proper spirit in which to approach the Gospels. Incidentally, the famous Linus speech I alluded to in the last entry is Luke 2.8-14, straight from the King James Version. I don't think that is made clear during the program. CBS certainly knew, and they were shitting bricks that audiences would find the special too preachy. This was 1965; in 2003, a project like this one doesn't even get out of the gate. Thank God it's been grandfathered in as an annual event -- by now it's too much of an institution for the seculars to gripe about St. Schulz, and really, how much Heatmiser can a person take?

The Little Drummer Boy

A graveyard of good intentions, that's what this song is. Interpreters look at the sentimental story and hear the understated orchestration, and imagine that "Little Drummer Boy" is ripe for the dramatic, moving reading that it's never gotten. But they soon learn why: it's impossible for a grown man (or, for that matter, David Bowie) to sing "pa rum pa pum pum" twenty-one times and not sound like a total idiot in the process. Frankly, by the time Bowie hits his fifth "pa rum pa pum pum," I'm cringing; by the fifteenth, I'm under the sofa in embarrassment. The narrative is a weird extrapolation from the Gospel according to Matthew, in which the Magi are accompanied by a poor musician who has nothing to give but his repetitive tattoo. The song ends with the celebrity baby smiling at the drummer boy; this is supposed to be a triumph on the level of catching Justin Timberlake's eye during a concert, or maybe getting molested by Michael Jackson. More brapholatry for Christmas rejects.

Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming

Really good, pleasantly staid Old English carol that seems to have fallen through the cracks. It's a shame; the feel is wintry and noble and the quasi-Elizabethan language is a trip. The part about "Jesse's lineage" used to throw me as a kid; later I recognized it as a reference to the Davidic succession that's supposed to eventually crank out a Messiah (Is. 7.10-17, if you're following along at home). Much superior to the faux-traditional carols of Vaughan Williams, none of which I can ever keep straight.

Mistletoe And Holly

No matter how hard Oliver Cromwell tried to stamp out pagan tropes lurking in the shadows of the psalter, Christian tradition is lousy with superimpositions. The word Easter, for instance, is a corruption of Ishtar or the Caananite Astarte (she of the baals and asherah, for you Old Testament scholars); the date of the resurrection was established to compete with her Spring festivals. The Christian holiday was most likely conflated with the feast of the Babylonian deity by revelers who didn't know or care to keep the traditions separated. Constantine plunked Christmas and the nativity atop the roman festival of Saturnalia, marking the time of midwinter and the return of the newborn sun. As you can probably guess, Cromwell didn't like Christmas one bit -- carols, as a matter of fact, were banned in England during the Interregnum. After the Lord Protector and his gang of killjoys went the way of all party poopers, subsequent Anglican monarchs and Archbishops couldn't have cared less how much pagan symbology got gummed up inside the Christmas mechanism. Mistletoe and holly, for instance, carry druidic religious significance, and are linked to Celtic holidays. Both have been used for centuries to mark the advent of the Christmas season, but neither have any biblical referent, and they don't connote anything mentioned in scripture. It's true that Christianity, like capitalism, is an engine that is capable of gobbling up and seamlessly recontextualizing the holy symbols of its antagonists, but at a certain point you've got to start asking who's eating who. Count up the number of songs on this list that mention the cross, or resurrection, or sin; then compare to the much larger number that mention mistletoe and holly, and you begin to see the scope of the problem. Mistletoe has a leg up because its naughty connotations make it an ideal plot device for pop songs, and you don't think of anybody smooching under the cross. But holly? Well, it's a girl's name, and that helps, too, especially if you're looking to enlist a horndog like Sinatra to cut your record. To be fair, he did many Christmas carols, too, but we remember him for this one -- largely because he sounds like he's drooling with urbane and wholly debauched lust throughout. But then that's what we counted on Frankie for. "Folks stealing a kiss or two," indeed.

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Grandiose, empty, an uninspiring trip through the motions. If this were a rock song, it would be corporate like Trixter, if it were country, it would be smothered in strings, orchestration, and corn. If this were a new wave song, it would be Frankie Goes To Hollywood album filler, if it were a hip-hop song, it would be latter day LL Cool J. Sometimes you can just smell the paycheck. I realize that lazy rapacity is an important element of the seasonal spirit, but it doesn't mean you want to listen to the results.

My Favorite Things

Yes, it has become Christmas music; it's in every other commercial. Plus there's sleighbells and snowflakes. Hey, if it works for Radio Shack and Vanessa Williams, it's part of the holiday pantheon. The funny thing about "My Favorite Things" as a consumption and purchasing anthem is that none of the images in the lyric are commodities -- it's all greeting-card stuff like wild geese and silver-white winters. But this is America; every list is a shopping list. If ad men have to skew the litany a bit to suit the products they have to pitch, it's not going to create any cognitive dissonance. But I'm not complaining about the wholesale capture and reinterpretation of "My Favorite Things" by the advertising industry. See, I hate "My Favorite Things." I loathe every single version of it -- and yes, that does include the John Coltrane interpretation that I hold singlehandedly responsible for launching the "smooth jazz" genre. They can yoke this one permanently to the holiday production wagon for all I care.

O Come All Ye Faithful

Take some brapholatry ("adore" is not usually a word you'd associate with the King of Kings), a little bit of the Luke story, the twenty-one gun exultation of "Joy To The World," and some fist-pumping musical grandiosity ripped off from Handel's Messiah, and mince. Not satisfied with that amalgam of sources, "O Come All Ye Faithful" is the only carol that directly references the Gospel according to John: "word of the father/now in flesh appearing" (see Jn. 1.14, as you follow along at home). Like Mark, John begins his biographical narrative with the coming of the Baptist, but precedes his chronology with the eighteen most cryptic and provocative verses in the Bible. God, says John, is the Word, and the word is the force of creation. Most people's first reaction to this is bemusement, or displacement, or outright denial: well, he must mean that God uses the Word as his instrument, right? Nope, not according to John -- The Word is God, invisible and incorporeal, and Jesus is the Word made flesh. My Bible is the Oxford edition, it runs something like fifteen hundred pages; in the whole shebang, this is the concept I find easiest to swallow. If there's ever going to be rapproachment between me and Christianity, it's going to come around these eighteen verses at the beginning of John's Gospel. Why? Because it dovetails with my own empirical experience: everything in the earth and heavens is discursively manufactured. That doesn't mean that I don't believe the natural world exists; I do think it's out there, sort of. But until we've organized it through a collectively-held system of signs and assumptions, it may as well be nothing at all. I feel you rolling your eyes now, so I'm going to break it down slow. Look out your window, what do you see? Me, I see a tree. How do I know it's a tree? Well, I know it's a tree because you and me and Al from Tennessee agree that it is. If the neutron bomb dropped and we were wiped off the planet today, that tree would still be there; but with no human agent to ratify or classify it, on an important level it would cease to carry any meaning. Through language, naming, and interpersonal communication, we call that tree into existence. Turn (since you're following at home) twelve hundred pages back to the Genesis parables. What's the first act Adam performs? He names every beast of the field. Go back further to Chapter One; here we have the big guy summoning the universe into creation through discursive act after discursive act. God speaks the breath of life into the world; "let there be x," he says, and x exists. This text is the ultimate illustration of speech-act theory -- utterances bringing forth a cosmos. If it isn't the most vivid passage in the Bible, it's certainly the most consequential. The natural world rises and falls like scenery. Only the Word creates.

O Holy Night

Superior, magnificent power ballad that builds to three towering climaxes, each more thunderous than the last. A good singer approaches it like this: quiet, reverent, and understated for the first two lines, a little awed, sorry rather than chastizing on "sin and error," introspective and penitent on the odd change under "soul felt His worth." Enchanted on "yonder breaks a new and glorious morn," virtually overcome but still self-contained for "fall on your knees," rapt with witness on "o night divine," deflating to a hush for "Christ was born" before exploding in exultation for the final line. It can be done, it just isn't often.

O Little Town Of Bethlehem

Hilary points out that I'm not taking a very historically-specific approach here -- I'm not looking at the old songs as interventions in contemporary religious or social discussions. That's what I usually do with my abstracts, and it's my general inclination. But it's tough to pinpoint when these songs were written, and since we don't know anything about the lives of the authors or what their priorities might have been, there's not much latitude for that sort of analysis. We know, for instance, that the lovely poem that became "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" was written by Massachusetts preacher (and later Bishop) Phillips Brooks in the 1860s. You'd guess that a Northern clergyman -- a Bostonian, no less -- wouldn't be able to avoid writing about the bloodiest days of the Civil War, but if you look at the lyric, there's not much textual evidence. I suppose you could bend over backward and work with the desire for peace on earth, but every Christmas carol talks about peace; this hardly distinguishes "Bethlehem." If we knew more about Brooks's life and writing -- or even the thrust of his sermons -- we might be able to better discern his priorities and motives, and trace their contours between the lines. For all we know, his principal concern might have been Boston politics. Turns out it's a fair bit easier to decipher what Clay Aiken is telling us about the Bush administration.

O Tannenbaum

More Teutonic thumbsucking music masquerading as Christmas cheer. We translate "tannenbaum" as "Christmas tree," and while that's not entirely inaccurate, it's probably more honest to understand this one as a Yuletide carol instead. The verses are pure nature-worship, and the music is stolid, cold, oddly static. It's not celebratory or glorifying; instead, it's a quiet freeze-frame. A sensitive piano reading can bring out the childlike wonder, but more usually it's presented with the pomp and poker-faced seriousness of a Soviet-bloc national anthem. Ecch.

Rocking Around The Christmas Tree

Now, why the hell would you rock around your Christmas tree? What would that even look like? Tripping over wires, dislodging candy canes, breaking bulbs, getting tinsel all over the carpet -- it's a bad idea, I tell you, a bad idea. Maybe not as bad, though, as the following syntax: "at the Christmas party hop/mistletoe hung where you can see/every couple tries to stop." Jeez, get me rewrite. Even the "new old fashioned way" comes off as a forced invention more cloying than clever. I love Brenda Lee as much as the next red-blooded American boy, but this smells like a contractual obligation.

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

I'm really not trying to be Grinch McCall here. My intention isn't to ruin any of these songs for you. Well, that's not exactly true -- insofar as you've got any warm feelings about Rudolph, I'd like to be sure they curdle like month-old milk by the time you're done reading this. "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" is usually taught as inspirational verse and a statement against prejudice and mockery: Rudolph is visibly marked and consequently discriminated against, yet he rises above the catcalls to achieve fame and success. Sounds great, right? Let's look a little closer. Rudolph's moment of redemption comes not as the cause of any consciousness-raising, but because his difference (superficial as it is) is shown to have utility to the corporate body. He is accepted by his peers not for his own merits, but because circumstances conspired to harness his idiosyncrasy and turn it into profit for his employers. What is the real lesson we take from the fable of Rudolph, boys and girls? ***Difference will be tolerated and celebrated only if it can be put to the service of the power structure.*** Otherwise, you're just a wacko, and you can forget about those reindeer games for good. Once again, Santa Claus is portrayed here as an unfeeling, self-absorbed cad -- he makes no intervention in Rudolph's persecution until he needs to save his own ass (at least the TV special got that part right). But does Rudolph get his moment to tell the boss to screw himself; that his hypocrisy won't be tolerated? No, he's the first one tethered to the sled, happy to take the whip of his former oppressor as long as he can feel both useful to the corporation and validated by his peers. If I had a kid, this would be about the last lesson I'd want to teach her.

Santa Baby

The only way this song could be more vile is if it were sung by Kirstey Alley. Oh, wait, there she is on that Pier 1 commercial, schmaltzing it up with all the subtlety of a stuck pig. Gaaah. The effort to sexualize Santa Claus is gruesome not merely because St. Nicholas is a fat senior citizen in red Bhagwan Rajneesh pajamas -- it's also disturbing because his major distinguishing feature is his bag of loot, and if you're offering him kisses and baby talk in exchange for some of his dough, well, there's a not-very-nice name for that sort of behavior.

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

I defy you to find me a single child who is not capable of recognizing this as a sinister surveillance narrative. Santa as an omniscient judge of public morality, keeping careful track of all infractions and doling out commensurate rewards and punishments based on his unerring knowledge? It's a good thing most middle-class parents are so consistent about representing their children as little angels, otherwise, nobody under the age of six would ever sleep at night. Paul spends verse after verse in the epistles trying to disabuse Christians of their belief in this kind of vindictive and unbending spy-deity. The struggle continues.

Silent Night

There's something theologically counterintuitive about telling the object of your worship to go to sleep. Mary is still awake, though, looking over the manger like the protector-figure; and this, the most Catholic of all Christmas carols, really posits the Virgin as the decisive character in the nativity scene. If we place emphasis on Baby Jesus rather than grown Jesus -- as most Christmas carols, and Christmas itself, seem to do -- it falls to the mother of the holy child to be the active partner in the divine relationship. By celebrating the savior's birthday, we spotlight the feminine figure who bore him. This is the kind of thing that made Protestant reformers like John Knox nuts; he felt the Church was backsliding into female-worship, and the concept of the impassive infant nursed by the active Madonna was taking precedence over the dynamic adult Messiah. Knox was a male-chauvinist pig, but the Bible bears out his complaint; Mary really isn't much of a figure in any of the Gospels, and Jesus actively spurns her, choosing to ignore her advice to shut down his ministry and return home. Those who look to Christianity as a bulwark of the traditional nuclear family would do well to re-read Mark 3.31-35.

Silver Bells

A nice laid-back streetscape, akin to the sort of thing you get on Steve Forbert records. Okay, I'm kidding about that last part, but honestly, I have no objections here. Christmastime in the city is certainly better than Christmastime stuck out in the sticks.

Sleigh Ride

Speaking of holidays in the boondocks, where, geographically speaking, are these Farmer Greys who pass around chocolate and pumpkin pie on windswept, romantic rural lanes? Every time I'm out in the countryside, all I get is mud and hostility. The people who idealize the country-farmhouse experience are, I'd wager, city slickers who wouldn't know chestnuts popping from AK-47 fire. "Sleigh Ride" reads like a horseshit scenario straight from the pages of Martha Stewart Living, complete with the manufactured memories and irritating, stilted diction. (Lest you think I'm piling on here, let me get it on the record that the only reason Representative Tauzin and the thugs in the Justice Department persecuted Stewart is because she has been a major donor to the Democratic party; I continue to respect her, since as far as I can tell she is the only celebrity in our entire culture who can actually make or do anything.) Musically, it throws notes at the listener in bunches as rapidly as possible, hoping to invigorating him. Personally, I think it's more of an assault, but hey, the strategy worked for D. Boon.

The Twelve Days Of Christmas

The "99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall" of the holiday season, made twice as annoying by the wrist-slitting "fiiiive gold rings!" caesura. The high and holy hymn of conspicuous consumption, "Twelve Days Of Christmas" attempts, through repetition and manic urgency, to prod your holiday shopping into demented overdrive. Those who decry the commercialization of the season would be well-advised to skip this baby. Many would argue that in a thoroughly secular state, capitalism is our religion, and the year-end potlatch is nothing more than a reinforcement and celebration of the mode of production. Jesus -- the man who said it's easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than a rich man into the Kingdom of Heaven -- is replaced by Santa, the embodiment of the spirit of goods exchange. Well, maybe. With newscasters imploring innocent citizens to hit the malls rather than the churches, it's hard to argue that the tail isn't wagging the dog these days, but still, if you take a look at this list from top to bottom, it's remarkable how few shopping anthems it contains. Empirically, I think the popular conception of "Twelve Days Of Christmas" is that it's sort of gauche, and not merely because getting stuck in a car with kids singing it at the top of their lungs will make you want to eat razorblades. As much as we love presents and material items, and as much as we're encouraged to stockpile crapola, there's something within our national character that rebels against the yearly landslide of stuff. It's impossible to fight the notion that Christmas exists in part to line the pockets of retailers, but our holiday season does additional and undefined ideological work that is evidently meaningful to us. Some of that work is spiritual, theological. And the harder you strike it, the deeper it goes.

Up On The Housetop

From Bad Santa to "Evil Santa" videogames to commercials that portray St. Nicholas as a debauched womanizer, we have an unmistakable tendency to want to represent Father Christmas as a bad dude. An overreaction to the treacle of songs like "Up On The Housetop," surely, but also something more. Our irreverence extends to most modern Santa iconography, and is shockingly total -- think, when was the last time you saw a recent unironic representation of old St. Nick? Is this a manifestation of our ambivalence about capitalism and product exchange? Veiled potshots at the figure of Jesus, hidden somewhere inside that red suit? Plain-old child abuse? Whatever it is, I'm sick of it; corrupt, dissolute Santa has now become a bigger cliché than rosy-hued Santa ever was. It's far more annoying, because the morons in the culture industry perpetuating these representations continue to pat themselves on the back for their dime-store iconoclasm.

We Wish You A Merry Christmas

The carol notable for explicitly thematizing how aggressive the act of caroling is. Demanding figgy pudding and then refusing to stop singing until the claim is filled -- that's supposed to be all in fun. Yeah, sure. This kind of street harassment will get you a couple of hard months at Rikers.

White Christmas

Like "I'll Be Home For Christmas," this one gets extra juice because of its association with the sacrifices of World War II. But while "Home" is focused on a potential future that may or may not arrive, "White Christmas" arrives suffused in nostalgia. Consequently, it hasn't weathered anywhere near as well; idealizing the "white" Christmases of yore in an integrated America lands you into some political hot water. And well it should -- the double meaning might have been tolerated and even expected in 1942, but in 2010, only ingrates and idiots dream of a white anything. It's bad enough that Santa Klaus, Rudolph, Donner, and Blitzen sounds like the roll call at the Nuremberg Trials, and our popular culture insists on reviving and glorifying every Northern European year-end tradition and Teutonic Tannenbaum. Jesus was a dark-skinned Middle-Easterner, and the next snowball thrown in Nazareth will be the first. The last thing Christmas needs is further whitening.

Winter Wonderland

Blizzard conditions stopped two days ago, but there's about seven inches of snow still on the ground here in Jersey City. The street cleaners have been handy with the plough, but that's created the usual thick piles of rock, ice, and yellow-gray snowballs along the sidewalks. Having grown up in New Jersey, there's nothing exotic or romantic about snow for me -- it's just white stuff that falls out of the sky when it gets cold, and makes walking around town miserable when it accumulates. Still, I can't deny I look forward to the holidays. I like the decorations, I like the feel of the downtown -- hell, I even like tromping through the mall. But I don't think any of it would carry significance for me if it wasn't for the musical experiences I've had during this time of the year, many of which were radiant, potent, uplifting, and yes, nearly spiritual. I didn't mention Handel's Messiah here because it's not really a carol or a Christmas song, but if you ever get the opportunity to stand in a church or auditorium while "Thou That Tellest Good Tidings To Zion" or the "Hallelujah Chorus" swells around you, take my advice -- grab it. He may or may not rule forever and ever, but surround yourself with enough strong-voiced singers belting it out, and you'd be forgiven for believing, even briefly, the sheer force of the composition and unity of purpose could summon Him into being.

Okay, folks, that's enough preaching for one December.

Tris McCall's Top Ten Christmas Carols

1. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

2. O Holy Night

3. Joy To The World

4. O Come All Ye Faithful

5. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

6. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

7. The Holly And The Ivy

8. Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming

9. The First Noel

10. O Little Town Of Bethlehem

Tris McCall's Ten Most Odious Pieces Of Christmas Music

1. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

2. Santa Baby

3. Do They Know It's Christmas?

4. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

5. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

6. My Favorite Things

7. The Christmas Song

8. Home For The Holidays

9. Have A Holly Jolly Christmas

10. The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

 
Comments:
Tris, thank you so much for putting this back on the web. I tend to link to it annually, and had been resorting to the Wayback Machine at archive.org the last couple of years, because it was no longer at your site. Glad to know I don't have to this year!
 
I'm surprised that you didn't mention the forgotten first stanza of "White Christmas":

The sun is shining.
The grass is green.
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,
And I'm longing to be up north.
 
Since Rob mentions "putting this back on the web" I'm guessing it may pre-date the song "The Christmas Shoes"? I must admit I'm wondering what you'd make of that one!
 
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