It is exactly a week until Christmas day as I write this, so I’m taking the liberty of calling this my Christmas blog. That gives me the option of taking the next week off and then picking up with either a looking-back-at-2021 commentary or looking ahead to 2022. I had hoped, as things started getting back to normal this fall, that we would finally be free of the pandemic and that looking ahead would be something of a celebration, but Covid and its variants might not be ready to loosen their deadly grasp on us yet. I’m going circumvent reality with a salute to the songs of the season. The best part is, like some Christmas presents, you might call this a re-gift combining essays from Christmases past.
When we contemplate the music of Christmas, which bombards us unceasingly wherever we go throughout December, we think of both the sacred and the festive. It’s a combination of the joyous and the spiritual, even for those who aren’t Christian.
We all know the Christmas songs that do it for us, including “White Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” (the Elvis version, naturally), but we also have “Green Christmas,” an ode to the season by Barenaked Ladies whose chorus assures us: Red bows on the railings/And snowflakes on the ground/ but it’s a Green Christmas in this town.
However you color your Christmas, the most played seasonal classic is no longer Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”— although this year, more than ever in our part of the country, a white Christmas is something many crave but will be unlikely to enjoy. If you are dreaming of a white Christmas and your recipe for a perfect holiday season is, “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” there isn’t much I can do for you. You’ll have to plead your case to Mother Nature.
Anyway, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is leader of the pack as the most played in contemporary times. Right at the top for Christmas of 2021, year of cancel culture, is Kelly Clarkson’s “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just for You),” in which she vows: “You ruined all my favorite things (all my favorite things)/But you won’t take Christmas from me… Christmas isn’t canceled, just you.”
Ouch! Kelly could be talking about Covid, but I’m thinking, like Mariah, she’s talking about some guy.
Continuing my list of familiar Christmas songs—all of which have Christmas in the title—I submit for starters: “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Oh Christmas Tree,” “All I Want for Christmas,” “So This is Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “The Christmas Song.” The last one, in case you don’t recognize the title, is the one that starts, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”
There are other Christmas songs that may not be so familiar, but which are part of an amazingly long and varied Christmas song list. For example, the Arrogant Worms had their own version of The Christmas Song, which may or may not be sung to the tune of Mel Torme’s classic. Its lyrics share a heart-warming family Christmas dinner that ends up with walls spattered in Christmas red: “George picks up the carving knife/ Wields it around and starts to slice/ Henry cocks his shotgun twice/ Christmas, Christmas is here!”
Christmas carols tend to be joyous like “Joy to the World” or moving like “O Holy Night,” and most of us, whatever our religious preference, grew up singing them. When it comes to Christmas carols, we tend to set political correctness aside, and popular songs with Christmas themes tend to get away with lyrics that might be considered inappropriate in other songs. Or maybe not.
The great thing about Christmas is everybody gets into the spirit, even irreverent rockers like AC/DC, whose Christmas tune, “Mistress for Christmas,” evokes warm Christmas sentimentality by declaring: “Jingle bells, jingle bells/ jingle all the day/ I can’t wait ‘til Christmas time/ when I grope you in the hay.”
I don’t mean to snow on anybody’s holiday parade here, but this can be a depressing time of the year and there are plenty of Scrooges out there who want nothing to do with it. There have been a lot of sad and bittersweet Christmas songs going back to World War II and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” where the soldier at war vows he’ll make it “if only in my dreams.” There was “Please Come Home for Christmas” in 1950, and even “Blue Christmas” was mourning a sad Christmas without that special someone.
In more recent times, we’ve had some popular Christmas songs with some seriously sad lyrics. How about, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” recorded in 1984 by a choir of celebrities for the cause known as Band Aid to raise money to combat famine in Ethiopia:
There’s a world outside your window/ And it’s a world of dread and fear/ Where the only water flowing/ Is the bitter sting of tears/ And the Christmas bells that ring there/ Are the clanging chimes of doom/ Well tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you.
This was a message of hope for a good cause, and its overall message was moving and galvanized some serious charitable giving. Some of the sad stuff is about kids growing up in dysfunctional families like Alan Jackson’s “Please, Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas,” also covered by the normally upbeat John Denver, and John Guiak’s “Daddy’s Drinking Up Our Christmas.” There is a long list of songs that run counter to the traditional “Deck the Halls” holiday spirit.
Now who would have ever thought a loved one as the victim in a fatal accident would become a favorite Christmas novelty song? The following holiday favorite —“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”— did just that:
When they found her Christmas mornin’/ At the scene of the attack.
There were hoof prints on her forehead,/ And incriminatin’ Claus marks on her back.
Christmas for some among us is a time of year that provokes anger, sadness and even deep, dark depression. Plus there are some recording artists who would lose most of their pubescent admirers if they turned all cuddly just because it is Christmas. Witness “Sad, Sad Christmas” by D-A-D about an abandoned father and son on Christmas Day: “’Cause Mommy she left us/She took the keys to the automobile/she took the credit cards and the furs/and now we can’t afford a tree.”
If depression is your gig, you’ll want to put Wednesday 13’s “Buried by Christmas” on your iPod, and, yes, it is about spending Christmas six feet under: “All I want for Christmas is a custom-fit casket with a black velvet interior—oh yeah, and a bucket of chicken.” The entree there is chicken under grass.
It can all get quite sad. Billy Idol, who had some anger issues, recorded “Yellin’ at the Christmas Tree,” which contained so many obscenities, there isn’t a verse that should be shared here. If the NRA had a favorite Christmas song, it would likely be “A Gun for Christmas” by the Vandals: “Families lock their doors in fear/that criminals might get them/ But this Christmas rest assured/ I will have my own protection.
Are you in the Christmas spirit yet?
There is a lot of satire in Christmas music, meant to be humorous like Grandma’s encounter with the reindeer, but clearly running counter to the joy, triumph and hope we’ve come to associate with the season. The following song, entitled “Christmastime Is Killing Us,” was made popular on the TV show, “Family Guy,” where Santa and his elves are singing about how they’ve come to hate Christmas: “Each little elf used to fill up a shelf/ Making playthings and selflessly thrilling us./ Now they’re on crack and it feels like Iraq/ Because Christmastime is killing us!”
Santa takes a lot of hits in these Christmas songs, which excludes them from being branded sacrilegious, but some are certainly tasteless and not meant for children. For example, Tiny Tim, who had his 15 minutes of fame with a screeching rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” actually recorded a song entitled “Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS This Year.” It is still regarded as one of the worst Christmas songs ever.
Hey, there are all kinds of Christmas songs recorded by groups like The Singing Butts, the Toilet Bowl Cleaners and the Insane Clown Posse that take satirical aim at Christmas. They ridicule and deride it, but in the long run the spirit of Christmas is so overwhelmingly powerful that it continues to remain a season of “Good Tidings of Comfort and Joy.”