I like Christmas music. I don’t like ALL Christmas music. As rose-tinted as my holiday glasses may be, I’m perfectly aware that 90% of the sounds that get piped into shopping malls around this time of the year is crud. But then 90% of everything is crud.
It’s easy enough to hear the muzac version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Jingle Bell Rock performed in meows and rebel against the whole holiday — I understand that. I try to keep some good songs playing in my mind to fend against those horrors.
I’m fond of songs that have long been associated with church choirs, songs that have been caroled by wassailers, and even songs that were popularized in the last century. For some reason, I don’t seem to like many Christmas songs from before the 1800’s, but I like some created as recently as 2004! I can’t really point out a common theme to my favorites, but I can list some of them:
The Man with the Bag – I love this song, in its various incarnations, including the one by Diana Krall. It reminds me of that sense of anticipation and excitement from my childhood every time I realized I’d be getting presents some day soon! Plus, I can dance to it!
Even a Miracle Needs A Hand – I don’t know if many people know this song. It’s from the Rankin/Bass animated Christmas Special, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”. I like Joel Grey’s singing in counterpoint to the children’s reponses and the melody is darned catchy. But I have to admit, I like the message of this one, too: that you shouldn’t wait around for great things to happen but instead should work to help them happen.
Carol of the Bells – This song probably annoys many people for its repetitive nature and because it has lent itself to excessive recreation in soulless elevator-friendly styles… But it’s such a pretty melody! I like it whether it’s called the Carol of the Bells or the Ukrainian Christmas Carol; I enjoy it as an instrumental or with lyrics. It soothes me and feels like snowfall.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside – This isn’t specifically a Christmas song, but it’s often played in the same season. Oh, there are some soulful versions of this song. If you haven’t heard Ray Charles and Betty Carter sing this song, then it would be no wonder if you don’t like it. My most recent favorite rendition is by Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone on the Elf soundtrack. Just thinking of the lyrics makes me smile and feel like I’m in the act of flirting with someone. The first singer is trying to be responsible and chaste even though she is enjoying her evening; the second singer is playfully persuading the first to give in to the temptation of prolonging events. There are some great little suggestions in that song, all surrounded by imagery of the coldest season.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – I never thought of this as much more than a retelling of the Bethelehem story to melody until I heard the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan version. They bring such a haunting reverence to the song, interspersed with some honest fun and playfulness that I have to grin as I sing along.
Happy Holidays – I want to have a Holiday Inn of my own where I can have jazz played all year and dance along on my own hardwood dance floor. It’s the home of boy meets girl! Yeah, this song doesn’t say much about Christmas, but it’s catchy, it’s sung by Bing, and I can sing it to greet people!
Jingle Bells – There are so very many bad versions of this song that it’s easy to overlook the great ones. I recommend the same musicians for this song that I might for any standard: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald…. Diana Krall. I like to sing it long and loud and with all the verses except the one where some jerk laughs at you. But come on, Miss Fanny Bright? Oh, yes.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – It’s a song with a hopeful message and a simple melody…but I must admit that this one holds sentimental value for me as I’m pretty sure that it was my father’s favorite Christmas song. But isn’t the end of a year a great time for hope? Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight!
Last Christmas – I don’t care. I love it. Wham! started it and now it gets remade every few years. I don’t like every version out there, but the original is great and the N’Sync a capella version is one of my dearest treasures. Certainly you could let the corniness of a highschool crush gone awry keep you from enjoying this tune, but then you’d be doing yourself a disservice. This song needs to be rocked out with every bit of adolescent angst you’ve hidden away in that locker in your soul. “Merry Christmas; I wrapped it up and sent it, with a note saying, ‘I love you’ — I meant it!” I meant it, too. Didn’t we all?
O Holy Night – This is probably my favorite overtly Christian Christmas song. I don’t have faith and I cannot be sure I would recognize it before me, but the lyrics and melody of this song do move me in most performances. If I could see the world as it’s painted in these words, I would be a religious man. If I saw truth in this song rather than just beauty, then I would certainly be a Christian. For me, the beauty of the music is enough to make this piece another of my favorites.
All I Want For Christmas Is You – Seriously, shut up. I first heard this song in college, when it was just not cool for me to like anything. The fact that this song cracked my dark and morbid, self-inflated, intellectual facade was impressive. I still sing along and wonder if Mariah is talking to me. There’s no new message here, it’s just about choosing love over commercialism, but it feels profound as I sing it at the top of my lungs when I hear it on the radio in my car.
And the last song that I find I can hear repeatedly without losing my smile is Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime. It was recorded in 1979 and contains plenty of synthesizer to remind us of that era. This song has very simple lyrics and is another pretty repetitive member of this list — but it sounds like Christmas! It feels like an appreciative cheer to the world around us!
I’ve revealed too much. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be just as mean as ever… around the third of January. For now, I’m sharing some revelatory opinions with you in the hopes that you can think back to this silly list when you are fighting for that cashmere sweater and suddenly hear an emo version of “Silent Night”. Don’t get a gun, just keep waiting for that Man with the Bag.
Have a Wonderful Christmastime!