First, full disclosure: I love Kate Austin. If anyone other than Kate had asked me to talk about Christmas music I would have donned my most grinchy of Grinch faces and held forth about how I loathe Christmas music, particularly by the last week of November when the assault has been going on since the Halloween decorations came down. I’d go on about how tired I am of seeing store clerks’ faces weary from exposure to endless loops of Blue Christmas and I’ll Be Home For Christmas and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. I’m equally tired of desperate-looking shoppers, cheesy tinsel-and-bows decorating every tree and lamp post, of newspapers and magazines and flyers all exhorting us to buy buy buy. Each day finds me with my scowl intact, my chin tucked deeper into my collar, counting the days when I don’t have to worry about hearing another version of White Christmas while I’m picking up milk and bread in the corner store.
But it was Kate who asked me so I decided to make it an opportunity to re-examine my stock response to Christmas music and sort through a few songs both secular and non- to see if it’s really true.
To my surprise, I found a few – quite a few in fact – that I really like and at the top of the list is The Chipmunk Song, both for its enduring novelty and frivolousness and its incredibly good harmonies. I like Alvin’s O KAY! in response to Dave’s scolding to pay attention and focus on the song. A little attitude is refreshing for me at this time of year, particularly from a singing rodent. I was curious about the singers; in the days that recording was made technology was more primitive and I wondered how they did it. Who were “The Chipmunks” and where they are now?
It turns out that The Chipmunk Song was written and all parts sung by Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. aka David Seville. His is an interesting story and includes the fact that his first cousin was William Saroyan with whom he wrote C’mon-a My House made a hit by Rosemary Clooney. Every time I hear Alvin sing “I still want a hula hoop” I am transported and a smile breaks out, I can’t help it. Gone the Grinch!
Next on my list is Oh Holy Night – you can’t get much more non-secular than that – which, regardless of who covers it (and it has been sung by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Joan Baez, Sufjan Stevens, Mariah Carey …) never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck as the voices swell to the chorus … “Fall on your knees…” Just gorgeous. Unfortunately it’s seldom played loud enough in the malls and stores, probably because it demands you stop and listen, which means you’re not shopping hard enough.
There’s a bunch of Christmas songs I like because they’re a bit saucy or witty and make me wish for a time when movies had snappier dialogue, or perhaps when my life had snappier dialogue. At any rate, and in no particular order: Santa Baby (who writes lyrics like “slip some sable under the tree for me” anymore); I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, which is just plain cute and innocent and perhaps a bit sly; and All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, the kind of secular Christmas song that invites a family sing-along, especially if there are children who are near or slightly past the age when they believe in Santa Claus, are losing baby teeth but still want to join in the magic and wistfulness. Frosty the Snowman could almost be on this list but it’s been overexposed. There is a cartoon - a four panel - with a classic snowman, decked out in top hat, scarf, carrot nose and coal eyes and mouth. He’s singing “Zippity Doo Dah …” and slowly melting. By the time he reaches the line “…plenty of sunshine…” he’s almost a pool of water with the aforementioned accoutrements floating around him. It’s a bit dark but makes me laugh all the same. And “Zippity Doo Dah” does not qualify as a Christmas song though the visuals bring to mind Frosty the Snowman.
One of my favourite romantic Christmas songs is Baby It’s Cold Outside. It speaks of a time when restraint was the order of the day (“I really can’t stay…”) right alongside desire and persuasion. The song leaves us believing the couple’s back-and-forth continues long into the night. It’s cozy and cinematic because it takes us from their warm embrace to the storm outside and back again.
How about those wonderful Christmas songs we learned as children? Good King Wences Last Looked Out, or We Three Kings of Orrie and Tar?
I’ve noticed that the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town have changed slightly. There was always something a bit creepy and stalkerish about a benevolent gift-giver like Santa turning into a guy who “sees you when you’re sleeping …” Now he merely “knows IF you’ve been sleeping”.
The Little Drummer Boy is one Christmas song I can tolerate no matter where I hear it; it’s touching, melodic, structurally sophisticated and appeals to children and adults alike. Pah Ruppa Pup Pum.
Then there are the songs I wish weren’t played in public places, not because they’re banal and repetitive – they’re not - but because they’re overly sentimental and isn’t the Christmas season fraught with expectations and sentimentality enough? So please spare me I’ll Be Home For Christmas or Blue Christmas. I just hate weeping in Toys “R” Us or Shoppers or … well, maybe Shoppers is a good place to hear these songs – at least I’m close to the tissues!
Last, I’d like to celebrate The Twelve Days of Christmas. It’s fun to sing with people of any age or persuasion. We can all take turns singing the “five golden rings” part. And for older folk - that is anyone over 12 - it’s right up there with crosswords for exercising that flabby cerebellum. The imagery is beautiful and encourages painting, cutting and pasting, dancing, working with clay, making cookies – in short, anything creative that is informed by the lyrics.
So thanks, Kate. I guess Christmas music, like any music, has its favoured and not so loved tunes. Now I can erase the scowl, lift my chin(s) and march through the season like a good citizen, loving and loathing in equal measure. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!