Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

At 3:03 this morning I woke up with "The 12 Days of Christmas" playing on an endless loop in my head. Actually, I woke up because Teddy was sitting next to the bed staring at me and using shiba inu mind control to tell me he had to pee. "The 12 Days of Christmas" had been playing for some time before that.

I was stuck on days 9 through 12. I knew they involved lords leaping, drummers drumming, pipers piping, and ladies dancing, but I wasn't confident of the order. Eleven lords a leaping sounded nice what with the alliteration and all, but I was fairly confident that there were 9 ladies dancing, and it didn't make sense to have the lords separated from them by a day.

Anyway, it was making me nuts, so while Teddy was out back doing his thing I looked up the lyrics and sorted everything out. Drummers, pipers, lords, ladies, and so on. I still think eleven lords a leaping works better, but nobody asked me.

I blame my friend Jill for this. The other day she and I were talking about Christmas songs. Jill recently found on CD a song she remembered from childhood but hadn't heard in years. It's "Christmas Tree" by the Voices of Walter Schumann. Schumann, by the by, composed the theme for Dragnet and scored movies including The Night of the Hunter. The song is brilliantly awful. Jill and I particularly like the vamp who purrs "presents niiiice" in the chorus. After Jill introduced me to the song I went around saying that every minute and a half for the next 48 hours.

For Jill this song heralded the beginning of the Christmas season. For me the opening bell was something slightly different--the CBS television network special programming intro. They don't play this anymore, but for a generation of us hearing the familiar tune had us salivating like Pavlov's dogs, as it meant something fabulous was about to happen. Frosty the Snowman, maybe, or Rudolph's Shiny New Year.

There were maybe a dozen specials that aired annually when I was a kid, but I particularly loved The Year Without a Santa Claus and it's campy brothers Heat Miser and Cold Miser. The highlight of TYWASC is the duet between the brothers when each explains why his version of Christmas is the best. It's a bit like the song "Dancin'" from Xanadu, where Olivia Newton-John and the Tubes go back and forth in battling musical styles. Only it's better because there are little mini Heat Misers and Cold Misers doing Rockette-like choreography all over the place. Of course at the time I didn't know they were campy. I just thought they were fun. But looking back on it, I'm pretty sure they turned me gay.

Of course the pinnacle of the holiday season arrived with the airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. First shown in 1965 this special--along with The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (which first aired in 1966)--is a holiday memory for a generation of Americans. And a big part of that is due to the amazing music provided by the Vince Guaraldi trio.

I don't think A Charlie Brown Christmas could be made today. Unlike most holiday specials, it featured a strong religious theme. Although I think most of us remember the sad little Christmas tree, the haunting music of the ice skating scene, and the lively party dance number, there was also a Nativity pageant. Linus, who has been practicing for his role as a shepherd, delivers what many consider the show's highlight when he quotes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8 through 14:
8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'
Ironically, although reviewers praised the special's reminder that Christmas was less a secular celebration than a commemoration of the birth of Christ, apparently Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and director Bill Meléndez had to fight network executives to include the Bible passages. They won, but you know that today they'd never get away with it.

This raises what, for me, is the biggest problem with Christmas music. If you aren't Christian, a lot of it is difficult to enjoy. Sure, you can try to ignore the content and just listen to the music, but that's like trying to enjoy the gooey center of the Tootsie Pop when you can't stand the candy coating. It's not worth the effort. Also, you could break a tooth.

I'm already annoyed that Christmas is an appropriation of the pagan holiday of Yule. Asking me to listen to "Silent Night" and "What Child Is This?" just adds insult to injury. Which is too bad, because I really like some of the religious-themed holiday songs. "O Holy Night," for instance, is really lovely. And who doesn't enjoy a nice round of "Good Christian Men Rejoice"? I do try. But somewhere around the second verse I start to get a little cranky about the whole thing and want to give the Baby Jesus a kick in the pants.

The alternative is to listen to secular Christmas music. Sadly, most of it sucks. I don't know about you, but "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" just doesn't cut it. "White Christmas" is fine as it goes, but after hearing it eight million times you want to poke your eyes out with a holly sprig. What makes it worse is that the same nine or ten songs are recorded over and over and over. And just between you and me, I really don't need to hear "Blue Christmas" done by Celine Dion, Toby Keith, Barenaked Ladies, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Barbra Streisand, Kimberly Locke, Amy Grant, Chris Isaac and Elvis. Actually, I don't want to hear it done by any of them. It's a depressing song to begin with.

Not that the artists are entirely to blame. The ugly truth is that they either have to stick to the traditional holiday songs we know and love or they have to do something new. And no one wants to hear new. They especially don't want to buy new. I love Cyndi Lauper's take on "I Saw Three Ships," but what the hell was she thinking with "Christmas Conga"? This is a problem, the end result of which is bargain bins filled with albums that could be interchangeable except for the artwork on the covers.

I do have a couple of go-to Christmas albums. One is 1963's A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, which features songs produced in Spector's famous Wall of Sound style. It's a brilliant album. Sadly, now that he's a convicted murderer every time I play the album I have to fend off visions of him sitting in that courtroom with his crazy cotton candy hair. But the music is worth it. I also love Shawn Colvin's Holiday Songs and Lullabies. It's one time when the religious themes of some of the songs are eclipsed by the beauty of the music and Colvin's singing. I sometimes put her version of "In the Bleak Midwinter" on repeat while I'm writing and listen to it for hours. Ditto Aimee Mann's gorgeous One More Drifter in the Snow.

But my all-time favorite Christmas song is Bing Crosby and David Bowie's "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy." I know I'm contradicting myself, but I don't care. Not only is it a supremely weird pairing, it combines the sacred and the secular aspects of the holiday season into one beautiful song.

According to those in the know, the song apparently came about when Bowie arrived at the studio for the taping and said he didn't want to sing "The Little Drummer Boy." And who can blame him? It regularly tops the list of most hated Christmas songs. My friend Vince despises it so much that if you mutter "rump-a-pum-pum" within his hearing he screams like a 5-year-old girl and runs off. He doesn't even like the Joan Jett and the Blackhearts version, which if you ask me is a pretty awesome tune.

In order to keep Bowie on board, the show's writers dashed off a new song, "Peace on Earth," and wove it into the more familiar carol. The result was strange and magical, combining tradition with innovation and essentially marrying two generations. But we almost never heard it. Crosby died a month or so after the special was taped, and the network considered not airing the show because they thought people would find it depressing.

I, for one, am glad they changed their minds.


Miss Quoted said...

As someone who celebrates Yule - I LOVE Silent Night, when I was a little girl my family went to Oberndorf Austria where it was written. it's probably one of the most beautiful places I've ever been too, I get how someone could write such a pretty song there, but I like the instrumental version best. :)

Bethann Korsmit said...

Ever since I read this, I've had the "Heat Miser - Snow Miser" song stuck in my head. I remember watching this every year when I was a kid (many years ago) and just loving it. Thanks (I think ;)) for providing the video. With all the snow that just fell, I've been singing the Snow Miser part since yesterday. Yes, it's seems as though I might need some help. :)