Ready or not, here it comes. The ever encroaching celebration of Jesus’ birthday that is the true date of the savior of all (Christian) mankind and has nothing whatsoever to do with being placed on the date of a Roman winter festival that celebrated the sun god, and of course, all of the traditions we celebrate on Christmas today stem from Jesus’ direct teachings and are not at all an assimilation of other cultures rituals in an attempt to convert pagans to God’s Almighty Word. Whatever your feelings on the matter, Christmas is the most celebrated and commercial holiday in the United States and much of the world. It is a day that has grown to become an entire “season” of joyful anticipation of fun-filled time spent with family and friends where we learn to enjoy giving as much as receiving, and good, tasty, food that is sometimes literally sitting in pools of delicious fat awaits us with tantalizing smells and flavors. It is a time for warmth in the midst of cold weather, where we festoon our homes and businesses in bright colors, and the beer is stronger and more spice-filled! Everyone has a smile on their face as they sneeze and spread the flu and cold viruses by pushing through their sicknesses to get those last precious hours they are allotted by the yearly budget. Growing up in a temperate clime where the change of seasons is a beautiful thing to observe, and school breaks for 2-4 weeks, I have always loved everything Christmas has to offer enough to even tolerate sitting through a Christmas Eve mass as a growing agnostic and following it with almost 24 straight hours with my horrendously Polish family whose speech rivals a sonicboom in volume. Yet there is one thing that spoils it all and makes me sick of Christmas before December even begins: mother fucking Christmas music.
We’ve got many ways to listen to our own preferred music these days, but those of us driving cars older than many of today’s chart toppers don’t have access to much beyond the good, old fashioned radio. That same device is playing in the offices of many a workplace and shopping center, so chances are if you go outside of your house between now and Christmas you’ll hear some of the season’s signature songs. All eight of them.
Okay, there’s many more than that, but there can be no denying that only a select portion of all Christmas music ever made is what gets wide radio playtime. And those stations that switch over completely from their usual programming to full-on Christmas usually play the same cluster again and again and again and again and again. Sometimes they’ll mix in different versions as there are plenty, but you stand a very good chance of hearing the same song, even the same version, two, three, maybe more times a day on the same station. There are a few reasons for this. One is that there is an established set of songs that, like many other things related to Christmastime, are considered traditions, and traditions were meant to be done and overdone time and again. This is why hundreds of people have recorded versions of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Another reason is that songs outside of that specific set of traditional songs or those that aren’t deemed “family-friendly” (and admittedly, some aren’t) don’t get played, so they stick with the safe-bet, proven classics and nothing else. But there is a greater reason as to why you get the same festive fanfare time after time, and it’s one that I’ll get to right after I vent about Christmas songs I hate and praise those that I like.
Where does one begin in an assessment of music? Why not with the greatest band of all time? The Beatles were so important in increasing the popularity of rock and roll and for changing the formula of not only that genre but every genre of music forever. They made some of the greatest songs and albums ever listened to on this earth. Their Christmas stuff however, eh, not so great. Obviously, their best music was made when the fab four were playing as one, but each made at least one original Christmas song in their careers after their break-up, and none really resound today as good classics, yet that hasn’t stopped two of them from getting way too much radio playtime.
If you’re not aware, today is the 34th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder, and while I love almost all of his musical work, I’m gonna kick him while he’s down about one song that I don’t particularly care for. I know I’m not the only one who groans at the opening whispers and notes of Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)“. You know, that depressing Xmas tune that begins with the bland then accusatory lines, “So this is Christmas / And what have you done?” Who are you to judge me, John Lennon? Okay, technically it’s a song by The Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s post-Beatles group named after his wife/Beatles-break-up-scapegoat that he powered to unfortunate notice. Inspirational dreamer that Lennon was, even he wasn’t daft enough to believe the lines, “War is over / If you want it”, was he? Sadly all it takes is one crazy person to push the button or pull the trigger. I’m going to give Yoko credit for those lines.
It’s all good though because I’m more of a Paul man myself and it’s not like he had a bad Christmas song like – oh… yeah, that’s right. I tried my damnedest to forget “Wonderful Christmastime“, the seasonal song filled with a bad synthesizer score and stupid simplicity. There’s good minimalism, and then there’s crap like this. Sir Paul is forgiven by me especially for putting on the most memorable concert I’ve ever seen in July 2013. It was the best thing to happen for me in Indianapolis until this past weekend.
George Harrison also had a fairly successful career that included a Christmas album after the Beatles broke up. His original holiday song “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” is more of a New Year’s song and is definitely the best by a Beatle yet with a video that is classic wacky George to accompany it. Does this mean it’s a good song? No. Catchy yes, enjoyable every December-January, uhhh, not tremendously.
As expected, Ringo Starr followed suit with his own abomination, “I Wanna Be Santa Claus“. Do you really want to be Santa Claus, or are you just saying it because your friends made original Christmas songs?
The one thing that is to the credit of each of the Beatles’ songs is that they are original. Some Christmas classics are just fine, like Bing Crosby’s oft-covered “White Christmas” (just make sure your university doesn’t draw upon that as a theme for a winter formal dance bearing the name “I’m Dreaming of a White Cleveland” without realizing the potential reaction from the student body), and even the more recent yet still established “Last Christmas” by Wham!, a more modern romantic narrative that has been covered a few times itself, including recently by Taylor Swift. (What! Taylor Swift chose to cover a song about a break-up? What a departure from her usual subject matter!) Nevertheless, other songs have some issues with aging. Radio stations have kept alive many older (and to their credit, often original) versions of songs that probably should have been left to die out in peace. Some just suck when you hear them millions of times though. Gayla Peevy’s been asking for a hippopotamus for Christmas for the last six decades and I don’t think she’s getting one anytime soon. While we’re on the subject of animals involved in Christmas songs let simply say, fuck those chipmunks and that goddamn donkey. And if I have to hear Andy Williams one more fucking time – and we all will at least a dozen or so times this week probably – I’m going to scream. Thankfully, not all updated versions of songs are bad. While it probably is going to help along little Billy’s nightmares and therefore won’t make it onto most family stations, I love Alice Cooper’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” aka “Santa Claws is Coming to Town“. Gotta love how it accentuates the inherent creepiness of lyrics like “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake” with Cooper’s special freaky flare.
Now I’m sure some of you are like, “Whoa! Alex! I like some of those songs you don’t!” and your tastes are probably different with some songs that I like as well. For example, I really enjoy Bruce Springsteen’s rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (which is much more in line with the traditional lyrics than Alice Cooper’s) but I know a few people who aren’t crazy about The Boss talking to his band before they jam out. But c’mon, it’s funny to hear him lose his composure and laugh at the Santa laughter done by one of his bandmates.
In terms of more serious sounding songs you gotta love “Thank God It’s Christmas” from Queen, sung by the best rock vocalist to ever live. Where’s this on the radio?
Some good dark-humored original Christmas songs do get played, albeit sparingly, including The Kinks’ “Father Christmas” and Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody“. Then there are those artists who live for Christmas humor in their music, such as Bob Rivers, who usually misses for me, but “The Twelve Pains of Christmas” is pretty good. “Now why the hell are they blinking!” If you liked that then you’ll probably also like Red Peters’ “Holy Shit, It’s Christmas“. But nobody outdoes the master of harmonious humor, even on Christmas. Weird Al Yankovic has two holiday gems in “The Night Santa Went Crazy” and “Christmas at Ground Zero“.
Those are certainly original or original takes on Christmas songs, but if you’re pining for some real Christmas music then all I’ve got to say is man, this is Christmas music!
Now not every original song is going to endure as a classic. Take The Youngsters song for sobriety “Christmas in Jail“. Drink responsibly this Christmas folks.
Thank goodness for my favorite Christmas song, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You“. Yes, it really is my favorite, and no, it’s not for the video. I think I have female parts somewhere inside me.
As you can hear, not all Christmas songs are bad, including some covers of old classics, but that’s not really the issue here. It’s become an American tradition for musical artists to make a Christmas album when he/she/they come to a certain level of recognition. This is the only reason Bob Dylan actually made one; he felt obligated to do so. Barbara Streisand made a few, and she’s Jewish! Christmas itself is a much more secular holiday than it once was, and despite Jon Stewart’s joking wish for Hanukkah to overtake it as the most popular December holiday, Christmas will always reign supreme this time of year. I recognize that fact and am totally okay with it. I also realize that musical artists will continue to cut Christmas albums and make new versions of old songs. As long as they throw in some new compositions I guess I can live with it.
However, I cannot abide the trend of playing such music out of the confines of the Christmas season. I get that that’s an arbitrary mark, but it is starting earlier and earlier each year and I’ve had enough. Christmas is always going to be on December 25th, so why does our eagerness to get to that date have to be before October 31st now? No joke, I heard Christmas songs being played on the radio during the week before Halloween. Sure, stores want to sell Christmas stuff as soon and often as they can because we’ll buy it as soon as it’s shelved with a price tag, but that’s a separate world from the airwaves. If people want to fight over marked down items at an ungodly hour the day after Thanksgiving that’s fine, and you can start playing Christmas music for them then to pump them up or soothe the throbbing pain in their foreheads from where somebody smacked them with a picture frame.
This once may have been how things worked, but it isn’t anymore. Well, the shopping scuffles are more prevalent than ever, but now the shopping season for Christmas starts prior to Thanksgiving and is causing most big retail stores (way to stay cool Costco!) to open up on the holiday that is meant for spending time with family, eating too much delectably fattening food, and watching the Detroit Lions lose (wait, they won this year?! Wow! Thanks Jay Cutler!). In many respects, it’s a rehearsal dinner for Christmas, but a separate holiday. Christmas can’t even keep out of Thanksgiving’s business from the shopping side of things, and it’s been jumping in with the music too. Herewith lies the big problem I alluded to earlier: Christmas is a chance for radio stations to be lazy and just play a loop of the same songs that lasts a few hours. You cut in some commercials and traffic and weather reports and you’re good to go with as minimal effort/staff as possible. If you’re running a radio station and have this option it’s tempting to stretch it out as long as you can. Who’s going to stop you if you want to play continuous Christmas music before the start of fall? No one! MWAHAHAHAHA!
But that’s just the point. Radio stations have to hold themselves accountable for their material – well, unless they get crazy enough for the FCC to step in, but I’m looking at things in a much more tame way for this. Just because you can do a thing doesn’t necessarily mean you should, and I think that holds true with making the choice between the super easy phone-it-in approach of a long, yet stale family-friendly, multi-month Christmas playlist on repeat versus the still quite manageable mix-it-up-a-little approach of more than just the same old same old cluster of songs (which can still be family-friendly) for just a month: post-Thanksgiving to Christmas (New Year’s if you must). You can do it, American radio stations both local and national! I still believe in you and say you’re not in so deep. You can and must become less Christmas obsessed for the sake of the holiday and our sanity. Regarding the need to bring back the usual listening for a while longer and not fall into the easy and too early ways you’ve exhibited lately, I say this to you American radio,
If you, if you could return, don’t let it burn, don’t let it fade.
I’m sure I’m not being rude, but it’s just your attitude,
It’s tearing me apart, It’s ruining everything.
I swore, I swore I would be true, and honey, so did you.
Okay, that’s not from a song from this season, but Cranberries are a Christmas staple. Too much of America and Western Society is driven by money, and I know you radio stations all are too, but you can come back from this quagmire of Capitalistic Christmasness. In fact, I need you to! Don’t ruin Christmas before Halloween; that’s not your job (it’s the job of Christmas in July). Your job is to bring us new music and good classics, not so-called classics that only achieve the status because of strong association with the season that dominates the cultural landscape for a time. You did this once, and you can do it again. Be true, American Radio, be true.
Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a question, comment, or a general beef with Christmas songs let me hear about it at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you’re not sick of Christmas yet because I’m going to talk about it again next week, this time about what to watch during this holly jolly season.
Stay Frosty, my friends,