Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 3: Happy Xmas (War is Over)

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Whenever I stop to think about it, that Happy Xmas (War Is Over) should become a modern holiday standard is something of a puzzler. It had, after all, so many things stacked against it:

First and foremost is the title itself, which so defiantly refuses to put the Christ in Christmas. For his part, Lennon always claimed that it was never intended to be thought of as a song about Christmas, but instead a single part of an anti-Vietnam War multimedia publicity campaign. The song was written to be a tie-in with billboards Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono had rented throughout the fall and winter of 1971, which read, “WAR IS OVER!!! If you want it. Happy Christmas, John & Yoko.” Indeed, the very reason he put the X in the title was so that people would never confuse it for a Christmas song — which, when you listen to the lyrics, was never a particularly realistic idea.

If that weren’t enough to keep it from becoming a holiday standard, it also wasn’t received well when it was first released. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) met with savagely unfavorable reviews from critics and fans alike. Even though the song was released as a single while Lennon was still one of pop music’s biggest stars (and arguably its biggest), it received almost no airplay. It was so disliked, in fact, that the track was pulled off Some Time In New York City, the album Lennon and Ono were preparing to release at the time, at the last minute.

On top of everything else it had going against its potential longevity, Happy Xmas’s countermelody was provided in part by the shrill stylings of Ono, which are something of an acquired taste and have never exactly been a recipe for commercial success. (Though to be fair, she is joined quite ably by the children of the Harlem Community Choir.)

And yet despite all of this, the song has indeed become a Christmas standard. And it appears to have done so by taking the path that all those traditional carols based on folk songs have taken before it, which is to say that its popularity evolved entirely organically, over time.

Though no one seemed to care for it much when it was first released (including Lennon himself, who hated it), by 1973 it was showing up in the Top 10 charts of several European countries, including Great Britain. This despite no promotion or reissuing of the single. It has since entered various charts another nine times over a forty-year period.

This is somewhat fitting, when you think about it, because Happy Xmas’s melody isn’t simply like a folk song that has evolved over time — it is one. Happy Xmas is itself the latest incarnation of the Irish-English folksong Stewball, which has roots back to the mid 18th century.

Though Lennon himself never credited Stewball, it is quite clearly the source from which the melody was pilfered. And if “pilfered” sounds like a knock, know that it isn’t. All great artists pilfer from those who came before. Like most folksongs, Stewball’s melody itself was likely pilfered from bits of other previous tavern songs.

As inclusion in this Advent Calendar testifies, Happy Xmas is one of my perennial favorites from the season. For me, its power lies entirely in the rather stunning effect of its mingling melody (“So this is Christmas, and what have you done…”), and its countermelody (“War is over, if you want it…”). One can easily get lost in the former, the latter, or both together on any given listen. Even in times of peace, its message deeply resonates with me, thanks in no small part to the structural and melodic beauty of the piece.

There have been many, many covers of Happy Xmas over the past twenty years, from a disjointed mishmash of artists. The Alarm, Neil Diamond, Phantom Planet, Sarah Brightman, Jimmy Buffett, Jessica Simpson, Damien Rice, Andy Williams, Stephen Colbert and Wilco, and just about anyone else making Christmas albums since 1990 has taken a shot at Lennon’s classic.

In the end, however, they all pale before the original. Unlike every other other modern or classic Christmas standard, Happy Xmas has yet to inspire even the tiniest spark of artistic originality from those that re-record it. There is really no variation in the other artists’ covers; not a one of the myriad of those covering the title seems to have any interest in tinkering with it enough to make it their own. Ultimately, every cover of Happy Xmas just sounds like a tepid, watered-down, karaoke version of the original. Perhaps it’s because Lennon’s intimidating shadow still looms too large; perhaps Happy Xmas simply isn’t yet old and stale enough to force a new generation of artists to push at its bounderies. Whatever the reason, I find all of the covers utterly boring.

Which, I suppose, is just fine by me. The original is sublime and transcendent. For now, it is enough.

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