The earliest Christmas edict I can remember my mother ever handing down was this one: No Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving. This edict was not handed down casually, and in retrospect probably contributed mightily toward my mother never selling me to gypsies.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved Christmas music. As a small child one of my first record albums was some generic choir singing carols, and I listened to it all the time at full volume. My father had a reel-to-reel and several tapes of Christmas music; because I was too young to operate the properly thread the tape, I would constantly ask my mother to put them on for me.
If you’re wondering why this drove my mother crazy, know this: it didn’t have to be during the holidays. I was happy to badger my mother to put Julie Andrews Christmas Album on during Fourth of July weekend. Sometime around the time I was four or five, my mother had had enough and put her foot down. There would be no Christmas music played in our house by anyone at anytime other than the period of December 1-25; any breach of this edict would result in Christmas music not being allowed the next Christmas season. After some number of years, I was able to negotiate this to a period that began the day after Thanksgiving and went through December 30, where it remained until I had my own home.
This house rule probably saved Christmas music’s and my love affair. To this day, I still feel a thrill the moment I hit the play button for the first time of the season, invariably the day after Thanksgiving. By the end of the season, however, I have more than had my fill, having grown increasingly bored over the weeks with the entire genre. By the 20th of the month I am pretty much done with it, and after presents are opened on the 25th I shut it down completely with a feeling that can only be called relief. (You can probably relate.) But eleven months later, at the next day after Thanksgiving, I’m all in.
Over the years I have collected an embarrassingly large horde of the stuff — seriously, there are over 2,300 holiday songs in my iTunes library — and I continue to add to it each year. Holiday music is similar to any genre’s classic standards, in that you can usually find a myriad of different artistic visions toying with any given song. Many of these are simply slightly different from the versions we are most familiar with, but most have at least a few artists who have genuinely tried to bend and twist the very DNA of the music to create something entirely their own. Not surprisingly, the quality of these results is all over the map.
I’ve also become something of a hobbyist concerning the history of Christmas and holiday music. Each song tells us a story through its lyrics, of course. But what I have learned over time is that the stories behind the songs and how they came to be are almost always far more interesting and complex than the simple stories of Santa Claus, snowy landscapes, and babes in swaddling clothes that we sing. They’re stories that involve kings, underdogs, titans of industry, thieves, murderers, scoundrels, charlatans, secret codes, pirates, philanderers, the dissolving of marriages, the disowning of children, literal blood sacrifices, cleverly disguised anti-Christian political messages, and of course the delightful realization that so many of the wintery Christmas ones we love most were written by Jewish songwriters tanning themselves by the pool in Los Angeles. I’ve long thought it a shame these stories aren’t told each year, by the light of the fireplace, tree, or menorah.
This year I offer you a Virtual Musical Advent Calendar. Each day of December though the 26th, I will do a short post on a Christmas carol or holiday song.
Each of these songs will be chosen for different reasons. Most have one of those above-referenced backstories that I want to share. Some have a particularly strong meaning to me personally. A few simply have a number of great and varied renditions that beg to be juxtaposed. Occasionally I will be grouping very different yet oddly related songs. And in one case, I’ll be choosing a song as a shameless excuse to republish a piece I did a number of years ago about the real War on Christmas — a story which is infinitely more fascinating (and fact-based) than the one you hear about each year on Fox.
Some of the songs I’m choosing will be joyful, some schmaltzy, some godawful, some deeply inspiring. More than few are giong to be quite dark and depressing, frankly. Many of these songs you absolutely know by heart, regardless of your faith. Most you at least recognize in passing. One or two you will have never even heard of, I suspect.
My hope is that by the end, we’ll have a pretty awesome playlist of music and stories – one that, by the time we’re done, we’ll all collectively be grateful to put away and not hear or think about again for another eleven months.
We’ll start on tomorrow, on the first of December.
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