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Jingle Bell Apology

Thursday, 12 December 2013

I owe my blog partner an apology. Almost every year, Bob comes out with some impassioned defense of Christmas music and drops names like "Sufjan" and "Pogues." He once claimed all top 50 of his favorite songs are Christmas songs, which is one helluva claim for a music lover when you ponder it.

Meanwhile, every year I grow weary of Christmas music by around noon on Black Friday. What some call tradition sounds trite. What should be reverent revolts. Same songs over and over ad infinitum.

While remaking TV and movie holiday classics is a guaranteed nuclear disaster, everyone remakes Christmas songs. We own 11 versions of “Silent Night” and 10 of “O Holy Night.” No sane person should desire to listen to 11 variations on “Silent Night.” This isn’t a Wallace Stevens exercise; it’s insanity.

It took a few years and patience, but some key messages in Bob’s Christmas Music apologias began to sink in this year. A critic recently referenced “Joseph, Who Understood” by The New Pornographers. I checked it out and instantly adored it, and my Grinch heart grew three sizes.

So I began hunting down oddball Christmas songs. Mostly newer stuff, but always unusual. Anti-classic. And I’ve kept my ears and my mind and my heart open. And I’ve begun to enjoy Christmas music.

“Joseph, Who Understood” covers my favorite (Biblical) Christmas subject: the forgotten hero also known as The Willing Step-Dad. As a boy raised by a loving step-father, a man willing to take on all the responsibilities with a fraction of the credit, I’ve always been fascinated by Joseph’s vague part in things. (It's also why my favorite part of the Superman myth is Jonathan Kent.)

But my best discovery this week has been The Killers’ song “A Great Big Sled.” It’s upbeat, doesn’t mind having a little fun with itself, and has a message that goes to the core of most of my favorite non-hymnal Christmas songs: I wish things could be like they used to be.

The cold, the pending end of a year, the memories of cherished holidays past, all collide to make us sentimentally wistful. Some Christmas songs lament a lost love, be it the death of a body or a death of the heart, but songs like “A Great Big Sled” lament the death of our innocence. The worst of these songs yearn for the outside world to be like it used to be; the best of them yearn for what we’ve lost inside ourselves.

The song opens acknowledging that "the boys have action toys for brains," but by the second verse, “the boys are all grown up and working their fingers to the bone.” And something is different, and not for the better...

I’ve been racking my brain
with thoughts of peace and love
How on earth did we get so mixed up?
I pray to God it don’t last a long time

The chorus offers the best of Christmas wishes, one we frequently forget from the first cash register ding on Black Friday (or even earlier) to the last unwrapped present on Christmas morning:

I wanna roll around like a kid in the snow
I wanna relearn what I already know.

He concludes with a valid frustration oft-expressed, but usually annoyingly so by the likes of Sarah Palin, who use it as a bludgeon of imaginary injustice rather than something merely sad and unfortunate:

I wanna wish you Merry Christmas
(Can’t do that.)

To hell with it. I wanna wish you Merry Christmas, so I'm gonna. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, enjoy the songs below (at least until the lawyers tell me to take 'em down).

Billy’s Christmas Song Rediscovery List
Joseph, Who Understood - The New Pornographers
A Great Big Sled - The Killers
Wish List - Lori McKenna
Deeper Than You Know - Marc Scibila and Leigh Nash
White Skies and Moonlight - Kelly Sweet
Tiny Tree Christmas - Guster
Only You Can Bring Me Cheer - Alison Krauss

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