The earliest Christmas edict I can remember my mother ever handing down was this one: No Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving. This was not an edict handed down casually, and in retrospect probably contributed mightily in 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.
The this is, it didn’t have to be Christmas. 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 dictate 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.
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 comeptley with a feeling that can inly be called relief. But eleven months later, I’m all in.
Over the years I have collected an embarrassingly large horde of the stuff — seriously, there are over 1,300 holiday songs in my iTunes library — and I continue add to it each early December. Christmas music is similar to any genre’s classic standards, in that you can 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 each classic song has 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 other holiday music. Every holiday song tells us a story through it’s lyrics, of course. But what I have learned over time is that the stories behind the songs were almost always far more interested and complex than the simple stories of Santa Clause, snowy landscapes, and babes in swaddling clothes. They’re stories that involve kings, underdogs, titans of industry, thieves, murderers, scoundrels, charlatans, pirates, philanderers, the dissolving of marriages, the disowning of children, literal blood sacrifices, and of course the delightful realization that so many of the wintery ones ones we love most were written by Jews 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 or the Kindle.
This year, I’ve decided to do 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 song 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. Some 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.
Some of the songs I’m choosing are joyful, some schmaltzy, some deeply inspiring, More than few are quite dark and depressing, frankly. Many of these songs you know by heart, regardless of your faith; most you at least recognize in passing; a few you will have never even heard of, I suspect.
My hope is that by the end, we’ll have a pretty awesome playlist, one that, by the time we’re done, we’ll all collectively be grateful to put away and not think about again for another eleven months.
We’ll start on tomorrow, on the first of December.