It’s not hard to understand the aversion some people have to the ubiquitous music of Christmas. There are literally thousands of recordings in this genre, and every year the market is flooded with new product. Much of it is indisputably execrable, and obviously driven by the crassest and most exploitive of impulses. But then, it’s part of an industry where crassness and exploitation are the norm. (A pretty damning accusation, yes, but let’s be honest: We are, after all, talking about a holiday that ostensibly celebrates the birth of the Son of God.) But holiday music inspires a host of other feelings besides disgust. There’s consternation and relatively benign indifference, and, toward the furthest end of the obsessive spectrum, devoted study, psychologically complicated appreciation, and genuine private (and often embarrassed) pleasure.
Like the holiday itself, the music of the season is by and large an exercise in excess. There are scads of lovely and enduring Christmas songs, but there isn’t a one of them that hasn’t been butchered countless times by overwrought vocal performances and equally overwrought arrangements, often (in both cases) wholly inappropriate. And now that you start hearing the stuff pumping from the speakers of stores and shopping malls as soon as the Halloween merchandise disappears from the shelves, even the once-beloved holiday chestnuts and warhorses have become inescapable—and therefore annoying—through the New Year.
Yet the true aficionado of Christmas music understands that in this genre, purity of motive or sincerity generally counts for nothing. Nobody ever went into a California recording studio (or a recording studio anywhere) in the middle of the summer to assemble a Christmas record simply because they were overcome with holiday spirit or a sudden fierce desire to unburden themselves of the ten-thousandth interpretation of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” No, even the most softheaded fan knows that he is being brazenly manipulated by those large-hearted barons of the music industry. These predatory characters are masters at exploiting the unique combination of nostalgia, emotional vulnerability, and atavistic hope that make the holidays a psychological minefield for so many, inducing in Americans all manner of complicated mood disorders (most prominently a collective case of manic depression) for at least one solid month on an annual basis. The true pleasure of much Christmas music, in fact, is precisely a product of its rare ability to tap into all those complicated feelings, and to whump and whang away at them relentlessly during the last weeks of the year.
Given the short retail window of opportunity that holiday albums have (which is balanced, of course, by the fact that they can be shuffled back onto the racks year after year in perpetuity), it’s astonishing how many such records are released—Amazon currently lists 1,867 holiday discs—and how many units some of these records move. More than nine million copies of Elvis Presley’s Christmas Album have been sold since its initial release in 1957. Kenny G’s Miracles: The Holiday Album has racked up sales of more than eight million. Last year, James Taylor: A Christmas Album, sold exclusively at Hallmark stores, was certified platinum only a couple of months after its release.
Since the beginnings of recorded sound, people have felt compelled to spend time and money making Christmas music for the commercial market. Based on the available evidence, it’s possible, in fact, that many of these folks didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were up to—any commercial market they may have had in mind was purely a delusional fancy (another fundamental characteristic of the music business). In the last half of the twentieth century, virtually every major music figure of note eventually recorded at least a side or two of Christmas music, and the genre has also proved irresistible to various vanity artists, delightful eccentrics, and obscurities, from local choirs to lounge acts to regional country performers. Anthologists have made the Christmas compilation an art form, thanks in part to thrift stores of America, where bins are brimming with holiday LPs of every imaginable sort.
Speaking from experience, it’s quite easy to acquire a collection of nearly two hundred Christmas records without ever quite recognizing that one’s interest has spiraled into obsession. Many of these are worth acquiring simply for their garish covers; the designers of album jackets, from the rankest amateurs to the staffers at major labels, have elevated the art to a pure and potent form of American kitsch.
The vast majority of the Christmas music that’s been released in recent years is utter garbage, yet every season reliably produces a few new classics—there was Low’s “Just Like Christmas” in 1999, for example, and Ron Sexsmith’s lovely “Maybe This Christmas” in 2002, while last year brought Chris Isaak’s “Washington Square” and “Christmas on TV,” both from his uniformly gratifying first entry in the holiday record lottery.
The sheer eclecticism of the vast catalog of holiday music is part of its charm and enduring appeal. For those of us who collect and actually listen to these records, the criteria for separating the pearls from the pork can be wildly random. There are those who relish the off-kilter and the just plain weird—novelty songs, in general terms (Foghat’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” Cheech and Chong’s “Santa Claus and His Old Lady”), as well as radical interpretations of standards (e.g. the Dickies’ version of “Silent Night” or Stiff Little Fingers’ take on “White Christmas”).
From the sacred to the secular to the truly profane, Christmas records offer something to cheer or offend just about everyone, and the stockpile of standards and the oodles of available versions of these songs represent both a public domain free-for-all and a study in the art of interpretation.
For many Christmas music purists, the golden age ran roughly between 1955 and 1965, when the great crooners and cocktail swingers were in full autopilot mode and the big studio arrangers were given the resources and encouragement to run amok. Those were the days of Steve and Edie (whose exuberant “Sleigh Ride” is still, for my money, unbeatable), Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Robert Goulet, and Goodyear’s Great Songs of Christmas, an instantly classic ten-album series that was released in yearly installments. The records of that era represent the perfect nexus of the bachelor pad and the family room, and the versions of the seasonal standards they served up were pure cheese, now properly aged. Even the sacred cows were blissfully fat, corn-fed, and wobbly with brandy.
The absolute zenith of that golden age was Jackie Gleason’s 1956 extravaganza for Capital, Merry Christmas. Gleason had a fairly long-running side career as an impresario/music engineer, in which capacity he produced a series of heavily orchestrated and downbeat records under his own name. He was the great renaissance man of bachelor-pad swank and swoon, and his ridiculously bloated excursions into the swirling mists of mood music are some of the most intoxicating—and intoxicated—documents of fuzzed art damage ever recorded. The birth of Christ has never sounded like such an utterly joyless occasion.
I’ve probably listened to Merry Christmas more than any other record in my Christmas collection, possibly more than any other record in my collection, period. The entire record is a Prozac sleigh ride through very dark woods indeed, and every year I make it my own holiday ritual to spend hours trying to figure out its strange appeal, to explain the odd grip it has on me. Jackie arranges even “Jingle Bells” as a blindfolded and hobbled march through those same woods, headed for a bullet in the back of the head and a meeting with the bottom of a black river swirling with sharp fragments of ice.
Some nights I put that record on and I have no problem at all imagining that it’s 1956 and the snow is falling—the snow has been falling for days. I’m sitting in front of a hideously flocked tree and a big, blazing fire, blasted out of my toasted body on cocktails, listening to Jackie and his orchestra utterly deconstruct the songs of Christmas, recasting them as equal parts Spanish fly and Jägermeister. Smashola in Lonelyville.
The power of this record, I think, lies in the way it plumbs the heart of the romantic desolation, loneliness, and ultimate disappointment of winter and the holidays, and then plunges all the way through to the reserves of melancholy that are buried deep in the sentimental heart of Christmas past and present. Depending on the circumstances, this is a record that could either get you laid or induce you to put your head in the oven; it sounds alternately like Christmas Eve with a girl in your arms or a gun in your mouth.
You can go ahead and take your pick, really. Give him enough chances, though, and Jackie will tear your heart into little pieces. And odds are good you’ll eventually nod off in front of the fire, only to wake up later and put your head right back in your hands.