Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It's time for a confession. One I've kept to myself for a long time, but I just can't find a reason to suppress any longer.

I completely love Christmas music. And uh-oh, what do you know -

"Well sure," someone said to me when I told this to them, "it's after Thanksgiving now, it's okay to listen to it."

But that's not what I mean. I love Christmas music. All the time. From New Years Day to New Years Eve. I love just about every kind of Christmas music. I love the old stuff, I love the new stuff, I love Christmas raps and Christmas song parodies. I love the songs about Jesus and the season, and the stuff about Santa and reindeer. About the only songs concerning Christmas or its indices I don't enjoy are "The Christmas Shoes," (maybe the most unnecessary song ever written) and anything wherein Santa is at the beach because that's soooo zany.

A sand snowman? Too wacky for me, Caillat.

No, I can listen to Christmas music with almost the same enthusiasm as I would Guns n' Roses, or Journey, or anything by the Muppets.

This is the greatest thing ever.

Maybe if there was good Hanukkah music out there I could include some of that, but whoever is in charge of our media conspiracy decided that our most popular songs about the holiday would just be lists of famous Jews..

This one keeps getting left out for some reason.

So all I wanted to do today was talk about some of my favorite Christmas songs, and share what you'll hopefully find to be some pretty good renditions of them.. Be warned that this post is going to be pretty video and link-intensive, but I'm sure we'll all have a good time at the end. So grab some hot cocoa, warm yourself by the fire, and, as I know we need it now more than most years, let's all share some holiday cheer.

First and foremost, this is the song that always gets me in the spirit.

"The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," by Andy Williams, plays through my head at least once a day during this season. To me, this is what kicks off the official "holiday spirit" portion of the year, because it is exactly what he says it is - it's the most wonderful time. As you get older, summer loses the meaning it once had, spring and autumn are only attractive because of their milder weather, but winter retains its magic. The world covers itself up in a big, white blanket, keeping everything hidden until it is born anew the following year. What's underneath that blanket is always a mystery, keeping us guessing all the time. Right smack in the middle of that time comes Christmas, filling us with joy and good cheer, making us anticipate only the best for what's coming.

Williams soothing crooner voice nails it from the very first line. The rest of the song is all true (assuming the part about "scary ghost stories" is a reference to A Christmas Carol and not the inexplicable evil Santa horror genre), but the opening lyrics are all I've ever needed to sing to myself to get a quick jolt of the season's cheer.

It does such a great job of encapsulating exactly what makes this time of year so great. The sights are different, there's a scent in the air you can't explain, and friends and family you don't normally get to see gather close once again. The holiday greetings and gay happy meetings? They are the best. My loved ones are near? Well look at that, my heart is glowing. This song gets it right. This right here is why I love this time of year so much - this song gets it all right.

Songs about the season are not difficult to find. The last one, performed by Judy Garland, has a fantastic version also done by Frank Sinatra, and they are great for comparing to one another. Sinatra is quiet and reflective, gently comforting the listener with the tidings of Christmas and the New Year. Garland's voice intones someone struggling through something fantastically difficult, and using the song to reassure herself more than anybody, because she really wants to believe the words of the song - that next year our troubles will be miles away. It all seems possible during Christmastime.

Also, this guy gets some love around this time;

Sorry, that could easily be interpreted to mean Michael Jackson. Let me be more specific.

This jolly old elf has been in more of my favorite classic movies than Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart combined. I hope I never go a Christmas season without hearing Frosty the Snowman, or the Snow Miser and Heat Miser songs, or listening to Burgermeister Meisterburger declare that they'll be no more toymakers to the king. You know, Meisterburger just keels over from old age and then things get better once he's gone. I think there's a really poignant message in there.

I won't bother setting up a link cloud of my favorite Christmas classic music, because that link cloud would quickly become a linkstorm, and eventually a dark, all-consuming mass of links, swallowing the rest of this post and leaving behind only tattered wreckage and benefit concerts. Instead I'll just cue up the song that I think most people can agree - when you see this on TV, Christmas time is officially on.

You know, I find it honestly kind of insulting that some studio thought they could improve upon this, or even just make a quick buck, covering this song for the live action version with Jim Carrey. Also, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is really such an exemplary comment on the holiday. Seuss, in his classic Seuss style, creates the most heinous, despicable, foul creature imaginable and has him literally steal a major holiday from a town because he hates joy.

Then, because Seuss is so on-point with what kids really need to read that it's a pity he and Mr. Rogers never teamed up to teach important life lessons, battle commercialism, and do slow-motion runs away from explosions, Christmas comes anyway because it's not about gifts and material goods, it's about being with friends and family and coming together as a community. The "Welcome Christmas" song is so powerful it cures the Grinch's tragic birth defect and he brings back all the food and presents anyway, and they treat the guy who was about to let them all starve to death in the cold like one of their own, because that's what Christmas does. Seriously though, back to what I was saying earlier, can't you see Rogers as the straight-laced by-the-book one and Seuss as the play-by-his-own-rules loose-cannon partner as they battle whoever is in charge of programming at NBC?

With LeVar Burton as the Chief who's fed up with their unorthodox methods.

Well, I don't want to get too into the pilot episode of Dr. and Mr. here. Let me try to stay on topic. Over the summer, while my grandmother was sick, I really needed something to boost my spirits. It seemed like all the songs on the radio were about heartbreak and tragedy, because that's what people relate to, apparently. I finally found a station playing something uplifting and inspirational, and left the dial there while I wondered how I'd never heard the song before. When the D.J's started talking, I understood why - I had landed on the religious music station.

My radio dial has rarely moved since. More on that some other time, maybe.

Now, it could be argued that every Christian song is a Christmas song, but some definitely stand out as more definitively geared towards that holiday. For the sake of this post, I'll stick with just one to lead into the more traditional fare. This one is especially great to me because two friends of mine recently welcomed a beautiful baby boy into their family, and another pair of friends is set to do the same in March.

See, for all the songs about Santa Claus or how great this time of year is in general, the best, most powerful, most moving songs are those that don't deviate too much from the holiday's source material. This is when we all get reminded of how great Jesus is because on His birthday WE all get presents. What I like most about the songs reflecting on Jesus's birth is how, grouping a couple of them together, you can form a pretty great musical narrative on what went down that night.

I could lay out some songs and different versions of them to illustrate my point, but it's already been done in one of the greatest short episodes in one of the greatest cartoons of my generation. You can't watch this and tell me they didn't nail it.

Also, normally I avoid Carrie Underwood emphatically (I've managed to this day to not listen to "Before He Cheats" all the way through) but I have to admit, she hit the mark on this one:

The solemnity of the occasion, the birth of the person a substantial margin of the planet consider to be God Himself in the humblest of locations, when expressed in song and done well can be truly powerful. I have some personal favorites, and I'm more than happy to share them with you now.

It doesn't matter, I should hope, what religion you do or don't adhere to. A song where the artist is clearly putting a piece of their soul on display for you should mean something. That's what a good Christmas song about the birth of Jesus can do.

Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention the fact that some people take Christmas and just get hilarious with it. Sure, holiness and light and peace and goodwill, blah blah blah, but don't you realize how man laughs there are to be had through Christmas music? I'll share just a couple. My most recent favorite comes from the good people behind the Epic Rap Battles of History, this time with a very special guest, but there are some real classics out there, notably;

Not to mention;

And who could forget;

I also think that a lot of people forget that this is a Christmas song.

I'll end with this concluding thought. What Christmas songs - the good ones, anyway - are really about comes down to joy and happiness. It's a holiday about observing what, no matter what you believe, is without a doubt the most significant event in human history. That we're able to compose music encapsulating what this season does for us spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, and to have it connect with so many people, is just one more miracle of the season. It really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Finally, I conclude with the very first Christmas song I ever remember hearing, because when I watched it in kindergarten, Kermit and his nephew Robin started singing the most popular Christmas song of them all, and suddenly Electric Mayhem burst in seared how totally awesome Christmas music could be in my young mind. I began with the Muppets, I close with the Muppets, as all great things in life do. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and if I don't see you before then, everybody have very happy, healthy New Year.

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