Here’s another Christmas post from the past, specifically 2009, slightly edited.
There’s no time of the year when the shades of the past crowd around us like they do on Christmas. People we’ve loved and lost, memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us, moments we can’t forget—they’re all coming back this weekend, if they haven’t come back already.
I remember . . . when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. In our town, Santa met his public in a lovely double-wide donated by the local mobile home dealer and parked on the town square. One night my brother and me, maybe aged six and four at the time, shyly walked in with our parents. Santa took one look at us and then called us by name: “Well, it’s Jim and Dan Bartlett!” Since then, I have never doubted the jolly elf’s existence.
I remember . . . that first magical radio Christmas, the one that changed everything.
I remember . . . when I sent a half-dozen roses to a girl I was trying to lure away from another guy, making sure they’d arrive on Christmas Eve. It worked. Three years later she moved in with me just before Christmas, and we went to the local discount store to buy Christmas decorations for the apartment. We bought a “first Christmas together” ornament that we still have, 35 years later.
I remember . . . the year I picked up my brother and his girlfriend at the airport on Christmas Eve. When I arrived, there was a crisis. When the luggage came off the plane, one piece was missing: the carrier with her dog. It turned out that instead of running him through the baggage carousel, they put him out at a different door nearby. He wasn’t missing for more than a few minutes, but they were some long and upsetting minutes.
I remember . . . waking up with the flu one Christmas morning. That was the year my grandfather was in the hospital, and my grandmother was staying at our house. So in my misery on that day, I was ministered to not only by The Mrs., but also by my mother and my grandmother. If you have to get sick, that’s definitely the way to go.
That Christmas was the last one with my grandfather, who died the next summer. The rest of my grandparents have followed him now. They were always such an important part of the holiday, Christmas Eve with my father’s parents and Christmas Day with my mother’s, that in certain ways the holidays have never felt right without them. But life requires us to adjust, and so we have. Year by year, we’ve made new memories. They may not seem as vivid as the memories from earlier years, but give ’em time.
To bring this discussion back to the ostensible subject of this blog: “Remember (Christmas)” by Nilsson made the Billboard and Cash Box charts in late December 1972 and stuck around well into January ’73. It lasted that long partly because the lyrics don’t mention the word “Christmas” or contain any sort of holiday imagery. But it’s a Christmas song nevertheless, because it’s all about calling up the shades that crowd around. The people we’ve loved and lost. Memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us. Moments we can’t forget.
They’re all coming back this weekend.
Listen . . . they’re here now.
(Note to patrons: I’ll be on Magic 98 for a little slice of “98 Hours of Christmas Magic” on Sunday between 9AM and noon. This feature will be on hiatus until the New Year unless somebody important dies (rest well, Dick Enberg, one of the voices that will forever echo in the ears of sports fans my age). New posts will appear at One Day in Your Life tomorrow, on Christmas Day, and on New Year’s Day, so be sure to stop over there.
I don’t know which of the thousands of posts that have appeared here since 2004 is my favorite. If forced to choose, I might pick this one, which first appeared in 2011. It’s appropriate to repeat this year, the 50th anniversary of the release of the song that provides the title.
On December 24, 1969, the Capital Times, the afternoon newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, hit the streets with the words “Merry Christmas” emblazoned above the masthead. Its front page, however, was not so merry. Headlines included “Children’s Doctor Shortage Becomes Acute in Madison,” “Arab Summit Breaks Apart in Disarray,” and “Plane, Missile Firms Get ‘Christmas Gifts.’” Its page-one feature story began with the following lede: “Bringing up a retarded child is a challenge to love, to care, and to sacrifice. At Central Colony, there are six children waiting for someone willing to meet that challenge.” The story was headlined, “‘Have You Found a Family For Me?,’” and included pictures of Brenda, Pauncho, Jeffrey, Tom, Jerry, and Wally, all under the age of 12, all of whom would be spending another Christmas at the state home for the developmentally disabled.
I was reading that paper in my office the other day, in the deepening dark of winter twilight, thinking about what a remarkably depressing picture it paints of the world on Christmas Eve 1969, a day of loneliness and want, failure and war. And at that precise moment, the laptop music stash shuffled up Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas”: “Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys / Playing with bombs like kids play with toys” and “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars / When we have learned what Christmas is for” and “Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land / With no hungry children and no empty hands.”
Stevie, you son of a bitch.
I had to stop reading, turn off the computer, and go do something else. I couldn’t take any more.
The next morning, I looked up the same day’s edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison’s other daily paper. Its front page bannered an article about the success of the paper’s annual Empty Stocking campaign to benefit the needy, and it included items about gifts being airlifted to POWs in North Vietnam and poor families in Mississippi, plus a photo of an Amish man driving a horse-drawn sleigh in Kalona, Iowa, which received six inches of snow the day before. Also on the front page was the King James version of the Christmas story.
Why was this front page so different from the one on the Capital Times the same day? The answer was under the headline “On This Day, All the News Is Good.” “In keeping with a long Christmas tradition, The Wisconsin State Journal today carries no stories of disaster, crime, or violence on this front page.”
On December 24, 1969, which front page was more truthful? Was it the Capital Times, with its stories of the challenges faced by individuals, the Madison community, and the world, challenges that pay no attention to the calendar? Or was it the State Journal, telling of children who get what they need, of kindness in the midst of hardship and war, and of the birth of Jesus?
I don’t know. Surely the State Journal describes the world as we would like it to be, fitting on Christmas, when we are closer to being the people we imagine ourselves to be than on any other day of the year: filled with love for our fellow creatures, warm and secure in our traditions, caring and generous toward the whole world. And it feels so good and so right that we start thinking that maybe we can learn to live in that light the other 364 days of the year.
Stevie feels it, too: “Someday all our dreams will come to be / Someday in a world where men are free.” But just as the Capital Times’ editors understood that our challenges don’t cease to challenge us just because it’s Christmas Eve, Stevie Wonder knows it too. And he knows that on December 26th, we’ll be back in a place that’s a long way from where we wish we were. Sure, it could happen: Someday all our dreams could come to be. Sure, the world could be made free from loneliness and want, failure and war. But not on a happy timetable: “Maybe not in time for you and me.”
“But someday at Christmastime.” Because as sure as Christmas comes again, we never stop dreaming of the things that could be.
(Pictured: Sharon Jones in 2015.)
It has been brought to my attention that my recent Christmas shuffle post, which I labeled Volume 18, should have been labeled Volume 17. So I am posting an extra shuffle here, which I am numbering Volume 17, even though it increases the likelihood that we’ll repeat Volume 18 next year, because this is not a very good blog, really.
“Silent Night”/Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. From the 2015 album It’s A Holiday Soul Party, which all good people should own. Listening to it will make you grieve for Miss Jones all over again while making you damn grateful she was here in the first place. (Just-published-today retrospective with photos here.)
“Dear Mr. Claus”/Paul Revere and the Raiders. Fifty years ago this Christmas, smack in the middle of the golden age of Christmas music, the Raiders dropped the album A Christmas Present … and Past (which you can hear in its entirety here). It did not become part of the canon, however, because a lot of influential people hated it, including Columbia Records and prominent DJs; when he first listened to it, legendary radio programmer Bill Drake yanked it from a turntable and threw it against a wall. In 2010, Mark Lindsay told Goldmine, “Most of our singles weren’t political, but the Christmas album totally was. It was a disaster, but it reflected what we were feeling at the time. It was a good time for flower power and protest.”
“Sleigh Ride”/Leroy Anderson. The tale is told that Mel Torme and Robert Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” during a heat wave; Leroy Anderson did the same thing at about the same time. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops released the first recording of “Sleigh Ride” in 1949; Anderson’s came out in 1950. He didn’t intend it as a Christmas song, but it’s become one of the most popular of them all.
“Merry Christmas From a Bar”/Mike Ireland. Ireland was a member of Kansas City country bands the Starkweathers and Holler, if that helps you at all. “Merry Christmas From a Bar” dates back to 1997.
“Greensleeves”/Vince Guaraldi Trio. From the 2006 remastered edition of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which added five tracks to the original release. Two are titled “Greensleeves,” in addition to the version of “What Child Is This” on the original album. By the time I get that far into the remastered CD, I’m feeling the vibe more than I’m hearing the music, so I don’t much mind the repetition.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/Freedy Johnston. Johnston, who first got noticed in the early 90s with the albums Can You Fly and This Perfect World, divides his time between New York City and Madison, occasionally performing here with the Steely Dan cover band Steely Dane.
“Mary’s Boy Child”/Matt Monro. An Englishman with a beautiful voice whose biggest American hit was “My Kind of Girl” in 1961. He was a bit more successful on the UK chart, scoring with versions of “Softly As I Leave You,” “Yesterday,” and the James Bond theme “From Russia With Love,” among others. He does not seem to have made an entire album of Christmas songs, which is a shame, because “Mary’s Boy Child” is really good. Monro died in 1985 at age 54.
“Twinkle Twinkle Little Me”/Stevie Wonder. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s Christmas album. Like other Motown Christmas originals, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me” is pretty cheesy on the page, but as he frequently does on his Christmas album, Stevie’s performance keeps cheese from smelling like it.
“The Nutcracker Suite”/Wynton Marsalis. Last year, the bootleg site ROIO came up with a Christmas concert performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Marsalis, for a 1989 TV broadcast. It includes a full performance of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn arrangement of the Tchaikovsky piece, sacred and secular Christmas songs, and Marsalis reading “The Night Before Christmas” to musical accompaniment. It’s pretty great, and you can download the whole thing (or individual tracks) right here.
“The Man With the Bag”/Kay Starr. If I didn’t have the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo, I might undertake some kind of formal history of Christmas pop, covering the 40 years between the end of World War II and the middle of the 1980, when listening audiences started to fragment and it became difficult for new songs to get traction. It would involve figuring out why some recordings endure and some do not, and how it’s hard to tell which ones will be which. “The Man With the Bag” dates back to 1950, and Kay Starr’s recording remains popular today, despite all the fashions that have come and gone from that day to this.
It’s been a few years since I wrote about the WLS Holiday Festival of Music, a program the Chicago AM radio giant ran from the late 60s into the 80s on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I first heard it in 1970, and I’m pretty sure there’s never been another radio program so perfectly crafted for its purpose. I have several hours of the 1980 broadcast in my library, and it’s a pleasure to hear it every year.
Although WLS was a Top 40 station, it was never monolithically aimed at kids. At various points in the 70s, it was downright housewifey during middays, even giving away household appliances. In the 80s, it was practically an album-rock station at night. The Holiday Festival of Music was similarly broad. It included Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” but also made room for Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It all fit together, and that’s because it was made to fit. The Holiday Festival of Music did not merely aim to fill airtime—it set out to create a mood, and it did so in unexpected ways. Segments on the history of various Christmas traditions sat side-by-side with Bible passages and even prayers. One particularly powerful segment from my 1980 recordings is a long reading from the works of Catholic monk, writer, and philosopher Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton, people.
(A segment of the Holiday Festival of Music is here. It aired at midnight, as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, Thursday, December 25, 1980.)
Lots of radio stations fail on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because they don’t take the time to do what WLS did so well—to curate their Christmas programming. They just rotate the same songs they’ve been playing since Halloween (or whenever), with production elements in between that don’t differ much from the rest of the year. The argument in favor of this is as follows: as long as it’s plausibly Christmassy, nobody will care. But that’s not true. Radio listenership actually spikes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—or at least it did in the days before streaming. People want no-fuss aural wallpaper, and what you play matters. A couple of Christmases ago, at my parents’ house, we turned on the DirecTV holiday music channel, and it was painful. The music selection was ridiculous: playing Justin Bieber and Ella Fitzgerald in the same quarter-hour is a crime against humanity. After a while, we turned it off. Over the years, I’ve heard other radio stations in other places get turned off for the same reason. It takes more than shuffle to set a mood.
When I was a program director, I did my best to curate the holiday programming, although it was a challenge when I was at the mercy of a program supplier. In Macomb, our Christmas library would contain bog-standard Top 40 stuff until Christmas Eve, when we’d bust out some ancient tapes that contained more traditional carols and chorales, Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In small-town Iowa, we carried a satellite-delivered format that generally went wall-to-wall Christmas for a period on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As I recall, it was decently done, although at least one year we replaced part of it with a syndicated Christmas show. Another year, the service announced that it would drop Christmas music entirely and go back to the regular format at 4:00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day. I immediately got on the phone to complain: “I’m a small-town station. If I stop playing Christmas music that early, people are going to burn my building down.” Mine must not have been the only call they got; by the end of the day they decided they’d play four Christmas songs an hour from 4:00 through midnight. Not ideal, but good enough.
I have said many times that one of the stations I work for, Magic 98 in Madison, comes as close to the spirit of the Holiday Festival of Music as we are likely to get in a world such as this. The show, “98 Hours of Christmas Magic,” starts at 10PM on Thursday night and runs through Christmas night at midnight. You can stream it right here.
The Christmas shuffle feature started at this blog 10 years ago, so I feel a certain responsibility to keep it going. When I shuffled up my Christmas library recently, here’s what I heard:
“The Little Drummer Boy”/.38 Special. I have mentioned the band’s unlikely 2001 album A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night in past editions of this feature. It’s a terrible title and has a terrible cover, but the music inside is far better than it has any right or reason to be.
“Frosty the Snowman”/America. In 2002, America released Holiday Harmony, produced by Andrew Gold, and boy is it not good.
“On This Christmas Day”/Moody Blues. If forced to pick the prettiest album in my collection, both Christmas and not (with all of the associations “pretty” conjures up, good and bad), the Moodys’ December might be it. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you dig the band to begin with, your appreciation of good old-fashioned major-chord pop craftsmanship, and your level of tolerance for unrelenting warmth and sentimentality.
“Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy”/Soulful Strings. In 1966, Chess Records hired jazz arranger Richard Evans to create albums by the Soulful Strings, a studio group that eventually made a half-dozen albums and included such noted Chicago players as Phil Upchurch, Charles Stepney (a producer on notable works by Rotary Connection and later, Earth Wind and Fire), and Donny Hathaway. Their Christmas album is definitely worth seeking out.
“Merry Christmas From the Family”/Robert Earl Keen. This hilarious tale of a Texas family Christmas is a hell of a lot more truthful about the way people really live than the ones in which we roast chestnuts or ride in a one-horse open sleigh.
“Ave Maria”/Stevie Wonder. “Ave Maria” and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus are often lumped in with the Christmas records, but I don’t think they belong. In my experience, the Hallelujah Chorus is so closely associated with Easter that it simply feels wrong at Christmastime; “Ave Maria” was not within the religious experience of a Methodist boy such as I. This “Ave Maria” is really good, though. Stevie sings in Latin behind a non-Motown-style backing track, but also takes a reverent and lovely solo on harmonica. (Stevie’s album Someday at Christmas, re-released under other names over the years, is 50 years old in 2017.)
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”/Partridge Family. We’re still feeling the loss of David Cassidy around here, so this is well placed. At the end of 1971, a year in which they had dominated the record charts (and pop culture itself), the Partridge Family dropped a Christmas album. The cheese factor on A Partridge Family Christmas Card is extremely high—this version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” includes a whistling interlude—but it’s made with the same Hollywood craftsmanship we have praised repeatedly at this blog over the years. And on the subject of people we miss …
“Christmas All Over Again”/Tom Petty. This song is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2017, having first appeared on A Very Special Christmas 2 in 1992. According to the liner notes for Petty’s box set Playback, he wanted to replicate the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, so “Christmas All Over Again” features 18 musicians bashing away live in the studio, including two drummers, two bass players, and four acoustic guitars. Petty said, “It was a lot of fun, but when I finished with it, it was pretty much a mess. I called Jeff Lynne and he came and helped me redo the lead vocal and tidy it up just a little bit.”
“Gee Whiz It’s Christmas”/Beginning of the End. This is the song Carla Thomas did in 1963 (a takeoff on her own “Gee Whiz”), recorded by the Bahamian band known for the 1971 hit “Funky Nassau.” As best I can reconstruct the history, “Gee Whiz It’s Christmas” was the A-side of a 1970 single released only in the Bahamas. It was released again as the original B-side of the “Funky Nassau” single, although it doesn’t seem to have appeared on American singles, which contained “Funky Nassau Part 1” backed with “Funky Nassau Part 2.”
“Happy Holidays”/Ohio Players. This was released over both sides of a 1975 single and didn’t reappear in the CD era until 2000. It doesn’t need to run 8:22, having exhausted its main idea in the first couple of minutes, but once a year it’s OK.
“Once a year it’s OK.” Not a bad tagline for this blog, actually.
This month, I’m going to repeat a couple of Christmas posts from the archives. This one originally ran in 2010 and has been edited ever so slightly.
The TV specials A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are sometimes called “timeless,” in that they appeal to viewers in the new millennium just as they did to viewers in the mid 1960s when they first appeared. But there’s a plausible argument that they’re actually quite dated.
Take the overarching themes of both. Linus believes that the Great Pumpkin will appear on Halloween night in the pumpkin patch that is the most sincere, and he admires his patch by saying, “There’s not a shred of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” The war between sincerity and hypocrisy has been over for a long time—in significant ways, not only are we unable to tell the difference, we don’t care that we can’t. Charlie Brown is troubled by the commercialism of Christmas, but nobody’s troubled by the commercialism of the holiday anymore. (Even the right-wingers battling in the so-called War on Christmas, who claim to be defending the “real” meaning of the season, mostly want salesclerks to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” when they hand back your credit card.) So the philosophical underpinnings of both shows have largely crumbled over the last half-century.
There are other, smaller instances where the changed times between then and now are clearly visible. In The Great Pumpkin, the kids get cookies and popcorn balls for trick-or-treat. Nowadays, such homemade treats would be tossed into the garbage by parents fearing fiendish acts of neighborhood terrorism. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy says that Christmas is run by a big Eastern syndicate, but in modern America, “syndicate” is heard almost exclusively as a verb and not a noun. (It’s still used in other countries to refer to criminal enterprises, though.) When Charlie Brown decides that a Christmas tree would set the proper mood for the Christmas play, Lucy tells him, “Perhaps a tree! A great big shiny aluminum Christmas tree! Maybe painted pink!”
In 1965, Lucy’s line neatly encapsulated the episode’s basic conflict between the commercialism of the holiday and the “real” meaning of Christmas. Years later, kids watching may have no idea what Lucy is talking about. If you remember the 1960s, however, you may remember how aluminum trees were once all the rage. Said a newspaper ad of the early 1960s: “The modern Christmas tree is one that lasts . . . designed of sparkling aluminum and naturally tapered to a realistic finish.” As realistic as fluttering, silvery aluminum can be, that is. But if you purchased such a tree, paying anywhere from $1.99 for a two-foot table model to $16.95 for a best-quality seven-footer (nearly $180 in current dollars), you probably wouldn’t just slap it down in the living room and leave it be. Sometimes an aluminum tree would be decorated with ornaments of all one color, but sometimes not. Because the apotheosis of the shiny aluminum Christmas tree was achieved by using a color wheel, which would provide changing hues of red, blue, yellow, and green to reflect off the tree. The color wheel would create a spectacular, cutting-edge, Christmas vibe in any modern 60s home.
You will remember that Charlie Brown bypassed the spectacular artificial trees at the Christmas-tree yard and chose a sad little pine tree instead. To him (and to Charles Schulz), an artificial tree represented a step too far into the world of commercial artifice, away from what’s “real” about Christmas. In our time, we’ve taken that step and countless more. Just like fish who don’t know they’re wet, millions of us neither know nor care that that commercial artifice is the world in which we live.