I love Christmas music. I love carefully crafted and curated playlists of Christmas music and I love the quirky serendipity of just hitting “shuffle all” on a massive list of Christmas songs. And thus, as with all things we love, I have Opinions about Christmas music.
Many of my favorite Christmas songs share something of the quality of that last stanza of “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” — they are lovely, dark, and deep. But a Christmas playlist cannot be all dark. It should also include a measure of what Auntie Mame calls for when she sings about needing a little snappy happy ever after. “We need a little Christmas,” she sings, “right this very minute.” She needs this, desperately, because she’s just lost everything. I want all of that in my Christmas playlist — the joy and hope and bright lights, the deep darkness and the hopelessness that makes that light and hope so urgently necessary. Melancholy with a hint of joy and joy tinged with a touch of melancholy. You know … Christmas music.
Anyway, here are some of my rules and observations for Christmas music. This is not an exhaustive list.
1. We muddle through somehow; we do not hang an insipid shining star on the highest bough. This applies to more than one specific lyric in one specific song.
2. We do not require everything to be in a minor key, but a good Christmas playlist should have a larger share of songs in minor keys than most playlists do.
3. Having said that, we like Sufjan/Pedro/Bright Eyes as much as anyone, but we try not to go overboard with that kind of thing, because geez.
4. We do not pretend that “O Holy Night” has only one verse, repeated over and over, thus hiding the fact that this beautiful showcase for talented singers is also a radical abolitionist hymn.
5. We think Christmas music needs a lot more of that radical politics — more Magnificat. The Gospels give us two Christmas songs, but things have gotten massively out of balance with way more “Gloria in excelsis” than “sent the rich away empty.” We’d like to see this corrected.
6. We will know the proper balance has been restored when it’s routine for someone to hear a song by, perhaps, the Clash or Bob Marley, and say, “Hey, this sounds kind of ‘brought down the powerful from their thrones-ish,’ is this a Christmas song?”
7. We believe that Betteridge’s law is reversed for all Christmas songs with titles posing a yes-or-no question. The answer is always “Yes.” Mary knew; they do know it’s Christmastime; we all do, in fact, hear what you hear; etc.
8. We applaud the annual tradition of compilation Christmas albums featuring cover versions by current pop artists and we believe that such albums should be viewed like baseball, with a .280 hits-to-misses ratio being more than acceptable. We recognize that this tradition is really just a brazen money-grab by record labels looking to crank out cheap year-end recordings, but we’re OK with that.
9. We consider the music of Mannheim Steamroller to be like newspaper headlines reading “‘Tis the Season” or “Deck the Halls.” It is an acceptable, inevitable, part of the holiday season. But as with such headlines, we insist that it should be strictly limited to one and only one appearance per year.
10. We regard Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley as American icons and musical geniuses who left us with a vast treasure of remarkable recordings. We also recognize, alas, that both artists also produced occasional pieces of unmitigated schmaltz that seem to have been recorded in an overzealous and transparent attempt to make records their mothers would like. We avoid any of their Christmas recordings that fall into this category.
11. We cannot articulate what it is, precisely, that separates good imitation Guaraldi from bad imitation Guaraldi, but we know it when we hear it, and we will accept only the former.12. As much as we treasure those original Guaraldi arrangements, we also insist that, when it comes to Christmas music, Charles Brown > Charlie Brown.
13. We sometimes get confused between Danny Elfman’s “Ice Dance” and Christophe Beck’s “Magic Snow,” even though they don’t really sound anything alike. But in a way they kind of do, and we’re suckers for whatever that is and for any song that shares that ineffably Christmas-y quality. We guess this isn’t really so much a rule as a preference, but whatever.
14. We are open to being proved wrong about this, but we suspect that the Rudolph storyline, canon and fanon, has been exploited to the fullest extent possible and it seems unlikely to us that any new songs involving flying reindeer would be worth the effort it might take to write and record them.
15. We appreciate Christmas carols with a bit of theological depth and richness, but we don’t care for those that try to cram a whole creed and catechism in there. Save the systematics for the seminary classroom. This is not the place to advocate for your preferred theory of atonement.
16. When it comes to theological meditations on the incarnation, we think the Hooters/Joan Osborne song “One of Us” beats most of what’s in the hymnal. We are disappointed it is not more widely recognized as a Christmas song.
17. We generally commend pushing the envelope to extend the “Christmas music” category and take an expansive, generous view of said category’s elastic boundaries. However, we think a song intended to comfort Austrian children during a summer thunderstorm is still a bit too much of a stretch and doesn’t become a Christmas song just because it includes a single reference to snowflakes.
18. Except for the Coltrane version. That we’ll keep.
19. We include “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” and “Nirvana” in the category of Christmas music, and we suspect that a half-dozen other not-at-first-apparently-Christmas-y Tom Waits songs could also be made to fit in this category.
20. We endorse Christmas songs that seek to evoke nostalgia for the lost innocence of childhood. We do not accept Christmas songs that seek to evoke nostalgia for an imagined Golden Age of wholesome, “old-fashioned” Christmases. Blech.
21. We do not consider the introduction to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” to be optional. We require the song to be sung in a way that makes clear both the singer and the person(s) addressed by the singer are fully aware that said singer will not, in fact, be home for Christmas. This, again, is a general principle that applies to more than just this one specific song.
22. We accept novelty songs only to the extent to which they are able, or allowed, to retain their novelty.
23. We believe that the Salvation Army is horribly, cruelly wrong about LGBT people, but we also believe that they are not wrong about the proper role of a tuba in the arrangement of Christmas carols.
24. We happily allow winter songs that make no mention of Christmas to be included in the Christmas songbook, but we reserve the right to also sing and play them throughout the remaining 82 percent of non-Christmas winter as well as at any point in spring when it’s still cold and/or snowy enough to be lovely weather for a sleigh-ride together, or for snow to be glistening in the lane, etc.