Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Best Christmas Song

It’s only December 4, but I’m feeling Christmas-y. I began feeling Christmas-y, if you must know, almost as soon as the dishes were being cleared away after Thanksgiving dinner. I was able to resist the Christmas feeling when it first tried to wash over me, but I was able to do that at that time this year because the feeling first tried to get into my blood while Sweetie and I were at Toys R Us the first week of November, and they were playing nothing but Christmas music. Still, I fought it off because there’s a time and place for Christmas, and that time and place is beginning immediately after Thanksgiving dinner and continuing on until about 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Day.

That’s when Christmas ends: 5 p.m., December 25. It’s just over, then. The cookies have been eaten, the egg nog has been nogged, the presents opened and played with, the sweaters sweatened. And its at 5 p.m. that the feeling just fades away in the long gray of winter that January represents. I can’t ever feel Christmas-y after that point. When we were kids we’d go to my grandparents on Christmas Day, at night, for dinner and Christmas with them, but it was never right. We’d go there, eat dinner, they’d have the cookies and pies and all that, and the tree was there, and lit up, and they’d give us presents (which were usually a plaid shirt and a complete set of NFL pencils; we liked the latter a lot and would use them in order of our favorite teams, leaving the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints pencils for the February and March, if ever) but it was not the same.

I think that’s because Christmas to me is not the holiday so much as it is the feeling of the holiday, the anticipation, the goodwill and fun that builds up from Thanksgiving on. You begin with a quiet family gathering of turkey and football and jellied cranberries, and that marks the end of regular time. Starting the next day, with the crowds and the shopping – and I always go out shopping that day – Christmas begins building up to the greatest holiday of the year. And I say greatest both from a religious and a secular perspective. If you’re religious – Christian, at least – there isn’t really a better day on the calendar than the day your religion was born. But even if you’re not Christian, the Christmas season has grown to represent more than just the birth of the savior of humankind (if that’s possible.) It’s become a celebration of the better side of people, the side of people that wants to show goodwill to each other, that wants to have peace, that wants to bestow gifts on each other, that wants to sing and be happy and love each other, that wants to give our spare dollar bills and quarters to the bell ringer and drop off a Toy for a Tot and watch the very special episodes of all our favorite sitcoms.

So we begin with the holiday shopping and crowds, and we move on to getting pictures taken for family Christmas cards and sending them out, and we start Secret Santas at the office and get small gifts, and we have Christmas parties with friends or coworkers and tell our wives that, no, the eggnog doesn’t have brandy, I don’t think, and then we cave in and take the kids to see the local theater production of either the Nutcracker or “A Christmas Carol,” and we drive around the neighborhood and look at the lights, and then we have the whole family over, which we swore we’d never do after last year when the kids chased the cats around and nearly knocked down the tree, and Dad is shocked to see that we’re not kidding, we really did get an 8-foot-tall inflatable Rudolph for the yard and, yes, there’s the parrot next to it, and he doesn’t believe that we bought it simply because it was on sale, but, hey, it’s Christmas, so you’ll even put on the slippers that you got.

And then it’s late and everyone’s gone home and the presents under the tree are those that Santa has brought for the kids and you get to sit quietly and drink yet one more glass of egg nog while you listen to music and look at the Christmas tree with the stegosaurus ornament.

And that’s the moment that Christmas is building up to, for me: that quiet moment after all the revelry, where I get to reflect on just how far my life has come, on just how much I love my life and the people in it, and get to do that after a whirlwind of singing and presents and celebrating and too-loud talking that’s stretched out over weeks and ranged from carrying boxes through the snow to stringing popcorn.

To carry me through that, to keep me on a Christmas-keel throughout that, I don’t rely solely on friends and family and presents and decorations. I rely on one of the most fundamental things that can affect mood: music.

Christmas music can be broken down into a couple of different categories and styles. There’s old-fashioned, and new, the traditional alongside the modern. There’s upbeat, happy songs; there are the sad ones that are sad in a good way, that make you melancholy because while you understand the emotion they’re discussing, you’re not going through it yourself. Each of them has their merits and captures a facet of Christmas.

Take one of the better traditional ones – O Holy Night. That’s a great one, especially if you’re religious. It’s quietly uplifting and elevates your mood in a meditative way. But that’s not all there is to Christmas.

Or there’s the bounciness of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas, a more modern, stripped-down synthesizer jaunt that celebrates the simple happiness of a family gathering. It gives you a bubbly little happy feeling, but doesn’t encapsulate the season.

There’s the solemn, throat-choking appeal of Do They Know It’s Christmas, a song that never fails to bring on a moment of silence and reminds us that Christmas is a time to help those less fortunate than us. But that, too, is only a part of the holiday.

And the importance of family, of friends, of love, at this time of year is captured by hundreds of songs. Please Come Home For Christmas. (There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays. All Alone on Christmas. Some fast, some slow, all a bit sad and reminding you to make sure that you visit Mom with some gingerbread cheesecake. And, they, too, fall short. (Among those songs is one not to miss, though: Fairytale of New York, by The Pogues. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and almost was my choice for this category – almost. While it paints a beautiful picture, it’s ultimately too sad to win this award. But you should listen to it, and you should listen to it over and over.) (And you can do that here:)

I couldn't pick that one, because it's not The Best. There’s only one song, in the entire pantheon of Christmas songs, that adequately captures the whole of the season, of the holiday, and that song is “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” by Billy Squier.

No, I’m not joking.

Watch and listen:

Did you hear the lyrics? Just the title: Christmas is the time to say I love you. That’s the whole season wrapped up right there, isn’t it? Say “I love you,” to your kids, your wife, your parents, your friends, the world.

The song hits all the marks: “touch of magic,” mentioning Santa and the reindeer, talk of good cheer, the food and drink and candy, the reflections that Christmas brings on (“Memories of the year that lays behind us”) and of the feeling that Christmas engenders: Make you feel that life has just begun.

Beyond the words, though, is the music. I miss the 70’s if only for this reason: they don’t make music like this anymore. There’s no raucous guitar music that builds and builds and builds and piles chords and drumbeats and choruses all together, barely holding it together, the kind of songs that feel always like they could fall into chaos but never quite do, the kind of songs that meld together all the best instruments with a kind-of-screechy singer. The music is not itself especially Christmas-ized. There’s not a lot of bells and organs and harps. But it has a Christmas spirit all its own, in the jumbled happy way it tumbles out onto your ears.

The best thing I can say about this song, though, is that it, more than any other song, lifts me up. It actually gives meaning to the word uplifting for me. I can’t listen to it without smiling and tapping my toe and nodding my head and humming and, finally, singing along.
It starts slow, and then builds and builds and builds until its momentum just takes me and carries me away and makes me laugh and enjoy myself and opens my heart a little. And that, well, that’s Christmas.

1 comment:

Lamar said...

I know the worst Christmas song...Paul McCartney's Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime"

Just awwwweful!