It’s not a mere prediction but scientific fact* that by 2033 the Christmas Season will creep into late summer. As it stands, “Christmas” commences the moment the last bits of Halloween candy have been distributed, rendering Black Friday (and, to a lesser extent, its bastard siblings Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday, Chapter Eleven Tuesday, etc ) the fulcrum on which the season swings and December 25th simply the end of a months’ long interest in all things Christmasy.
Radio stations have embraced Christmas encroachment accordingly, stripping those of us too poor, cheap, or indifferent to spring for satellite service of even the briefest car ride’s respite from holiday inanity by infusing their playlists with Christmas staples weeks before Black Friday Eve**.
Among the rubble of credibility-killing Christmas cash-ins, only one song retains the faint glimmer of dignity. It’s by a band that had a brief shining moment at the dawn of the MTV era and never charted in the Billboard Top 40.
Before we crown our winner, let’s consider the generations-spanning list of losers.
Traditional Christmas songs? As oldies often do, they tend towards the maudlin (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Blue Christmas) or downright creepy (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”).
Beginning with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (1958),” rock ‘n’ roll Christmas songs offered an alternative to the sad phonographic patter of Christmas standards. Yet, nearly without exception, rock Christmas songs offer little more than uninspired statements of the obvious, bored bellowing from egg nog-weary singers looking to make some extra coin.
Take Brenda Lee’s RAtCT***, a song that has been covered on record over 30 times by a list of artists that reads like a who’s who of the creatively devoid. Some notables: The Partridge Family, Amy Grant, Hanson, Jessica Simpson, Hannah Montana and the surviving cast of Glee.
Now, a song’s merit cannot be judged by the artists who choose to cover it but by its original content. In this regard, RAtCT set the standard for dodo-brained obviousness.
It begins with setting, a “Christmas party hop” where everyone is “rockin’ around” the tree. By the second verse, this party hops sounds like a regular ole family gathering: “We’ll have some pumpkin pie, and we’ll do some caroling.” Nothing wrong with either, but the verse adds nothing new to the holiday experience.
By the third verse, we’re already subjected to call backs to Christmas songs of yesteryear: “You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear, voices singing, ‘Let’s be jolly, deck the halls with bells of holly.’”
And so begins over a half a century’s worth of Christmas songs sporting the same painfully meek message: guess what? It’s Christmas.
It may have started the dopey Christmas fire, but RAtCT is far from the worst Christmas rock song. As rock got older, it felt obliged to join the Christmas party full-time and no artist, however talented, was able to present more than a hackneyed jab at that which we were increasingly aware–it’s Christmas time.
On “Wonderful Christmastime” (1979), Paul McCartney sounds downright desperate, first stating, “We’re here tonight, and that’s enough” before begging us “to lift a glass,ah, don’t look down.”
It doesn’t sound like Christmas is a wonderful time for the cute Beatle at all. In fact, it sounds like, in the disco era, at least, Christmas was quite a trying time for the future knight, who needs to gulp down a tall one just to avoid looking down from his emotional cliff. Perhaps Sir Paul should thus be forgiven for the song’s uber-silly scat impression of a children’s chorus, “ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong.” We’ll get through this together, Paul.
The perils of holiday cheer seem particularly trying for talented songwriters, McCartney being only one of them. In 1992, Tom Petty took a stab at the Christmas single with “Christmas All Over Again,” a ditty so wretched it was included on the Home Alone 2 soundtrack.
As the title suggests, the usually insightful songwriter’s insipid single sounds tired from the start. We begin with a defeated sigh (“Well, it’s Christmas time again”) and continue with an aversion to familial gathering (“Long distance relatives, I haven’t seen ‘em in a long time. Yeah, I kinda miss ‘em, but I don’t wanna kiss ‘em, no”). Oh but, Tom and his Heartbreakers do want to get touchy, co-opting the season for a pickup line: “And Christmas is a rockin’ time. Put your body next to mine.”
Cheap, lechy, and more than a little dark.
We can begin and end our conversation on Christmas rap songs with standard-bearer “Christmas in Hollis.” Like rap itself, “Christmas in Hollis” blasts onto the scene in its first verse with promises of something fierce before regressing into repetitive banality.
In the first verse, the future Reverend Run is chilling on Hollis Ave. on Christmas Eve when he spots an ill reindeer and thinks, “Oh my god, an ill reindeer.” Santa and reindeer quickly exit the Queens park, presumably to deliver presents to the good boys and girls around the borough, but not before the jolly guy drops a wallet that Run decides to return because stealing from Santa ain’t right.
Ignoring the fact that the post office is closed on federal holidays, Run returns home to mail Santa’s wallet back that night, but when he arrives he “bugged because under the tree was a letter from Santa and the dough is for me!”
If it ended after one verse, “Christmas in Hollis” would succeed in telling a Christmas narrative that is new and free from the droning “Guess what? It’s Christmas” palp that plagues the rock genre. Run’s story is unique, both in setting and in plot. Only once did Santa make the odd choice of testing the superstar rapper’s morality by dropping a wallet for him in the park. That this is not an annual event sets the song apart from other modern Christmas tracks.
Unfortunately, in the last two verses D.M.C. muddles the tune with cliché. Unlike Run, Daryl’s gifts were left under the Christmas tree. There’s also “snow on the ground, snow white, so bright.” And just as he does every year, the lesser half of the duo “bust[s] Christmas carols.” Yawn****.
Punk Christmas songs are such an oxymoronic concept they are hardly worth mentioning. A group of allegedly anti-establishment musicians pushing unit by using as subject matter the exact point where organized religion and crass commercialism meet? That’s 85 seconds of your life you’re not getting back.
Interestingly, the best and only tolerable Christmas song mixes rock, punk, and rap while spinning a tale of Christmas redemption that would make Tiny Tim proud.
In 1982, new wave quartet The Waitresses found modest success with the year’s 62nd most popular song “I Know What Boys Like.” Only later did the band’s 1981 four and a half minute “Christmas Wrapping” find its way onto the airwaves.
Thankfully, it has remained a holiday staple despite an ever-growing field of lesser holiday tunes by better known artists.
The track gallops along at a brisk pace, with singer Patty Donahue doing a barely rhyming flat line white girl rap a la Blondie while the rest of the Waitresses pound out an up tempo beat heavy on 80s saxophone.
“Christmas Wrapping” is unique in that it conveys a year’s worth of experience and the narrator undergoes significant change by the story’s end.
We begin with a “bah humbug” to kick off the first verse as our frazzled storyteller reviews her “busy blur” of the past year, one in which she’s had quarterly just-miss encounters with a guy she met at a ski shop the previous winter. She got his number, but barely had the time to speak with him. Plans to join him on his boat fell through and his car wouldn’t start when she was set to accompany him to a Halloween party*****.
For Christmas, the independent-minded narrator decides not repeat the mistake of Halloween, instead walking to the A&P to purchase “the world’s smallest turkey” for a solitary holiday. There, she bumps into the mystery man, also alone. Fate brings them together in the cranberry aisle, and they decide to combine tiny turkeys and spend the evening together.
Though a scrooge at the story’s start, the narrator has a new view of 1981’s Christmas by the end of the tale, signified by the changed chorus, which shifts from the dismissive “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, but I think I’ll miss this one this year” to the cheery “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, couldn’t miss this one this year.” Boom. Christmas magic.
With “Christmas Wrapping” we have a story with skeptical overtones that ends cheerfully and lyrics that are easy to decipher but difficult to duplicate rap-sung over a tune that is at once novel and nostalgic.
Only an unsung band like The Waitresses could produce this, the only tolerable Christmas song. Radio is only too happy to play half-assed drivel if it’s churned out by superstar acts, who in turn have zero incentive to put out a tune half decent tune.
As the season lurches mercilessly ever forward, Christmas is scheduled to reach the length of a full calendar year by 2113, at which time humanity and the robot people will be subjected to a ceaseless onslaught of holiday songs. Hopefully by then someone will create at least one more tolerable Christmas tune.
Good luck, Avicii.
*Trust me, I got a hard B in Quantitative Research Methods
**A holiday the ancients called “Thanksgiving”
***Originally more of a country song but with the time-honored rock
traditional of prominently employing the word “rock,” RAtCT was
released the same year as Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock”
****Perhaps it was their inability to follow the inspired first verse
with anything worthwhile that caused Run D.M.C to argue with
producer and Santa-doppleganger Rick Rubin in a failed effort to
block the track’s release.
*****Remember, this is before Facebook, so the narrator is forced to
take him on his word as there would be no tagged pics of said guy
partying in his sweet Indiana Jones costume