Monday, December 20, 2010
Standing Erect in the Face of Christmas
Every year it seems, the weeks at the end of the calendar designated as the “Christmas Season” expand further and further in the direction of the blessed sunny months. Like a plodding, methodical, remorseless, invading imperial army, moving inward slowly and ineluctably towards the capital, grinding up territory with terrifying banality, the “Christmas Season's” expansion is relentless. I fear it shall not be content until it reaches the holy shrine of Memorial Day, which currently stands as an indefatigable bulwark, ushering in our unofficial beginning of summer, whether it be in long simmering Georgia or resplendently spring-like Wisconsin.
But it was not always this way. In days of yore, not even the most precocious child dared to speak of it before December, lest they incur the wrath of a Santa Clause who was still more associated with donations to the Salvation Army than frenzied 40% markdowns on garish clothing made by exploited Indonesian children; a stern, Teutonic St. Nick who really did keep two lists, who never dreamed of offering punch-card guarantees on the latest electronic do-dads, whose ire manifested itself in the form of coal lumps, who demanded to be placated not only with modesty and obedience but also with offerings of milk and cookies, and who seemed to more closely resemble a red-robed Karl M arx than some jolly, docile servant whose fetching and offering was at the beck and call of screaming, sugar-crazed children.
But that was then. Things were different. During the war there was rationing. Before that, during the Great Depression expectations were understandably minimal. If Santa showed up at all, you cried tears of joy, stared to the heavens, and thanked him earnestly for that raw wooden block with crudely drawn wheels. My friend Tom, who’s proudly pushing 90, remembers that the most amazing gift he would get each Christmas was an orange. Not an orange iPod, but the actual fruit, which was rare, delicious, and expensive.
And before the Depression? Hell, today’s consumer economy was just a twinkle in the cold, glassy eyes of early ad men. The portable vacuum cleaner was a modern fucking day miracle in 1907 when it was invented by a janitor in Canton, Ohio. His brother in-law was a saddle maker named William Hoover who, despite not being of Scottish descent, nonetheless figured out a way to make the new contraption look more like a bagpipe, and to make it sound just as sweet. A Wii and a NetFlix subscription? You’ve gotta be kidding me, right?
But after the war ended, another war began: a war against crass commercialism, spiraling consumer debt, and the guilt and shame born of unreasonable expectations. After the war. THE WAR. That’s when it all started to change. First the barrier got pushed back to Thanksgiving weekend, and the late November beachhead had been established. Then the weekend itself eroded, and the Friday after Thanksgiving yielded, in a precursor to the grotesque spectacle that is Black Friday. The dominoes continued to fall, and soon the entire month of November was occupied, marking Halloween as a new Last Stand. And by the 21st century, perhaps even sooner in some quarters, Christmas displays had begun to precede cardboard turkey cut-outs and pre-fabricated children’s costumes in stores.
Something inside you dies the first time you see a box of candy canes sitting on a store aisle with quiet confidence and indiscretion in late October.
I am hardly the first American to observe this trend in yuletide rapacity. Commentators far and wide have bemoaned the ever encroaching harbingers of Noel. Some are aghast at how thoroughly the money-changers have infested the temple. Others snidely mock the swollen ranks of headless-chicken consumers who burn through their 19.8% APR credit cards for reasons they can’t cogently explain, and who think Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are teen heart throbs. But me? I have one primary concern when it comes to Christmas’ ever-expanding calendrical waistline: those damn songs.
I had just turned 18 the first time it really hit me. I was sitting in a Burger King on E. Liberty Street in Ann Arbor because I was still a meat-eater back then. In those days, my usual rumination at the E. Liberty Burger King centered around how was it that these Michiganders thought it reasonable to simultaneously put both ketchup and mustard on a burger as standard condiments. But not that day. When I sat down in the orange plastic chair in December of 1985, something else demanded my youthful attention. It was Christmas music, and man was it was bad.
I’d heard Christmas music my whole life of course. Who this side of Asia hasn’t? But that day, as I bit into my frozen and then grilled, freshly microwaved, hold-the-fucking mustard whopper, something snapped. Why, I thought to myself. Why can’t I just sit here and “enjoy” my meal without being subjected to this crap? I’m in a fucking Burger King, for Christ's sake, pun-absolutely-intended, not a church soup kitchen, so why the fuck do I have to listen to this saccharine shit? It’s bad enough that they normally pump in syrupy, string-laden Muzak (Note to the Youngens: That’s the company that pioneered elevator music, which they don’t typically play in elevators anymore, and thank your lucky stars for that, especially if you’re even remotely claustrophobic), but do they have to ratchet it up a holy notch by putting a liturgical spin on it? Can’t I just sit here, in this normally atrocious atmosphere, eating this beastly awful food and not be subjected to a parable about some kid with a drum?
I was 18. I was a little more indignant back then. The irony of my 20s and cynicism of my 30s were still ahead of me. Now, in the graying haze of my 40s, it’s no longer about the religious message in the music, which is largely irrelevant to me. It’s about the music itself, and boy does it suck. Actually, the religious Christmas songs, generally speaking, are a fair bit better than the secular Christmas songs. I’ll take Handle’s “Messiah” over “Here Comes Santa Clause” anytime. No, the
problem is not the oppressive omnipresence of a bizarre religious holiday (The progeny of God and a virgin? Really?), which only seems more and more comical the older I get. Now what really riles me is that for roughly six weeks out of every fifty-two, wherever I go, I’m subjected to the same rotation of horrid songs. I have to listen to “Jingle Bell Rock” while buying groceries. I have to endure “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” while standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I have to chagrin my way through “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. I have to try to keep my lunch down while “It’s a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and “It’s Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Christmas” are blaring in the restaurant of your choice.
I don’t leave my house that much this time of year.
And worse yet, we’re losing the war. I imagine that me and my allies in the fight against the unchecked spread of the Christmas season feel much the same way the Japanese High Command must have felt as they watched one Pacific island chain after another fall to the unrelenting American war machine. “Why did we ever bomb Pearl Harbor?” they must have asked themselves. “Why did I ever ask my parents to put up a Christmas tree?” I now ask myself.
But so be it. Honor and grace must stand tall, either in the runaway euphoria of victory or in the crushing depths of defeat. And so today I throw back my shoulders, to make a show of dignity in the face of an overwhelming destiny. Here, for your consideration, are the small handful of Christmas songs that I willingly accept. Accompanying them is a short list of songs I would like to see banished forever. These are the conditions I am setting upon my surrender to the ruthless armies of Christmas. Of course, the joke during the waning days of the Civil War was that the initials of Union General U.S. Grant’s stood for “Unconditional Surrender,” and those were exactly the same terms offered to the Japanese on the eve of the atomic bomb attacks, and then again a couple of weeks later on the deck of the USS Missouri. So I know the victors will not receive my offer. Nonetheless, I don my finest garb, polish my boots, sheath my ceremonial saber at my waist, stand upright and dignified, and present these terms to you, the Lords of Christmas Season, whose inescapable melodies rain down upon my lands.
“Father Christmas” by The Kinks.
If there is still a strain of Marx in jolly `ole St. Nick after all, you can find it in this chorus of class warfare. “Father Christmas! Give us some money! Don’t mess around with those silly toys. Well beat you up if you don’t hand it over. We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed. Give all the toys to the little rich boys.” It’s a Christmas song with honest to goodness anger about the injustice of the world. God damn if it isn’t a breath of fresh air.
“The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole
Better known by its opening line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” this song is on the list for one reason and one reason only. Nat King Cole. You can’t knock the king. Smooth, baby. Smooth.
“Fairy Tail of New York” by The Pogues
Affectionately known to many as “Christmas in the Drunk Tank,” it’s one of the only Christmas songs out there that can inspire a sense of spirituality in non-believers. You don’t need an abiding faith in the birth of the Messiah to be moved by its emotive chord changes, poignant lyrics, and soulful vocal styling, just a beating heart and a few real life experiences.
“Back Door Santa” by Clarence Carter
Carter, the blind, Montgomery, Alabama-born, occasionally ribald R&B songster, is better known for the tremendously soulful “Slip Away,” the over the top sentimentality of “Patches” (originally recorded by Frank Sinatra), and the delightfully filthy “Strokin’” (Clarence Carter! Clarence Carter! Clarence Carter! Ooooh Shit! Clarence Carter!). In Clarence’s world, Back Door Santa makes his runs about the break of day. Put up a couple of stockings for this Kinky Kringle, one for each entendre.
“I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake
This solo effort from Greg Lake of English progressive rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer is an over-produced piece of schmaltz, burdened with a full-on orchestra AND cheesy synthesizers. It’s nowhere near as good as the Kinks’ offering, and indeed, it’s not very good at all. So why is it here? Because in high school I owned every ELP album (plus most of the spinoff solo records), and so hearing any ELP song, even the bad ones, puts a smile on my face. And quite frankly, if the entirety of Christendom can partially justify their annual musical onslaught on the basis of sentimentality, then I too am entitled to one fetid morsel on those grounds. Besides, you almost never hear this one, so it’s a pretty cheap gimme.
“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
Irving Berlin, the song’s author, was Jewish. I am half-Jewish. There is no greater sin than apostasy. Am I right Christians? Can you help me out here? If not for this unforgivable sin, I could have moved The Drifters’ finger-snapping, doo-wop version of this song into the Keepers’ list. It’s quite tragic, really.
“Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon
You really expect better from the ornery Beatle than a sappy children’s choir gumming up the works. This song seems like it should have come from the cute Beatle or maybe the alcoholic wife-beating Beatle. It’s a shame, because its stark, touching opening had potential in the vein of “Working Class Hero.” Instead, it’s a paean to everything that went wrong for Lennon in the 1970s, and for the rest of us after Thanksgiving.
Leaders of the Christmas Season Invasion:
These are my conditions for surrender. If you are willing to discuss them, then it is possible that my capitulation will be forthcoming. If not, the fight shall continue to the last. I await your reply, with the (musical) instrument of rebellion in one hand and a wreath (not a bough of holly) in the other.
Most Sincerely Yours,
An Officer and a Gentleman
Posted by Akim Reinhardt at 12:25 AM | Permalink