We Need a Little Christmas (Music)
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It’s time for the takeover of the airwaves by Christmas TV specials and music. I have some nostalgic favorites—and some nominations for songs that should get a Scrooge-like burial after being boiled in a vat of Christmas pudding.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
- Krysten Sinema’s decision is all about 2024.
- It’s beginning to look a lot like another COVID surge.
- The end of high-school English
Comin’ to Town
Look, everything can’t be about politics and war. We need to fight about other things, such as Christmas.
I do not mean the inane “war on Christmas,” but rather the endless conflict over our personal loves and hates during this holy and reflective season. Last year, I vented about the best and worst Christmas specials. Readers of The Atlantic were, shall we say, divided in their reactions, and so at the time, I offered some thoughts on Christmas music in my Peacefield newsletter, which I present this year with a few eggnog-influenced amendments.
I actually began thinking of Christmas music this year with a certain sadness. I was watching the new Howard Stern interview with Bruce Springsteen (which I highly recommend). Springsteen talked about the 2011 death of his friend Clarence Clemons, the “Big Man” who added his signature saxophone playing to many of The Boss’s records. He spoke of comforting Clemons as he passed away. Listening to the interview, I was, for a moment, transported to Christmas in the early 1980s, when Springsteen’s live version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” was all over the radio. It included Springsteen bantering with Clemons about Santa bringing him a new horn. I was never a huge fan of the song, and yet, at that moment, I just wanted to hear it, laugh with the band, and then sing along at the top of my lungs.
So instead of being sad, I decided to turn on Christmas music and find some holiday spirit. Christmas songs fall into general categories. Religious carols—such as “Silent Night” or my personal favorite, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”—are songs that are, for many of us, rooted in faith and mostly beyond criticism. The big-band era popularized crooners such as Bing Crosby; the 1950s and ’60s saw an explosion of popular Christmas music that served the Baby Boomers and their parents; in the 1980s was a weird but creative spike of MTV-influenced Christmas rock.
I confess: I go for the old classics. Give me Der Bingle and Andy Williams and Perry Como and all that dusty old stuff that is as ageless and imperishable as that one candy cane you keep finding in the ornaments box and hanging on the tree year after year. In part, I associate this music with my childhood, when my mother would bring out the same stacks of Christmas records every holiday season. Each year, I set my satellite radio to the Holiday Traditions channel, whose catalog, as far as I can tell, ends sometime around Richard Nixon’s first presidential victory. (Mr. Nixon, for his part, was a fan of Ray Conniff.)
My favorite song of that era is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a melancholy but hopeful song, which is how I feel more and more often at Christmas as I get older. I especially like it now that I know that Judy Garland insisted on a rewrite of the original lyrics, which were staggeringly depressing. (That wasn’t enough for Frank Sinatra, who had to add even more artificial cheer by scratching out the line about “muddling through” and including some metered blather about “a shining star upon the highest bough.”) The beauty of the version Garland sings in Meet Me in St. Louis is that it isn’t relentlessly cheerful; maybe that’s why it appeals to my curmudgeonly side.
But I am also a sucker for the “new classics,” such as “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “We Need a Little Christmas” (the Johnny Mathis version only, please), and “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” whose plea for peace is all the more meaningful when you realize it was written during the scary days of the Cuban missile crisis. I will always listen to Burl Ives croon his way through “Silver and Gold,” and I sing along in a German-accented voice when the Red Baron wishes Snoopy a “Merry Christmas, my friend!”
From the 1970s, John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is a standard (although I prefer the 1990 remake by The Alarm). Two other songs that are somewhat depressing—hmm, I sense a theme here—nevertheless always make it onto my playlist. “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake is a mournful song about the end of childhood innocence with a classical lift from Sergei Prokofiev, and “Circle of Steel” by Gordon Lightfoot is a touching story of Christmas poverty and heartbreak that’s dark even for the guy who made the Top 40 with a song about a ship sinking with all hands lost.
The 1980s were a happier time (well, for me, anyway), and my first spin every year is the 1981 classic “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses. Nothing says “celebrate the birth of Jesus” like the flat, affectless vocal by the late Patty Donahue as she tells us of finally hooking up with the guy she’s been “chasing all year.” It warms your heart.
And now let’s throw out the moldy roasted chestnuts.
Please, no more “Jingle Bell Rock.” I have nothing in common with my older Boomer cousins, and I did not experience the 1950s except for a few months in the womb at the end of the Eisenhower administration. I don’t want to go to a sock hop; I am not interested in “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”; I don’t care how blue Elvis is without you. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is awful, as is “Santa Baby.” The only exception here is the version by the legendary Eartha Kitt, whose rendition combines purring sexuality with pure venality—but let’s face it, that’s not really about Christmas.
And let us throw “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and “Last Christmas” into the Yule bonfire too. It’s long past time to end the synth-schmaltz horror of “Wonderful Christmastime.” The Eagles pleaded with you to “Please Come Home for Christmas”; I am pleading with radio stations to stop playing this lazy ’50s knockoff. My list of Banned Christmas Music is much longer, as you might expect, but blacklisting these would be a start.
I’ll be away on Monday, but I hope this gets your weekend off to a musical start. And just to show you that I do listen to music from closer to this century, I happen to like “Christmas Won’t Be the Same Without You” by Plain White T’s, which I wish would emerge as a Christmas staple. The less said about Jim Carrey’s 2000 remake of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the better, but I dare you not to get a little teary-eyed at Faith Hill’s lovely “Where Are You Christmas.” And when I want to annoy my wife—which is a Christmas tradition around here—I put on a song from South Park, whose title and lyrics I dare not repeat here but which make me belly-laugh every year, and which I am going to go and crank up right now.
- Trevor Noah hosted his final episode of The Daily Show last night.
- Croatia beat Brazil in its World Cup match today and will head to the semifinals.
- A former Minneapolis police officer was sentenced to prison on state charges after pleading guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter in the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
- The Third Rail: A new study shows how false beliefs propel cultural conflict, David French writes.
- Deep Shtetl: Yair Rosenberg writes in from Jerusalem with some scattered thoughts and weekend-reading recommendations.
- Unsettled Territory: Imani Perry explains why she rejects the gospel of objectivity.
- The Books Briefing: To write about science is to write about everything, Maya Chung notes.
‘That’s Just Like White Noise.’
By Jordan Kisner
On the afternoon of the 2016 election, I took a cab directly from my polling place in South Brooklyn to JFK, where I boarded a full flight to San Francisco. In the evening, when the plane took off, the consensus seemed to be that by the time we landed, the country would have elected its first female president. I wasn’t sure, so when the miniature television that had been allotted to me came alive as we climbed to 10,000 feet, I turned it to the news.
As the sunset outpaced the plane and the dark rose outside our windows, I saw that everyone else had their television turned to the news, too. Pennsylvania and Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska, passed silently beneath us as the returns came in.
The flight from JFK to SFO is about six and a half hours, depending on the wind, so between the hours of 7 p.m. and midnight eastern on November 8, 2016, 180 televisions shone their bluish light on 180 faces arranged in rows of three, facing forward. No one spoke. Strapped in shoulder to shoulder in a metal tube hurtling 35,000 feet over the breadth of America, everyone watched the country’s electorate reveal itself on our own screens. By the time we landed, the decision had been made.
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I thought today I might write about Kyrsten Sinema dropping her affiliation with the Democratic Party, but my colleague David A. Graham has already explained it clearly: It’s about her chances for reelection in 2024. There is no political content here—or none that Sinema has bothered to explain—and she is most likely dropping out so she can avoid a primary challenge from her own (now former) party. It’s a smart strategy; she is essentially skipping the primaries and daring the Democrats to risk handing her seat to a Republican in a three-way race merely for the temporary pleasure of knocking her out of the Senate.
The idea that a senator just likes being a senator and doesn’t care all that much what her constituents think isn’t new, but bolting from her party for no obvious reason other than to shore up her chances of staying in Washington is almost an insulting level of honesty, if there is such a thing. Sinema’s utterly disengaged career—notable mostly for its lack of achievements and her willingness to flout Senate dress codes—is about Sinema. (Joe Manchin, as much as he angers his own Democrats, has obvious interests related to West Virginia and remains in his party.) Sinema’s message seems to be “I will caucus with the Democrats and keep them in the majority, and the rest of the time, just leave me alone.” Given the slim margin in the Senate, this might be enough. But Sinema’s solipsism is not exactly an inspiring vision of politics.
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Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.