(Above: The author, exactly 45 Christmases ago.)
Nostalgia is Christmas, and vice-versa.
What happens when the family gets together for the holidays? As Andy Williams put it, “the tales of the glories of Christmases long ago.” So much of the Christmas celebration is tradition. Normally I am opposed to “we’ve always done it that way,” but this is one time of year where the reverse is true. We expect certain things to always be a part of the celebration and notice when they are not, or when the traditions change.
Our family Christmases were always the same. The whole family would gather at our house on Christmas Eve, and the menu was always the same: ham, Polish sausage, kapusta. (Fun fact: O’Kelly is less of an Irish name than you thought.) On Christmas Day we’d load up and head into the city to Grandma’s house – even though we just saw her the night before – for turkey dinner. We’d always stop on the way at the Fannie May store and pick up a box of chocolates to contribute to the dinner. (Since it was a special occasion, we’d spring for the two-pound assorted. This would get passed after dinner.)
Along the way and over the years the tradition changed. New family arrangements lead to new family traditions, often incorporating pieces of everyone’s separate traditions to create the new ones. Christmas Eve for me now involves take-out Chinese and movies. That big dinner with the extended family? It’s now the week before Christmas, and the menu depends mostly on who hosts it (and what everyone brings).
There are some things, though, that most always be present at Christmastime. No matter what the traditions are in your family, you can probably name one foodstuff, one procedure, one thing that always happens – until it doesn’t. We like our traditions to remain static.
It should be no surprise, then, that the most popular songs heard at the holidays are, in fact, old. New Christmas albums are released every year, yet the durable canon features the same recordings in the heaviest of rotations. (The most recent addition on the “have to play it” list is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” – and that song is now 22 years old.) And while I have been no stranger to bashing the short playlists at the holidays – and always found reasons to sneak in new and/or different records – I always programmed the chestnuts in the A-rotation. They need to be there.
Here are the songs that make my “it’s not Christmas until I hear….” list:
5) “Christmas Is the Time To Say I Love You” – Billy Squier. Yes, this is cheesy. Yes, the video is bad. But nothing says high school for me quite like this song, and when I hear it I’m back thinking I’m on winter break all over again. (Besides, it’s a better video than the Hall and Oates one from the same period.)
4) “Merry Christmas Darling” – The Carpenters. Make fun of the Carpenters all you want. I won’t. They sold a literal ton of records, and the voice of Karen Carpenter is a thing of wonder. This record has, for the last 45 Christmases or so, been a part of the canon.
3) “The Christmas Song” – Nat King Cole. This doesn’t need any further explanation.
2) “Christmas Is Coming” – Vince Guaraldi Trio. I’d much rather hear this or “Skating” from the soundtrack of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Of course, “Christmas Time Is Here” always gets played instead. To me, those kids always sounded like they were being punished and forced to sing the song. (Its best use is in a very awkward scene in The Royal Tenenbaums.) For my money, I need to hear one of both of these.
1) “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love. This gets my vote as the greatest rock and roll Christmas song of all time. You can keep Brenda Lee and Bobby Helms – just leave me this one. (Actually, I’ll take the whole Phil Spector Christmas album, save Phil’s speech.) Every year David Letterman made it a tradition to have Darlene come on his show and perform this song, starting in 1986 and ending with his last Christmas show in 2014. Dave’s no longer on TV, but the song remains, and we need to find ourselves a new tradition.
I am sure that you could make your own list of what needs to be heard. It is my wish for you that you get to hear them, surrounded by friends, family, and/or the ones that you love. (Ideally, these are all the same people.) Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to each of you – thanks for sharing in these great songs!