Christmas Music

JANE: Merry Christmas, Alan!  (And to all the rest of you, too!)

Since we’ve been discussing music for the last several weeks, I want to discuss Christmas music today.  I know we talked about it a little several years ago when we were discussing holidays, but it seems perfect for today.

Musical Christmas Wreath

Musical Christmas Wreath

ALAN: Bah! Humbug! Actually, there is something about the music at this time of the year…

JANE: Christmas music is very much at the heart of the holiday for me.  In a way, it’s the first decoration we put up.  The day after Thanksgiving, the ceremonial case that holds our Christmas CDs is removed from storage and parked near our little stereo.  We also listen to Christmas music in our vehicles, which helps lighten the mood as we deal with people for whom holiday preparations seem to be more a battlefield than a joy.

ALAN:  We don’t have any Christmas music per se in our house, but of course the radio is always full of it. There’s a tradition in England of writing a letter to The Times when the first cuckoos are heard singing. The superstition is that spring cannot be properly be considered to have begun until The Times has announced that first cuckoo… Similarly everybody knows that Christmas hasn’t properly started until The Times contains a letter announcing the first hearing of Bing Crosby singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” on the radio.

JANE: When do radio stations start with the Christmas music there?  (And are you culturally on the same timetable as England, still?)

Here, at least in stores, both decorations and music started manifesting in mid-November.  If the purpose is to put people in the “holiday mood,” I think this is counterproductive, since they “stale,” by the actual holiday.

ALAN: Yes – New Zealand is on the same Christmas timetable as England. The radio is usually very civilised and we don’t get Christmas inundations until about the week before the day itself. But, as with you, the supermarkets seem to start gearing up in November. This annoys Robin a lot – her birthday is in November and she refuses to admit that Christmas exists until after her birthday has been celebrated!

JANE: I’m with Robin!  Now, I did take us a bit off topic.  Let me go back to music.

Almost always, the first Christmas CD we play is B.B. King’s A Christmas Celebration of Hope.  It was released a few years after we were married, so it belongs to both of us, rather than to one or the other of our past lives.

Are you familiar with B.B. King’s work?

ALAN: Indeed I am – he’s a hugely influential blues and jazz singer and player. And who couldn’t love a man who plays a guitar called Lucille?

JANE: I agree…  As would be expected, the pieces on the album are centered around B.B.’s guitar and vocals.  They vary from blues (“Please Come Home for Christmas,” “Blue Decorations,” “Back Door Santa”) to traditional, and, as the title of the album anticipates, even the most melancholy pieces hold a surge of hope.

Do you have a particular “holiday starter” song or album?

ALAN: Yes and no. Sooner or later the Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” appears on the radio in one of its many incarnations and, trite though the song is, I have to admit it always gives me a lump in my throat because of what it represents. At the other end of the musical spectrum, I always enjoy Handel’s “Messiah.” That’s an awe-inspiring piece of music that epitomises Christmas for me. I absolutely love it.

JANE: Oh!  I’m so glad you’re inspired by a range of pieces!  Variety is what epitomizes Jim and my collection.  Pretty much as soon as I moved out on my own, I sought out copies of albums my family had owned.  These included A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra, The Ventures’ Christmas Album, and The Carpenter’s Christmas Portrait.  These contain lots of classic Christmas songs, performed both in the traditional fashion and with some interesting twists.

Frank Sinatra’s take on “Jingle Bells,” for example, provides a marvelous transformation of what otherwise is a pretty simple piece.

ALAN: Sinatra was a musical genius whom I love a lot. Do you suppose he got his vocal chords on “Jingle Bells” by making Santa an offer he couldn’t refuse?

JANE: Now, now…

Lest I give the impression that Christmas music is all recorded in our home, I should add that I love to sing.  One of the worst Christmases for me in recent memory was one where I was hoarse for about a month and couldn’t sing…  I felt incredibly depressed.  Part of the reason I lean toward the albums I do is that they contain pieces I can sing with.  (Well, not The Ventures, that’s just silly, but a lot of the rest.)

I know most people giggle because they’re thinking of the video (which I’ve never seen and really should), but I actually think David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s duet on the adapted “Little Drummer Boy” is a beautiful, hopeful piece.  I love to sing with that one…

ALAN: A curious artistic juxtaposition, but you’re right, it works very well. Do you have any other artists and/or albums that you listen to at this time of the year?

JANE: Well, I won’t try to list them all, but there are a few associated with special memories.

When Jim and I got together, he quickly got excited by the idea of choosing his own music.  (Before we set up household, he’d always gone to his parents’ house.)  For several years, he’d buy a handful of compilation albums, then often buy an album by a specific performer.

We both liked Rosemary Clooney’s pieces, so he decided he’d buy me a Christmas album by her.  To his astonishment, there was only one, a then-new release called White Christmas.  He learned that although Rosemary Clooney had performed on everyone else’s albums, it wasn’t until relatively near the end of her life that anyone offered to record one centered around her.

ALAN: That’s weird! Whenever I think of her (which I admit isn’t that often, but still…),I always think of her as a singer. Maybe that’s because she played the “singing” sister in the movie, White Christmas.

JANE: Yeah, me, too!

On the other end of the musical spectrum, my mother gave us a copy of Christmas with Placido Domingo.  Neither Jim nor I are much into opera, but we decided to give it a whirl as we drove home from celebrating Christmas with her in Arizona.  We both treasure the memory of listening to that powerful voice belting out “White Christmas” as we drove among sequoia cactus that were lightly dusted in snow.

ALAN: Placido Domingo can make anything sound wonderful. What a voice!

Of course, carols are a sure sign of Christmas. Here I always get a little thrill when the Salvation Army Brass Band starts playing carols on street corners in Wellington. I’m a sucker for brass bands anyway, and the sallies seem to have a particularly good one. Also, if I can refer back to a previous discussion, Jethro Tull has an interesting take on the carol “Once in Royal David’s City.”  The track is called “Christmas Song” and you’ll find it on the This Was album.

Which reminds me: What Christmas Carol do they sing outside German lunatic asylums?

JANE: I don’t know, what Christmas Carol do they sing outside German lunatic asylums?

ALAN: God rest you jerry mentalmen, let nothing you dismay…

JANE: Ouch! That’s almost bad enough for a filk song. We’ll get to that next time, but for now I’m going to go sing along with Bing or whoever else is willing!

Merry Christmas!  Merry Christmas!

ALAN:  Merry Christmas!


8 Responses to “Christmas Music”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Merry Christmas to you both!

    I wonder: are there any specifically antipodean Christmas songs? From up here in the north, it seems bizarre to be singing about all that winter imagery at the start of summer. Or is it that culture conquers all?

    • Alan Robson Says:

      And a Merry Christmas to you. To answer your question — no, there are no antipodean Christmas songs. In the middle of often sweltering heat, we continue to dream of a white christmas. Probably with good reason!


    • Peter Says:

      (Exported, US) culture conquers (almost) all. I’m not sure which is more surreal – listening to Jingle Bells (which was actually a (US)Thanksgiving song, originally) while eating congrio a la plancha on the beach on a beautiful summer’s day in Valparaiso or shopping at a mall decorated in a mix of Christmas and early Chinese New Year decorations while being serenaded with recorded carols being sung in Mandarin.

      As something of a Scrooge about Christmas music (working retail in a mall and being forced to listen to the same 52 minute tape on endless loop for a month of 12-hour shifts for a couple of years in a row can have that effect), I must admit to having enjoyed the Christmases I spent in Saudi Arabia, where public performance of “White Christmas” is likely to result in a visit from the police…

  2. janelindskold Says:

    Merry Christmas… B.B. King is currently singing about Christmas past. We just opened Christmas presents!

  3. Paul Dellinger Says:

    This is the only time of the year that I can understand the words of the songs I hear on the radio.

  4. Louis Robinson Says:

    Ah! Yes!

    My mother’s told me about that old English tradition. There’s a national epic on the theme, even: On Cooking the First Hero in Spring

    And a Merry Belated Christmas to all. Between sleeping ’til noon and cooking salmon, it didn’t occur to me to check to see if you’d posted the 25th.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: